Having clinched top spot in the Midwestern Conference, the Elmira Sugar Kings are now taking on the eighth-place Brantford Bandits in the first round of the playoffs.
The Kings took two of the final three games of the regular season to finish with a record of 35-11-1-1, their 72 points three ahead of second-place Cambridge.
Going into the final week of the season, the Kings needed just one point to clinch first place. They did just that in the first opportunity, defeating the Caledon Bombers 4-2 on March 30. They followed that with a 5-2 win in Ayr the following day before dropping the final game 3-1 at home Sunday to the K-W Siskins.
“After a team clinches the way we were fortunate enough to do, I don’t want to say the intensity gets turned down naturally, but it kind of seems that way,” said head coach Rob Collins of the last few games of the season. “I thought we played a solid game [Sunday] to be honest with you – we held them to 17 shots. But credit to them, they just took advantage of the really good chances that they had, but I really don’t think we gave them that much.
“So, all in all, I thought it was a good week, and we go into the playoffs the right way.”
Playing before the home crowd in Elmira March 30, the Kings never trailed against the Caledon Bombers.
The first scoring play came with less than three minutes left in the opening period, a goal off the stick of Elmira’s Jayden Lammel, assisted by Adam Grein and Kurtis Goodwin.
Caledon tied it at 1-1 with a power-play goal at 7:04, but just over five minutes later Lammel put the team ahead for good with an unassisted goal. The team’s would go back to the room for the second intermission with Elmira up 2-1.
A power-play marker from Luke Eurig (Brody Leblanc, Nathaniel Mott) at 6:58 made it 3-1 for the home side, with Caledon getting one back less than three minutes later. Leblanc restored the two-goal lead with a shorthanded empty-net goal at 18:17, with Mott drawing an assist. The 4-2 score is how the game would end.
“I thought we had a slow start to that game,” said Collins. “After that, it was a very workman-like attitude, and they took care of business so, to speak.
“Credit the guys: we’ve had a lot of guys out of the lineup, brought a lot of new bodies in the lineup who aren’t as predictable as guys that are around all the time, and they still found a way to get it done.”
Shots were 30-29 in favour of the Bombers, with Elmira netminder Dan Botelho stopping 28 to post the win. The Kings were 1-3 on the power play, while Caledon was 1-5.
Special teams were a factor again the following night as the Kings travelled to Ayr to fact the Centennials.
Elmira again scored the lone goal of the opening frame, a shorthanded effort from Eurig, assisted by Jack Tos. It was 1-0 after the period.
Eurig gave the Kings a 2-0 lead at 6:13, assisted by Lammel and Tos, but the Centennials scored a shortie of their own at 18:38 to make it a one-goal game.
Tos scored early and late in the third to help seal an Elmira victory. It was 3-1 at 1:04 when he buried a feed from Grein and Lammel. At 16:49, Tos converted on a play from Lammel and Chris Black to make it 4-1.
A late power-play saw Ayr get one back with less than two minutes to go, but Leblanc’s goal at 19:19 put the cap on a 5-2 victory in which the King outshot the home side 47-25. Elmira was 0-2 with the man advantage, with the Centennials 1-5. Botelho again backstopped the win.
Despite the early back-and-forth, Collins said his crew never felt a win was in jeopardy.
“Never at one point during the game, when it was nothing-nothing or 1-0, did we feel like we didn’t have a good grasp on the game. We were in control the whole game,” he said.
It was a different story at the WMC Sunday night as the Kings closed out the regular season against the K-W Siskins, who never trailed on route to a 3-1 win.
The visitors scored in the first period then again at 7:33 of the second to take a 2-0 lead that would stand until 17:45 when Tos (Leblanc, Mott) got Elmira on the board. But that would be it for scoring by the home side, with the Siskins netting another with less than three minutes left in the match to make it a 3-1 final.
Shots were 22-17 in favour of Elmira, with Collins finding plenty of upside in how his team played in the wake clinching first place. Plans then immediately shifted to the playoffs, which got underway Wednesday night against the Brantford Bandits, a team that’s had a rough ride this season, reflected in a record of 8-36-4.
“It was probably a long season for them,” said Collins, noting the Kings can take nothing for granted. “The plan is to try to polish the game plan that we’ve learned works for us, and to try to eliminate those lows in the game where we kind of lose focus.
“By now, everyone knows their job, what they’re supposed to do and where they’re supposed to be at times. It’s just about having the playoff intense intensity.”
Results from Wednesday night’s game in Elmira weren’t available before press time. Game two is set for Saturday night in Brantford, with play resuming Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. at the WMC. Game four goes Tuesday night in Brantford.