Pembroke’s Keefe gladly accepts underdog role as Lumber Kings prepare to face Nepean Raiders
By JEFF MAGUIRE
There are few coaches or teams in Canada who have enjoyed more success in Junior A hockey in recent years than Sheldon Keefe and the Pembroke Lumber Kings.
Pembroke are the defending national champions (Royal Bank Cup) and the team has captured a record five consecutive titles in the Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL).
Wednesday night Lumber Kings open the CCHL semi-finals in an unfamiliar situation. For the first time in a long time they are underdogs!
As for Keefe, the head coach and general manager who has guided Pembroke to so much success, it’s a role he gladly accepts. Keefe, who was a junior star himself and later played more than 100 games in the National Hockey League for Tampa Bay Lightning, is delighted with the way his somewhat less regarded Lumber Kings performed in the just concluded quarter finals.
Pembroke, who struggled out of the gate this season but improved dramatically to finish a strong sixth, dispatched third place Brockville in five games in the quarter finals.
“I’m very proud of our guys and how far they have come as a group,” Keefe says as he prepares for the semi-final opener against Nepean on Wednesday night. Raiders were the runaway leaders in the 12-team league this season and they swept past eighth place Smiths Falls Bears in the first round of the playoffs.
After losing the nucleus of their team following last spring’s RBC triumph, Lumber Kings were a mediocre 5-5 last September, the opening month of the current campaign, and for a time it appeared they could be in a battle just to qualify for the post season.
Keefe admits his team took quite a bit of ribbing at the season-opening CCHL Showcase in Kanata the second week of September. After five straight league crowns, followed by their first-ever national championship last May, Kings initially appeared to be a shadow of the side that dominated Junior A hockey in Canada the previous season.
“There were many laughs at our expense at the September showcase, and rightly so. I was well aware that (some) people had been waiting for that moment,” Keefe says candidly.
By February the scoffs of last September were long forgotten however. Pembroke won seven of their 11 games that month. They finished the 62-game regular season with a respectable 32-24-4-2 mark, ringing up an even 70 points.
They also have one of the most experienced and feared net minders in the league in the person of Francis Dupuis. The 20-year-old Orleans native led Lumber Kings to the Canadian crown last spring after joining Pembroke in a trade deadline swap with Carleton Place Canadians.
This season he appeared in 50 of the club’s 62 games and finished with an impressive 2.46 goals against average, the fourth best mark in the league. Dupuis was named the CCHL’s ‘Most Outstanding Goaltender’ in the awards announced at the end of the regular season. His play is widely credited with getting the young Pembroke squad into the playoffs!
Lumber Kings’ regular season featured scoring by committee. But just before the playoffs they received a huge boost when veteran forward Jonathan Milley shook off a series of injuries which limited him to just five regular season appearances. The big right winger ended the quarter finals tied at the top of the post season scoring race with 10 points including six assists.
Still, Kings face a major task in the semis against a Nepean team which enjoyed an outstanding campaign. Raiders finished among the Top 10 Junior A clubs in Canada with a stellar 46-11-4-1 record and 97 points.
While Pembroke had no player in the Top 25 in CCHL scoring, Raiders placed three in the Top 10 and had five among the Top 25. They are led by right winger Craig Cowie who easily won the scoring title this season with 120 points including 41 goals and a CCHL high 79 assists.
Keefe says despite the formidable task ahead, he and his coaching staff are dedicated to the program they embarked on at the beginning of the campaign.
“We committed to developing our young players and improving every day. I believe our convincing win in round one is proof that a lot of hard work on and off the ice can result in great improvements,” he states.
“Seeing this team and our individual players grow so much over the course of the season has really been rewarding.
“Being one of the final four teams standing is a great accomplishment for this team,” the veteran coach and GM observes.
He welcomes the challenge offered by playing the front running Raiders in what many CCHL watchers feel could be the playoff series of this year in the league.
Keefe, however, is under no illusions about the task ahead!
“Playing Nepean is obviously a great challenge. They have been the dominant team right from the start of the season. You don’t have to look any further than their overwhelming success in winning league awards to see that they are head of the class in almost every area of the game,” Keefe outlines.
“Peter Goulet (Raiders’ coach and GM) has done an outstanding job putting this group together. They were built for a championship and are well on their way,” he adds.
“Anytime a six seed goes up against the top team in the league you know you are going to face many challenges and you prepare for that as best you can.
“Much as we’ve done all season we won’t allow our guys to get ahead of themselves as a team. We’ll stick with the process and see what we can get done.
“All the pressure in on them,” Keefe stresses. “This is their year. They have to beat us four times and it’s our job to make that as difficult as possible for them.”
As mentioned the series opens Wednesday night at Nepean Sportsplex before moving to Pembroke Memorial Centre Friday. Both games are 7:30 p.m. starts. Game 3 is in Nepean Sunday afternoon at 2:30.
The other semi-final features second place Cornwall Colts against the surprising Hawkesbury Hawks. That best-of-seven also gets underway Wednesday at Ed Lumley Arena in the Cornwall Civic Complex with Game 2 Friday at Robert Hartley Arena in the Hawkesbury Sportsplex. Both contests feature 7:30 p.m. face-offs. Monday the scene shifts back to Cornwall for another 7:30 showdown.
For a complete looks at both series see the separate story on this website.
The big surprise of the quarter finals was fifth place Hawkesbury’s sweep of the fourth place Carleton Place Canadians. But none of the series lasted long!
As expected Nepean eliminated Smiths Falls in the minimum number of games. And as mentioned five-time defending champion Pembroke surprised third place Brockville Braves in five games. Meanwhile the second place Colts eliminated the seventh place Ottawa Junior Senators, also in five.
LAST WEEK’S SUMMARIES
Game 5, Cornwall 4 – Ottawa 1:The second place Colts qualified for the CCHL’s ‘Final Four’ with a hard fought win over the seventh place Junior Senators Thursday night in Cornwall, claiming the series in five games. It was anything but easy as Ottawa, who finished the season strongly, made Cornwall work for everything they got. This was a series in which defence dominated! Thursday Sens outshot Colts 24-21 but were only able to put one puck past Colts’ puck stopper Lukas Hafner, the league’s best goalie by statistic during the regular season. As they have so many times during the campaign, it was the Spink brothers who dominated on offence. The 19-year-old twins from Williamstown combined for four points. Tyson had two goals while Tylor opened scoring in the first period and set up Tyson’s game winner at the 2:41 mark of period two. Kyle Baun also had a goal and an assist for the winners who led 1-0 and 4-0 at the intervals. Michael Borkowski set up three, tying him for the CCHL playoff lead in points with 10. Winger Ben Robillard, with his third playoff goal and team high fifth point of the series, ruined Hafner’s shutout bid with 7:27 left. Ottawa’s Charlie Millen and Ed Zdolshek split the goaltending work with starter Millen absorbing the loss. The strain of the competitive series boiled over in the third with Cornwall forward Billy Ulrick and Ottawa’s Joshua Hartley ejected for fighting. Senators led the penalty parade taking 12 of the 18 infractions called. Cornwall was two for eight with the man advantage.
Game 4, Cornwall 3 – Ottawa 2:Colts dominated Wednesday’s game at Jim Durrell Recreation Complex in Ottawa, outshooting Junior Senators 43-20. They were nearly done in by the net minding of Millen who held a hot hand in the quarter final series, relegating usual Sens’ starter Zdolshek to the back-up role. Ottawa jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead and until midway through the second it appeared they could be on their way to tying the series. Cornwall’s firepower came to the fore however with Baun making it 2-1 on a powerplay. Just 41 seconds into period three dependable centre Borkowski tied it and despite Millen’s heroics the visitors were able to fashion a late winner. Defenceman Mark Hough found the mark with just 3:56 left in regulation. Borkowski also had two assists in the game as did Tyson and Tylor Spink. Devon Rice and Deric Boudreau scored 44 seconds apart to give Ottawa their early advantage. Hafner made 18 stops as Colts took a 3-1 series lead.
Two quarters wrap up
Last Tuesday night (March 20) two of the remaining three quarter-final series came to a conclusion.
As anticipated Nepean completed a series sweep against the hard-working, but overmatched Smiths Falls club. Raiders captured Game 4 by a 5-2 count in front of a small playoff crowd of just over 200 in Smiths Falls.
The regular season pennant winners outshot the eighth place Bears 33-25 and they held period leads of 2-0 and 4-2 before wrapping it up with a single tally in the final stanza. Ryan Johnston, the top scoring defenceman in the CCHL this season, triggered two goals, one an unassisted effort and the other during a second period powerplay. Cowie, Alex Grandmaitre and Kenneth Neil were the other goal-getters for Nepean with Dalen Hedges and Ben Hutton setting up two apiece.
The final goals of the campaign for Smiths Falls came off the sticks of Jeffrey Carroll and Chris Maniccia.
Bears’ frustration boiled over in the second period when they were called for nine of 16 penalties and yielded a pair of powerplay markers in a seven-minute span.
Perennial league champion Pembroke completed the second upset of the opening round, winning 4-1 in Brockville Tuesday night. The sixth place Lumber Kings claimed the series in five games over the third place Braves who lost all three of their home playoff encounters.
Certainly it wasn’t for lack of trying on Brockville’s part! They outshot Pembroke 35-33 Tuesday but couldn’t solve the work of the player voted the league’s top goalie this season, Lumber Kings’ veteran Dupuis. He kicked out 34 scoring tries for his fourth post season triumph.
Andrew Pikul was the hard luck loser making 29 stops.
Liam Baird and Trevor Packard had a goal and an assist each while recently returned forward Milley took his playoff point total to 10 with his fourth goal of the post season. Brendan Mcguire connected on a third period powerplay for the final Kings’ marker of the night.
David Ferreira was the only Braves’ player to beat Dupuis during a second period powerplay.
There were a dozen minor penalties called, seven of those going to Brockville. A positive end to a highly entertaining, well played series!
Jeff Maguire is a career journalist who lives in Carleton Place. He has covered junior hockey in Ontario for 40 years. Jeff’s feature story will appear on the CCHL website every Monday throughout the playoffs. He can be reached by e-mail at: email@example.com