Merchants playoff driven
Junior B team favoured to win Founders Cup
By: Jeff Hansen
| Posted: Saturday, Feb 15, 2014 06:00 am
The St. Albert Merchants are banking on going the distance after last year’s playoff breakthrough.
The deepest playoff drive in years by the Money Men ended one win short of advancing to the Founders Cup final and representing the Capital Junior B Hockey League at provincials.
It also set the stage for one of the most dominating campaigns in Merchants’ history as the team to fear in the playoffs embarked on a 34-3-1 rampage.
“Last year we went farther than we were supposed to and guys caught wind of it and wanted to come out and play for us,” said all-star netminder Justin Pawlenchuk. “Everybody had confidence going into the season on how good this year was going to be and we were able to add some new players to go along with that confidence. We added that to our skill and we just went with it.”
Pawlenchuk is among 14 returnees from last year’s third-place 22-12-4 showing in the west and 8-6 playoff record.
“We’re definitely playing better this year going into the playoffs. Last year we didn’t necessarily have as much skill but what we did was work our butts off every shift. We had guys who all they did was give it 100 per cent every shift, which is what I think we can do this year in the playoffs too, and along with our skill we should be able to make a good run at it. I can’t find any other reason that we shouldn’t be able to take it this year,” Pawlenchuk said.
The last Founders Cup for the Merchants was 2005.
Both teams in the Founders Cup advance to the April 3 to 6 provincials in Grande Prairie.
The Western Canadian Keystone Cup will be hosted by the Abbotsford Pilots, from April 17 to 20.
“We’ve got such a strong team this year so it would be nice to finish on a high note, especially if we take the league and go off to provincials. I would like to be playing after February and even far into March. I would like to make it to westerns, personally. It’s my last year and that would top it off. That would be the icing on the cake right there, ” said Pawlenchuk, who joins forwards Stefan Meunier and Ryan Harrison and injured captain Kurtis Watts on defence as the team’s four 21-year-old overagers.
The Merchants are now playing the waiting game before their best-of-five quarter-final series starts next weekend. The top two teams in the west and east divisions earned first round byes in the best-of-three series.
Pawlenchuk said the break will reenergize the Merchants.
“Some of the guys are banged up a little bit after a long season so we’ll have a little bit of fun Thursday (at practice) with a skills competition and we’ll get some rest in and get our minds focused on the next couple of practices for that first playoff game.”
The Merchants will faceoff against the Beverly Warriors (19-19), Morinville Jets (17-19-2) or Stony Plain Flyers (15-21-2).
“It doesn’t matter who we play in the playoffs, it’s going to be fun and a little rough to say the least,” Pawlenchuk said. “Either way it’s going to be a tough series. Everybody knows we have a big rivalry with Morinville but after last year’s playoffs with Beverly, with (three) games going into overtime, and game five especially (Mike Roeleveld tied it with 21 seconds left in regulation time after Beverly made it 3-2 with 69 seconds remaining and in OT Blair Macuch sniped the winner), they’ve also become somewhat of a rival too.”
No matter who the Merchants play they are the overwhelming favourites.
“I’ve talked to a couple of guys that I know from other teams around in the league and they’re saying they don’t want to play us in the playoffs because it will just be a quick one,” he said. “But you don’t want to get into the mindset that we should just have the playoffs handed to us. We need to get into the mindset that we have to take it. It’s not just going to be given to us, we’re going to have to work for it and take it.”
The Merchants averaged an explosive 5.82 goals per game, as 10 players scored 10 or more goals. Spearheading the attack was Brent McGugan’s 26 in 33 and Josh Jewell’s 24 in 30.
Casey Reid was the top playmaker with 40 assists for a team-high 59 points in 36 games.
The Merchants are also rock solid defensively with a league-best 2.32 GAA and five shutouts, led by Max Cathcart’s 2.13 GAA and three shutouts.
Pawlenchuk is expected to log heavy minutes in the playoffs after posting an impressive 24-1 record, 2.40 GAA and two shutouts.
The Merchants’ most valuable player and CJHL first-team all-star was 8-6 (3.06 GAA in 844 minutes) in the 2013 playoffs after going 16-10 (3.50 GAA and one shutout in 1,611 minutes) in league play.
The Strathcona product downplayed his successful season.
“It was a better year definitely, and it was a lot of fun, but I can’t take all the credit saying that I played good this year. Our defence has improved a lot this year from last year and our shot counts in the game, like shots against, have gone way down this year compared to last year,” said the NAIT instrumentation student.