Merchants go to provincials
Junior B team wins semifinal series against Beaumont for provincial berth while also qualifying for Founders Cup final
Wednesday, Mar 19, 2014 06:00 am
The St. Albert Merchants deposited a provincial berth in Sunday’s semifinal series clincher in Beaumont.
The 4-0 victory against the hometown Chiefs in game six in the best-of-seven Capital Junior B Hockey League playoff sealed the deal.
Provincials start April 3 in Grande Prairie to determine the Alberta rep for the Western Canadian Keystone Cup, hosted by the Abbotsford Pilots, April 17 to 20.
“It’s a great feeling to go to provincials. It says a lot about our coaching staff and the type of players we have on our team,” said all-star netminder Justin Pawlenchuk, who posted his third shutout of the series to eliminate the Chiefs.
The winner of tonight’s game seven semifinal showdown between the Fort Saskatchewan Hawks and North Edmonton Red Wings in the Fort will join the Merchants at provincials and will also battle the Money Men for the Founders Cup. The best-of-five final starts Friday at 8 p.m. at Akinsdale Arena.
“Winning the series over Beaumont is excellent as it ensures a spot in provincials, but we still have some hard work ahead of us in terms of the league championship,” said Scott Rodda, head coach of the Merchants, 34-3-1 in league play and 7-2 in the playoffs. “The guys have worked extremely hard all season and despite a rash of injuries this round, they found a way to get the job done. From goaltending out it was a team effort and at this time of year that is the only thing that brings you success.”
After losing two games in a row for the first time this season the Merchants skated into game five Friday in St. Albert with a sense of urgency.
“We approached it as a do or die game. It was either we go up in the series and take the lead and then we have one game to win and we’re off to provincials or we lose and we’re battling back,” Pawlenchuk said of the 4-2 triumph. “We just said, ‘Hey, we’re in our barn on a Friday night in front of our fans and we’re not going to lose the game.’”
Brent McGugan (power play), Stefan Meunier and Josh Jewell (team-leading sixth playoff goal) lit up Beaumont goalie Kyle Hynes in the first period and Meunier’s second of the contest five minutes into the middle frame left the Chiefs reeling, down 4-0.
Blair Macuch had two assists in the win and Meunier added one helper.
The teams combined for 25 infractions for 94 penalty minutes.
The Merchants outshot the visitors 14-5 in the decisive opening period and 31-28 overall.
“We got some key guys back and that seemed to boost our confidence a bit going into the game,” said Pawlenchuk of the return of Casey Reid (one-game suspension for a cross-checking major in the 2-1 overtime loss in game three), Ryan Harrison (missed three games with a lower body injury) and Liam McNamara (played only one shift after reinjuring his ankle).
In game six Reid (power play), Mitch McNamara and Harrison (power play) potted goals in the second and Harrison’s second of the night was an empty-net tally with 1:52 to play.
“We wanted to end it that night. Our mentality was we’re not going to give them a sniff and we’re going to take it from them right now in their barn and send them home and continue on our path to a championship,” said Pawlenchuk.
The 21-year-old Merchant continued his playoff MVP performance by stopping 29 shots for his fifth shutout in the post season and seventh in league and playoffs combined this season.
“I’m a little surprised. I don’t even think I’ve had five shutouts my whole career, never mind in the playoffs, but it’s my last year so I’ve put a little bit more focus behind the games now to give our team the best chance I can to win.”
Pawlenchuk (7-2, 1.28 GAA and .957 save percentage) was tighter than a drum in net during 276.21 minutes of shutout hockey while blanking the Beverly Warriors 4-0 in game two (32 saves) and 7-0 in game three (22 saves) to sweep the best-of-five quarter-final series before stoning the Chiefs 9-0 in game one (28 saves) and 3-0 in game two (35 saves).
Pawlenchuk credited his teammates for making him look so good.
“They’re doing a lot. If I do happen to let out a rebound our D-men are there to clear it away. Our forwards are coming back so we can bring out the puck a lot easier. We’re picking up the third man back on the back check. The guys are also moving guys out in front of point shots and they’re letting me see the puck. I just tell them, if I can see it I can stop it.”
On tap next for the Merchants is winning their first Founders Cup since 2005.
“We’ve qualified for provincials so that’s done. Now the only thing we have to worry about is winning the league. That’s the goal right now and we just have to take it one game at a time,” Pawlenchuk said.
ICE CHIPS: The 50/50 winner of $210 at game five Friday was St. Albert resident Mark Spector, columnist for sportsnet.ca and television personality.
The joint was jumping for the playoff tilt as the Merchants continue to draw more fans in the playoffs than the controversial St. Albert Steel did in their last Alberta Junior Hockey League campaign at Northstar Hyundai Arena.
The Merchants are anticipating a standing-room only crowd for game one in the final.
“I hope the fans pack Akinsdale on Friday night for our first game of the championship series,” Rodda said. “There is little doubt Merchants’ fans are the best.”