By Devan Mighton – Originally published in the Lakeshore News on Mar. 16, 2017
Photo: Sticks get high as things get heated between Essex’s Anthony Cristofaro (14) and Lakeshore’s Joe Binder (7) on March 12. DEVAN MIGHTON / LAKESHORE NEWS
(BELLE RIVER, ON) – The Lakeshore Canadiens hockey club finished the regular season with their first season pennant since 2010-11. The Habs also finished the season with the most wins they have obtained since the aforementioned year, a campaign in which they strutted their way to the Schmalz Cup provincial final.
After a relatively painless first round sweep of the Petrolia Flyers, the Canadiens hit a road bump.
With starting goalie Mitch Topliffe on injury reserve since the waning moments of the regular season, third-year veteran netminder Colin Tetreault and his teammates struggled to find secure footing against the Blenheim Blades.
The Blades were hell-bent on cashing in on their season-long 50th-anniversary celebration with a trip to the division final.
Up 2-0 in the series, for a while, it looked like this may happen for the Blades, but the timely return of Topliffe served as a catalyst to propel the Habs to four straight wins and a berth to their first local Junior C final since 2014.
And here we are three games deep into the Provincial Junior Hockey League’s Stobbs Division final with the Canadiens playing their all-too-familiar rivals – the Essex 73’s.
The series has not played out as a Lakeshore fan would hope.
Twelve hundred and two local hockey faithful attended the opening game at the Atlas Tube Centre on March 7. Fans of both teams came out in droves – hundreds of orange and black clad Essex fans intermingling with the already massive throng of locals donning the dark blue and red of the home team.
All but those with orange shirts would walk away disappointed.
The 73’s looked like a team that had been there before – and indeed they had. Having won the final five straight Great Lakes League championships (before all eight Junior C leagues merged under the PJHL banner this summer), Essex has its eyes set on becoming the first ever Stobbs Division champions.
They came into game one with a clear game plan: put a bee in Mitch Topliffe’s bonnet and see if he will flinch.
After every save, every smother, Essex’s forwards would storm the crease and have words with the tender. If they could, they would throw a bump to his person, a poke or a snow-job if he was on his knees. Under the watchful eyes of referees Chris Harwood and Rob Veccia, the 73’s were able to harass Topliffe with impunity.
With no protection from the refs, the 73’s grew emboldened and came to the crease with greater frequency, and the desired effect was achieved.
A frustrated Lakeshore squad took untimely penalties late in the game, leading to power play insurance markers for Essex that put the game out of reach.
Kyler Carter and J. J. Percy were the only scorers for the Habs in the 5-2 loss.
Essex answered back with goals from Tyler Boughner, Riley Meyerink, Dalton Langlois, and a pair from William Stadder.
73’s goalie Tyler Ryan made 26 saves in the win, while Topliffe turned aside 28 for the home side.
Game two wrap up
Three nights later, in Essex, game two was more of the same.
Steven Sartor scored Lakeshore’s lone goal in a 5-1 loss.
Penalties would be the bane of the Canadiens’ existence as the 73’s peppered their opponent’s net with 44 shots and cashed in on three power play opportunities.
Essex’s Langlois, Tyler Scott, Matthew Rosati, Eric Shaw, and Cody Leeming (empty net) all tallied in the win.
Ryan picked up his second win of the series with 21 stops, while Topliffe turned aside 39 of 43.
Game three wrap up
On Sunday, the series returned to the Atlas Tube Centre.
Well-fought and intense hockey, the game was marred by shots on both goalies as tempers flared and the Canadiens attempted to keep their backs off the wall.
Essex never stopped coming to the net hard. On some occasions they were called, on other occasions, Topliffe took matters into his own hands.
But Ryan became a target too.
After Michael Vieira gave the 73’s an early lead, Lakeshore’s Michael Long threw a light body check on Essex’s Ryan behind his net. Not to be outdone, Connor Rosaasen slashed Ryan early in the second. Both players landed in the box.
Later in the middle act, Essex took to clipping Topliffe whenever he left his goal line. Ultimately, Luke Gecse was caught in the act, midway through the frame, and was rewarded with an interference penalty and a couple shots to the head from Topliffe for his efforts.
The incidental contact did not cease, though. Two minutes later, Michael Vieira attempted to bump Topliffe on his way back to the crease and was treated with a stick paddle to the upper extremities. The Habs goalie took the high sticking penalty with a grin on his face.
Eric Shaw extended Essex’s lead to two with less than 10 minutes left in the game.
With the goalie out, late in the match, Lakeshore’s regular season leading scorer, Connor Rosaasen notched his first goal of the series, but Vieira’s final-minute empty-netter put the game out of reach for the Canadiens.
Ryan celebrated the 3-1 win with 32 saves, while Topliffe stopped 21 of 22.
With game three concluded, the Canadiens find themselves with their backs against that proverbial wall. For Lakeshore, it is now a matter of survival.
Game four took place in Essex on Tuesday night and, if necessary, the series will return to Belle River on tomorrow evening at 7 p.m.
Note: Series ended in game four. Essex swept the series with a 7-3 win.