Training camp is in full swing for the two teams from the Strait region in the Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League (NSJHL).
The Strait Pirates and Antigonish Farmers’ Mutual Junior Bulldogs will see pre-season action, for the first time, when they clash in back-to-back matchups this weekend.
“I think it will be exciting for the players and a great opportunity for the fans,” second-year Pirate head coach Taylor Lambke said.
The perennial rivals will hit the ice Friday (Sept. 14) at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre (PHCC), with the rematch set for Saturday (Sept. 15), at the Antigonish Arena.
Puck drop for both tilts is 7:30 p.m.
Both teams are coming off playoff round losses to the eventual league and Don Johnson Cup champion Junior Miners.
“We have been working really hard to improve our team,” Lambke said of the organization’s off-season efforts.
That work included a pair of key additions to the blue line – Liam MacKinnon and Brendan Lanning.
“We didn’t defend very well, so we had to do some work there,” Lambke said.
MacKinnon, a native of Whycocomagh, captained the Telus Cup champion Cape Breton West Islanders in 2017, while Lanning, a Moncton native, played 37 games last season with the Valley Wildcats of the Maritime Hockey League (MHL).
“We want to put the best team possible on the ice,” Lambke said, noting the expected improvements that have been made in the team’s ‘D’ and depth.
He anticipated 35 to 40 players in camp, which got underway Sept. 4.
“We have a good group [returning],” Lambke said, noting there is “always going to be competition.”
One of top offensive teams in the loop last season, the Pirate bench boss expects the same sort of performance during this campaign.
“We are going to be fast and make things happen,” Lambke said.
Between the pipes, Cody Smith, who the Pirates acquired from the Junior Miners, will see the majority of action, while returnees Matt Stymiest and Peter Kopf will vie for the back-up role.
“It was a rebuilding year [last season] – we were really young,” Lambke said, adding fans should expect the Pirates to be “hardworking – every game.”
“We think we are going to have a fun time this season,” he added.
Across the Canso Causeway, the Bulldogs opened their training camp Saturday (Sept. 8).
“The numbers look good,” second-year head coach David Synishin said a few days before that first gathering occurred noting it is difficult to predict the exact amount of players.
“We have a good base,” he added.
Synishin and general manager Gerry Marigoni were busy over the summer, including acquiring the rights to Tyler Dyck from the Valley Maple Leafs in late August.
Earlier in the month, Antigonish dealt the rights to Grant Fraser and Dylan MacDonald to the Pictou Scotians for NSJHL rights to Gatean Tremblay, Luke Spicer and Marcus Norrad.
In another deal with the Maple Leafs, in July, the Bulldogs acquired the league rights to Zachary Forsythe and Hunter Woodland for their 2019-20 waiver draft pick for two turns and future considerations.
“It should be an interesting camp,” Synishin said, noting Maragoni has also been working hard recruiting potential players, who are studying at St. F.X.
As for the anticipated make-up of the Bulldogs, Synishin described the defense – back end – as “pretty good,” while the line-up will be “deeper up front.”
“We were so hard working [up front] last year; this season we think we are going to have some more offense,” he said.
The only returning goaltender is Jared Green, so there are some spots in the crease available with the organization.
When it comes to the roster, there will be “holes to fill all the time.”
Along with the games versus the Pirates, the Bulldogs will face the Scotians on consecutive nights in pre-season play – Sept. 18 in Antigonish (7:30 p.m.) and Sept. 19 in Trenton (8 p.m.).
“It is a great opportunity to see players in game action,” Synishin said of the pre-season schedule.
He added they also provide players with no junior experience to show how they can perform at that level and against older ones.
Regular season starts
Both teams will launch the regular season Friday, Sept. 21, on home ice.
At the PHCC, the Pirates will welcome the Liverpool Privateers, while the expansion Eskasoni Junior Eagles will visit the Bulldogs at Antigonish Arena.
Start time for both games is 7:30 p.m.