It’s break time for the Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League and count the Antigonish Farmers’ Mutual Junior Bulldogs as a team pleased to have a little time off before tackling the intense stretch run and even more intense playoffs.
“I think so; 10 games or so left in the second half and then playoffs, which are the most important part [of a schedule],” head coach Dave Synishin said of the positive timing of the break.
“Especially with the students in exams now and what seems like never-ending mid-terms. Then you have guys who are working full-time and, usually, you’re playing two games a weekend and traveling; so I think a solid Christmas break is a good one for us to come back reenergized.”
Speaking after his team swept a home-and-home series from their bitter rivals the Pictou County Scotians, 4-3 and 8-0 over the Dec. 7 to 9 weekend, Synishin said the team, which includes many first-year Bulldogs, was developing well.
“A lot of new faces so that, obviously, takes some time,” he said. “It’s a very good dressing room so, I think, that makes the transition a lot easier for everyone.
“Our effort has been a little spotty at times but, at the same time, I think when we’re playing well, we’re a difficult team to play against.”
The Bulldogs stood in second place in the Sid Rowe Division after the two wins over the Scotians with a 12-8 record, good for 24 points. The Strait Pirates sit first in the division and league with an impressive 35 points in 20 games. The Scotians are third with 22 points in 19 games while defending league and Atlantic Canadian champions, the Kameron Jr. Miners, are tied with the Scotians for points, and have only played 16 games.
The Bulldogs are scheduled to play the Miners in Membertou, Dec. 15; their final game before the break.
In getting back to the development of his team, Synishin broke it down by position.
“In terms of development you’re probably working from the back-end out,” he said, a reference to more experience and depth with forwards.
“We have a lot of skill up front; that just becomes a work ethic thing … a consistency in that work ethic, effort and compete level.
“We have some young guys on ‘D’ who have really come along nicely. Kieran Devine is our most veteran defenceman and he has had a great year, so far.
“With goaltending, we picked up Sebastian Aucoin and Jared [Green] has been playing well.”
The forward depth became even stronger recently with the return of Antigonisher Connor Fraser who had played the previous two seasons with the Bulldogs.
“It [adding Fraser] was something we talked to the players about,” Synishin said.
“No matter who you are, at this time of the year you want to get a vibe on what they think and they’re happy about Connor coming back. I think his leadership is something a lot of guys will follow; especially a leader by example like Connor, who has been getting better with each game.
“He just plays a physical, hard-nosed style and that is exactly what we need more than anything right now, and the last couple of games the boys have, kind of, followed him in that direction.”
Fraser’s physical play included a spirited fight against Scotians’ forward Robert Burrows in the Bulldogs’ 8-0 victory.
Synishin talked about Antigonish’s other main rival from just across the Causeway.
“I think they’re just very deep at each position; Taylor [Lambke] is doing a great job as their coach and management has done a great job of putting a team together there to try and make a run at it,” he said of the Pirates.
“The last game we played them, they just, simply, outworked us. Above and beyond their depth, they work hard and they’ve done that pretty well all of their games.
“Every league has to have a team kind of set the bar and they’re that team this year. So, for us, we just have to keep getting better and we have to compete when we play against them.
“They showed up and played like a first place team the last time we played them, so we have to understand, as a group, that if you want to win at this level you have to compete each shift.”
Synishin said the Pirates’ play this year is like the stacked Miners team from last season.
“There is a gap there we have to close and, as long as we’re making those strides each week, as a coach you can’t complain about that,” he said.
The Bulldogs next home ice action comes in the New Year as they host the Miners Jan. 4 at the Antigonish Arena. Puck drop is 7:30 p.m.