PORT HOOD, N.S. - It’s usually the most competitive series of the opening round of the Nova Scotia Eastlink Major Midget Hockey League (NSMMHL) playoffs, which makes sense considering it’s between the two teams which finished closest in the standings, of all first round series.
The four-versus-five seed series is where the Cape Breton West Islanders find themselves after a fifth-place finish in the regular season, which means they’ll face-off versus the Valley Wildcats to open the 2018-19 playoffs.
With the higher finishing team having the option, the Wildcats have chosen to start on the road with games in Port Hood Saturday, March 2 (6 p.m. puck-drop) and Sunday, March 3, with a noon-time start.
Games three to five in the best of five series, will all be played in Berwick the following weekend (March 8 to 10), with games four and five falling into the ‘if necessary’ category.
“I’m not sure if it’s really an advantage or not; it’s just the way the format is scheduled for the playoffs,” Islanders head coach Nick MacNeil said of starting at home.
“Valley was able to choose whether they would have the first two home games or two on the road, they chose that way. Certainly, starting a playoff series at home, I think there are some benefits to that, but we’re just looking forward to two good weeks of practice leading up to the series,” he said, speaking to the Casket Feb. 19.
MacNeil said play between the two teams was pretty even during the regular season and a key for his team will be to get contributions from everybody in the line-up.
“The Valley has a well-rounded team; they have good forwards, strong ‘D’ and a good goaltender. Obviously, we’re going to need our goal scorers to score, our grinders to grind, and everyone to play good defence. And, as is the case in most playoffs, the goaltending has to be there to win games … to win a series.”
Among the scorers the Islanders will lean on is captain Darren Waterman who lead the team with 40 points on 23 goals and 17 assists, in 35 games. Waterman, from Antigonish, was named a first-team all-star forward in the NSMMHL for his strong regular season.
“We have to play hard; hard work is what leads to more success,” Waterman said, when asked about playoff success.
“And be prepared for them; they have a couple of good players, so we have to look to shut them down. It’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure.”
Those are the messages Waterman said he, and other veterans, will try and pass along to first-year Islanders.
“Playoff hockey comes at you faster so you to be ready to be able to play at that level,” he said. “You really have to be ready to come out with the wins.”
While Waterman said he was pleased with his season, he said he and his teammates would have, obviously, preferred to finish higher in the standings.
“We didn’t really finish where we would have liked; fifth being more towards the lower-end of the standings,” he said, while finishing the thought on an optimistic note.
“We had a rough patch for a while but, I think, we’ve moved past that, have learned from it and, I think, we can put on a good push in the playoffs.”
MacNeil said he felt it was a good year, while also acknowledging, like Waterman, the bumps in the road.
“We certainly had a lot of ups and downs, but that happens over the course of a season,” he said. “I think the way we’ve been playing the last month or so, ever since the [East Coast] Ice Jam, it certainly has us getting on the right track.
“Going into this year, we had 12 rookies on the roster, so you never know exactly what to expect, and there is certainly a learning curve for the kids. It is what it is, we’re a young team and, usually, the teams with the most experience are at the top and the younger ones are working hard to get better every day and move up in the standings, every weekend.
“I certainly like the way our team has played the last six or seven weeks. Again, we’re going to have two weeks of practice here and be ready for the Valley March 2.”
Along with Waterman’s first-team nod, teammates Sam Grant, from Antigonish, and Dell Welton, from Baddeck, received second-team all-star recognition while goaltender Kenzie MacPhail, from Inverness, made the league’s all-rookie team.