It might be a bad pun to say the Sackville Blazers are Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League (NSJHL) champions because of a hot goaltender, but it’s one Strait Pirates head coach Taylor Lambke and captain Matt Morgan might use.
The Blazers defeated the Pirates 4-1 in game six of the finals, April 19 in Sackville, to claim the 2018-19 NSJHL banner. Blazers goaltender and playoff most valuable player Justin Sumarah made 45 stops in the contest, beaten only by a Josh MacMillan shot with just under two minutes to play. Pirate defencemen Liam MacKinnon and Christian Papineau drew assists on the goal.
“It’s tough; we ran into a hot goalie and couldn’t score a goal,” Lambke said, talking to the Casket a couple of days after the final game. “There is nothing we regret about the series; we had [on average] more than 40 shots a game, 50 shots in two games and almost 60 in another. Sometimes a goalie gets dialed in and hot and things go his way, and that’s what happened in this series.
“We didn’t play a bad game in six games but, unfortunately, the goals just didn’t come the way we wanted them to and, ultimately, they ended up winning the series.”
Morgan said the Blazers “played around” their goaltender and waited for the Pirates to make a mistake.
“He [Sumarah] was stellar throughout the whole series, throughout the whole playoffs really, so props to him and their team,” the veteran defenceman said. “But, I think, the biggest thing they did was let us make the mistakes and when we made mistakes they capitalize. We wouldn’t make too many but, when we did, they did a good job of capitalizing on them.”
Looking back on a season which saw the team only lose three times in the regular season, one of those in overtime, and then defeat arch-rivals – the Antigonish Farmers’ Mutual Junior Bulldogs and Kameron Jr. Miners – to advance to the finals, both Lambke and Morgan had no problem recognizing the many positives.
“I think there was a lot of growth,” Lambke said.
“Last year, we started a rebuild, we went young, and it was fun to watch some of those players mature through a playoff run this year; kind of go through some adversity and fight through it. Then we found our game a little bit. It was good experience for next year’s team to get to the finals and see what it takes to win a championship.
“It’s a tough league, a good league, and I think our players learned a lot this year; [lessons] we are going to grow from and carry into next season.”
In his assessment, Morgan started with the impressive regular season record and point total.
“We look back on our regular season, we set a franchise record with the Strait Pirates and that was big,” he said.
“The first round was, probably, the best series of the playoffs for the whole league. Seven games with the Bulldogs, our divisional rivals; it was definitely big for our team and, especially, for all the guys who knew of the rivalry. It was fun to pack the rinks, both in Port Hawkesbury and Antigonish, and come out on top; that was great.
“Then the second series, just how well that went. Sweeping the Miners after being swept by them the year prior; it was really great to do that.
“We look back on those three things and we’re happy with how the season went but, it was just the outcome – we just couldn’t really find a system that worked against Sackville, it came back to haunt us and the season ends that way.
“Again though, it’s definitely not a season you look back on negatively; definitely a lot of positives which came out of it. We had a really special year and hockey hasn’t really been like that in Port Hawkesbury for a long time.”
Morgan, from nearby Port Hastings, said seeing the enthusiasm for the junior Pirates during the season was especially gratifying for the local guys.
“It was definitely fun to be part of the season; I haven’t had that much fun playing hockey, basically, my whole life,” he said, noting too he believes this year’s squad has established a foundation for organizational success for years to come.
“That was probably the most fun I’ve had playing and to do it in front of the people of Port Hawkesbury, in front of the people in Antigonish, during the Miners’ series; it’s a little disappointing how we ended up the year but I don’t regret anything. All 20 guys who suited up each night in that Sackville series gave it all we could, but it just wasn’t enough.”
Lambke praised Morgan as well as his other two over-agers who have finished their junior careers; Randon MacKinnon from Inverness and Taylor Pierce from Port Hawkesbury.
“They were big for us in the playoffs,” he said. “They all played a huge role for our team – all captains and assistant captains – they showed great leadership all year for us. I relied on them a lot, leaned on them and they did a tremendous job for us.”
Lambke expressed disappointment with a call against MacKinnon in game five which saw the skilled forward suspended for game six.
“A guy’s junior career ends like that, it’s tough for me to watch, but that is part of the business … how it goes sometimes, I guess,” he said.
As a final thought, Lambke expressed appreciation for the fan support the team received.
“A big thank you to the fans for all their support this year,” he said. “It was fun, especially in the playoffs where they really came out and supported us; traveled with us as well. So just a big thank you for the support and that we look forward to seeing everyone again next season.”