(ESSEX, ON) – For the first time since 2012, the Essex 73s will not be competing in the Clarence Schmalz Cup finals. Despite a year where they swept three out of five rounds of the playoffs, and only lost 3 games in regulation in the regular season, the defending All-Ontario Junior C champions have bowed out of the playoffs to the Midwestern League’s Ayr Centennials.
In fact, it was not a memorable series for local hockey fans.
After losing Game 1 by a score of 5-2, things went completely downhill for the 73s. Last Friday, they travelled to Ayr for a two-night stand and walked out with their backs against the proverbial wall.
Despite out-shooting the Centennials 30-29, Essex dropped Game 2 by a 5-4 score.
Essex took an early lead with a snipe by William Stadder and Ayr quickly answered with a goal by Quinn Diamond. The middle frame belonged to the home side, as the Cents pumped in 3 goals, a pair from Cash Seraphim and a single from Mitch Klie.
In the third, Brett Vorschuk led the push for the comeback, scoring two goals mid-period for the 73s. Riley Clipper answered back for Ayr only moments later, putting it out of reach. Max Viselli would cash in on the power play late in the game, but the Cents would hold on for the victory.
Game 3 saw the 73s come out like spitfire pilots, strafing the Ayr net with 17 shots. Despite this, Ayr kept the score even, finding room behind Trevor Wheaton twice in the period with goals from Klie on the power play and Seraphim, respectively. Essex’s two goals came from Stadder and Tyler Scott.
The Centennials’ Tyler Harrison smacked home the go-ahead just minutes into the second. And, in the final stanza, the 73s pulled their goalie late in the frame, allowing Ayr to cash in on two empty-netters from Clipper and Seraphim.
Mitch Figueiredo put in a Herculean effort in net for the Cents, stopping 38 shots for the victory.
Last Sunday, the series returned to Essex Memorial Arena with the hometown 73’s down to last chances. Essex had yet another strong start, netting a pair of goals on the man advantage from Scott and captain Matthew Hebert.
In the third, the Centennials mounted a comeback, with Diamond and Seraphim beating Wheaton to tie the game. This forced extra time.
Seconds into overtime, the 73s were able to put a puck on net, but Ayr quickly turned it around, as Zachary Masterson scored an unassisted marker, only 32 seconds in, to finish the sweep.
Figueiredo, a product of the Cambridge Hawks minor hockey system, was the hero of the series for the Centennials. Having spent the majority of his junior career with Ayr, the veteran net minder was peppered every game of the series, his team out-shot, and yet collected four straight victories. In the provincial play-downs, he carried an 8-0 record, a 1.65 goals against average, and a stellar 0.951 save percentage against two strong contenders.
As a rookie, Figueiredo was a member of the first Ayr team ever to compete in the Schmalz Cup rounds.
This sweep should help serve as a nice bookend to a goaltender who actually sat out last year due to work commitments.
The Centennials, only in their fourth year at the Junior C level, have knocked down two of the big houses in the loop, Essex and Grimsby, and now get to play for the big prize. Standing in their way is the Port Hope Panthers, 2015 finalists behind the 73s.
The Panthers knocked off another perennial powerhouse, the Alliston Hornets, in 6 games.