(BELLE RIVER, ON) – The Lakeshore Canadiens have finally returned to the pinnacle of southwestern Ontario Junior C hockey, toppling the Essex 73s in the fifth game of the Provincial Junior Hockey League’s Stobbs Division final, Tuesday night.
The 73s have long dominated the Stobbs Division, formerly the Great Lakes Junior C Hockey League, winning 13 championships in 16 years and the Clarence Schmalz Cup as provincial champions four times in that same time.
The victory for the Canadiens is made even sweeter, considering they were swept by Essex last year in the finals after finishing first overall in the regular season. For the second consecutive year Lakeshore finished atop of the Stobbs Division with a record of 27-8-2-3.
Despite going 12-1 in the playoffs, the post season was not a leisurely stroll for the Canadiens. In the first round, they swept the Blenheim Blades 4-0, but won each game by a small margin and twice going to overtime. In the semifinals, they also swept a persistent Mooretown Flags squad.
In the finals, the Habs were up against their arch nemesis, Essex, and beat them in style.
The series opened in Lakeshore on March 4 with a 5-2 win for Lakeshore at Belle River’s Atlas Tube Centre. Scoring for the Canadiens were Matt Fraser, Jarrett Tazzman, Matt Smith, Brandon Ireland, and Mejor Gasparovic, while Michael Ruttinger and Michael Vieira tallied for the 73s.
Two nights later, the Habs took a 3-2 overtime win in Essex’s barn. Outshooting the 73s 27-20, Connor Rosaasen tallied 6:45 into extra time to take the victory. Matt Smith and Ireland scored for Lakeshore, while Dawson Winchester scored both Essex goals.
Back in Lakeshore on March 9, Vieira and goalie Tyler Ryan lifted the 73s on their backs to keep them alive in the series. Vieira scored a hat-trick, while Ryan blocked 32 of 33 Canadiens chances to pick up the 3-1 win. Lakeshore’s lone responder was Kyler Carter.
Back in Essex on Sunday, it appeared that the Habs had lost their cool.
The 73s came out with 18 shots in the opening frame and built up a 4-0 lead, after blasts from Riley Meyerink, Sylano Valente, and a pair from Vieira. But the Canadiens started to battle back in the second.
With goals from Gasparovic and Smith, the Habs split the lead to 4-2, but a late tally by Essex’s Wyatt O’Neil stymied the rally. Lakeshore, however, was not done. After snipes from Rosaasen, Tazzman, and Stephane Crevier, the Canadiens battled back to force overtime in front of a shocked crowd of 913.
Just under five minutes into overtime, Gasparovic blasted the puck behind 73s goalie Jax D’Hondt to give Lakeshore a stranglehold in the series with the 6-5 win.
Back at the Atlas Tube Centre on Tuesday, Lakeshore battled hard and finished Essex off.
After a scoreless opening frame, Rosaasen tallied with just over five minutes left in the middle stanza to break the goose egg. Tazzman hammered home an insurance marker in the final minute of the period. In the third, Meyerink breathed life back into the 73s with a goal to split the lead to 2-1, just over two minutes in. However, Rosaasen struck again three minutes later with the final goal of the series.
The championship marks the Canadiens’ first league victory since 2011. Since that victory, the Habs have lost to the 73s three times in the finals.
The Canadiens now faceoff against the Yeck Division champions, the Lambeth Lancers, in the PJHL’s Western Conference final. The Lancers just polished off the Dorchester Dolphins 4-1 in their division final, after Lambeth finished in first place in the Yeck Division, with a record of 34-5-0.
In playoff action, Rosaasen has led a balanced Habs attack, tallying 10 points in 13 games, while Smith has nine points and Tazzman and Liam Hogan have eight apiece.
Between the pipes, starting goalie Erik Morneau has seen the bulk of the action, carrying an 11-1 record in 13 games played, while maintaining a 1.77 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage.
The schedule for the Canadiens/Lancers series is set to be released this weekend and is expected to start early next week.