For a third time in the last two decades, the Wellington Dukes are laying claim to a Central Canada Championship.
Slide over Ryan Woodward and Dayne Davis.
Shove aside Sean Rudy and Jordan Ruby.
Colin Doyle, Jonah Capriotti and a new collection of Wellington Dukes legends are joining you as exulted hockey company.
The Dukes managed to pull away from the host Dryden Ice Dogs late in a 7-4 2018 Dudley-Hewitt Cup victory that was in doubt up until the 12 minute mark of the third period.
After Wellington had taken the last four minors, the 2018 Bill Salonen Cup champions manged to find their way to the penalty box twice late in the final stanza.
Afforded a late game opportunity with the score tied 4-4, Wellington wasn’t going to miss a chance to potentially punch their ticket to the 2018 Royal Bank Cup Championship in Chilliwack, BC later this month.
“We had a slow start Saturday and some soft goals were let in by both teams and being tied up 4-4 late in the game wasn’t ideal but I think the players came out in the third period and realized they had an opportunity to take advantage of,” Druce told the Gazette.
“It was a really long week of five games in five days and it was tough but they pushed through hard and rose to the occasion,” Druce added.
Teddy McGeen would set up Mitch Mendonca with a batted down puck at the side of the goal with 7:15 to go to push the Dukes ahead 5-4, setting off bedlam at the Highline Hall where scores of Wellington hockey fans watching the live feed via Hockey TV were ready to erupt in jubilation.
“It was a key power play goal at a high leverage point in the hockey game and while Druce wasn’t exactly thrilled at the way Wellington managed all of its man-advantage opportunities, he did like the fact they were able to strike at key times.
“I think our power play can be much better and there’s more to it but luckily, we were able to score at the right,” the coach said.
Wellington wouldn’t need it but the club managed to notch an insurance goal as Ben Evans ripped home a beauty with just under five minutes to go in the contest off a nice feed from Mendonca to make it 5-3.
Mendonca, unfairly maligned in some corners earlier this season, was at his peak this weekend, picking up a tournament clinching goal and adding a valuable assist on a key insurance tally on Saturday and scoring two big goals for Wellington in the semifinal a night prior.
“He’s got the biggest upside of anyone on our team, he skates stronger than anybody and shoots like man and passes like one too. The consistency is something that players at this age deal with but if he can bring it every night, he can really dominate a hockey game and he’s been coming up big in big moments,” Druce said.
“If it wasn’t for my linemates Frank Pucci and Ben Evans, I don’t get those opportunities but we were all working hard because we knew what was on the line and we wanted to come home to Wellington with a championship,” Mendonca said.
In the home stretch, the championship game was handed over to Jonah Capriotti to preserve and the Mount Hope, ON. native was magnificent.
The netminder managed to shake off a couple of questionable goals earlier in the game including Dryden’s game tying effort where Capriotti was tangled up and couldn’t make a play on Kris Hamlin’s second of the game just 1:35 into the third.
The record will show Capriotti gave up four goals on 32 shots but perhaps what it should reveal is how big the netminder played when the game was in the balance and a tough save was required to keep the Dukes in control of the contest.
The term money goalie might get thrown around a lot but on Saturday, if he hadn’t already, Jonah Capriotti was as close to money for the Wellington Dukes as any other Junior A goalie is to their team in Canada.
“He’s carried the load here and done the hard work to get us to this stage,” Druce said. “He looked a little tired on his feet towards the end of the week but he’s coming up with the big saves.”
After Wellington played out the final four minutes and the penny-filled maple syrup cans and the “GO DUKES GO!” chants echoed off the walls of the Highline Hall, Jackson Arcan sealed the deal into an awaiting and vacated Dryden cage to make it 7-4.
Wellington was leaving sunset country with a major piece of hockey hardware and the chance to play for a national championship on the left coast starting next weekend.
And what of Wellington Dukes skipper John Druce?
A mid-season replacement, the head coach has just engineered a pretty spectacular section to his coaching resume.
The winning bench boss of the 2017 Royal Bank Cup champion Cobourg Cougars, Druce has added a Dudley Hewitt Cup, a Frank Ruddock Trophy and a Buckland Cup all in one 365-day period.
“It’s been very rewarding and last year was an honour but getting to the RBC through the front door this season- there’s a lot to be said about earning your way. It’s been fun to go through the ups and downs together with this team and and we are all going to Chilliwack to take part in a very special hockey tournament. I’m very proud of this group and I’m very lucky, ” Druce said.
The clubs split the first period 2-2 and it did not start out well for Wellington.
Hamlin’s first came off the power play just 89 seconds in to give the raucous and partisan Ice Dog crowd an early jolt.
However, Wellington righted the ship quickly as Frank Pucci stuffed in a Declan Carlile rebound just 28 seconds later to make it 1-1.
The Ice Dogs would regain the lead at the 5:22 mark but Zach Uens made sure the locals would head to the dressing room even when he snapped one home off a Josh Supryka feed late in the opening stanza.
While it would take some time, the game once again ebbed and flowed in terms of a lead in the second.
With just over five minutes to play, Evans banged home his first of the night as he collected a Uens point shot off the pad of Dryden Ice Dogs netminder Landon Pavlisin and gave Wellington their first lead of the game.
But the Dogs fought back and it was Eric Stout setting up a Ted Davis screen shot with just over a minute later to tie it at 3-3.
The game likely hinged on the final four minutes of the second.
Wellington’s McGeen and Evans picked up back-to-back minors with under four minutes to play, setting up a lengthy 5-on-3 powerplay for the hosts.
Try as they might, Dryden just couldn’t get set for many prime opportunities at the Wellington net and when they did, Capriotti was there.
Finally, down a single man, Wellington got the break that makes some teams and kills others.
A blue line turnover sent Supryka and Bryce Yetman in on a two-on-one shorthanded break and it would Supryka feeding Yetman for a goal with just 91 seconds left in the second.
Wellington was able to take a 4-3 lead to the dressing room and refocus and, while the Ice Dogs would score early to tie it, the hockey gods ensured the Dukes got their own 5-on-3 powerplay sequence later in the game.
While Wellington didn’t score up two men, Mendonca’s tally late will go down as the club’s biggest powerplay goal of the post season.
Providing deeper context to Wellington’s Dudley Hewitt Cup win Saturday was the fact the team had to win this championship the hard way, playing five games in five nights including the last three serving as elimination games.
In the semifinal Friday night, the Dukes were able to hold off the Salonen Cup finalist Thunder Bay North Stars 6-3.
Wellington would build a 4-1 lead through 40 minutes thanks to goals by Mendonca (2), Nelson Powers and Pucci only to see the North Stars score a pair early in the third to make it a 4-3 contest with over 17 minutes left.
In what started a trend that continued into the final, the Dukes would score a powerplay goal late in the game and then see Arcan score into the empty net.
Uens and Carlile would set up Yetman at 9:05 for the game winner while Carlie would pick up his second assist, sending Arcan in on a vacated Thunder Bay cage with just 13 seconds left to effectively kill the North Stars post season hopes.
The club was welcomed home by about 50 supporters Sunday night and Druce has been impressed with the level of support the club has enjoyed this season.
“This community has been amazing and it’s what this level of junior hockey is all about. The support has been amazing since day one when I arrived and it was so great to see some of our fans make it Dryden. I’ve been honoured to be a part of this run and it’s been great to enjoy the support from some very dedicated fans,” said Druce.
After the final contest, the tournament host committee announced the All Dudley Hewitt Cup team.
Carlile and Mason Snell were chosen as the defence pairing while Mitchell Martan was one of three forwards selected.
Martan wound up tied for the lead in scoring through the round robin section with one goal and three helpers for four points.
Martan was also chosen as the tournament’s top forward while Carlile was the most outstanding blueliner.
Barring travel delays, the road-weary club is expected to pull into the Essroc Arena parking lot tonight between 9:30 and 10 p.m. With a good number of diehard Dukes fans expected to fete the club and welcome the Dudley-Hewitt Cup to its new home for the next 11 months.
Visit the Wellington Dukes facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/159408110936250/ for more information and ETA.