Surreal, strange and disappointing are a few descriptors that would adequately tell of the end of the Provincial Junior Hockey League’s 2020 post season.
Thursday’s Game 2 of the Tod Division finals between the host Picton Pirates and Napanee Raiders was played during the distraction that Hockey Canada was announcing a premature end of the 2019-20 programming due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
As the game had started just prior to the Hockey Canada announcement that all national and provincial championship playoffs and tournaments were being suspended, the contest was allowed to culminate which saw the Raiders down the Pirates 3-1.
But Game 2 didn’t matter and, part way through the game, a number of players had been hearing whispers that, no matter the result, this contest was fait accompli for the post season.
“I think there was a sense before the game even started that our players knew something was up,” Pirates General Manager Chris Masterson said. “Some of them either knew this was it or heard during the game that Hockey Canada was ending the season. I’m sure some players on the Napanee bench knew as well.”
Not that the recap really means much now but Picton would score first and take a 1-0 lead to the dressing room.
This era’s ‘Mr. Picton Pirate’ Will Harrison would jump on a loose puck and beat Napanee starter Bailey Maracle at 4:33 of the first period to stake the hosts it a 1-0 lead.
Picton played a relatively safe game through the first 30 minutes or so but the Raiders started going to the net with purpose in the latter half of the second.
It would be tough to fault Kyle Renaud, who was outstanding once again for Picton in the Pirate net, on Napanee’s first goal.
Renaud made a nice blocker save on a puck that had a 50/50 chance of missing the net. Unfortunately, the rebound ended up in traffic in a dangerous area and Reid Humphrey was there to bang home an equalizer at 13:39.
Picton appeared stunned by the goal and Napanee was energized.
The Raiders would march up the ice and one Picton in their own zone. The Pirates looked probable to make a clear but all three forwards had evacuated the defensive zone.
A nice play by Liam Mroueh to recover a loose puck at the blue line led to Marshall McFarland tipping a puck into the Picton net just 41 seconds later pushed the Raiders ahead 2-1.
Picton had a few prime chances late in the third and removed Renaud for an extra attacker but a pass back by the Pirates to the Napanee blue line eluded a defenceman and sprung Humphrey on a breakaway towards an unguarded Picton net.
And, with an empty netter into a yawning cage, the score on the last live hockey game played in the Quinte area in the spring of 2020 was 3-1 in favour of the visiting Napanee Raiders.
Harrison, the club’s captain and the organization’s leader in regular season games played, as well as grinding forward Tristan Cowan left the ice with their teammates for the final time as the two will age out of junior hockey.
“Obviously, everyone feels bad for Will and Tristan,” Masterson said Monday. “Will Harrison has been a great leader and great influence in our dressing room this year and Tristan would do just about anything to win a hockey game for this organization. We thank them so much for their dedication to our program.”
While Picton was down 2-0 in the series, the GM felt the Pirates were the better team in Game 1, a 2-1 setback the previous Thursday at the Strathcona Paper Centre.
And while every team’s Schmalz Cup dreams were unravelled by forces outside of the PJHL control, Picton staff were quick to take stock in what the club had accomplished over the 2019-20 campaign.
Particularly the second half of it.
“Considering where we started from, both (Head Coach) Ty Green and I concurred that we had a great season and showed some tremendous growth and character,” Masterson said.
After a floundering start to the season, the club went 20-3-0 over its final 23 games to finish the PJHL regular season as one of the hottest clubs in the loop.
There were obvious keys to Picton’s successful turnaround.
Forwards Brian Bygrave and Landon McLellan came over from the Wellington Dukes and instantly bolstered the offence while 2019 post season hero Renaud returned to provide a 1-2 tandem with Eric Tessier to give the Pirates the best goaltending combination in the Tod.
But a large and unheralded part of Picton’s success was maturation and development of young players.
The checking line of Garrison Moore, Nolan Dawson and Cowan gave Picton incredible depth.
Puck moving blue liner Jacob Dietz was an impressive pick up coming from Wellington’s training camp but the leadership of Nick Kyte and Kurtis Wood along with the development of Cooper Rogers and Adien MacDonell made for a very solid and well rounded defensive corps that were able to absorb the loss of Cole Lavender who was lost late in the year due to mononucleosis.
“The key to our success was that so many players were able to take on roles and develop so well in those roles and that gave us depth that not a lot of other team in the division could match,” Masterson said. “I give a ton of credit to Tyler and his staff for that. You can point to McLellan and Bygrave coming here but being able to use all the parts we had consistently was a big factor as well.”
In terms of not seeing a Schmalz Cup being handed out in 2020, Masterson, a mover and shaker among PJHL organizers, admitted it was an extremely disappointing development.
“However, perspective is very important as well and a Schmalz Cup is pretty insignificant when compared to the long term health of our players, coaches and fans and this was the right thing for Hockey Canada to do even when we were vary much alive in our series,” Masterson added.
This corner would be remised if it didn’t once again remark at the dedication, perseverance and longevity of Harrison.
A five season Pirate, the club captain led by example, was one of the hardest working and most sportsmanlike performers ever to represent the organization and his home town of Picton and ‘Harry’ will be a sorely missed sight on Thursday nights at Huff Estates Arena when PJHL play finally does return.