In the end, the 2023 Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Southeastern Conference final series between forever rivals Wellington and Trenton boiled down to one intangible.
This is not a knock against the good ship Wellington Dukes, its deckhands and skipper Derek Smith. The highly talented squad gave local fans plenty to ooh and ahh about all season long and were well prepared heading into the 2023 Buckland Cup playoffs.
But something interesting happened on the way to the ’23 Buck and it involved running head first into a club that must have felt like they were playing with house money entering the OJHL’s Frozen Four.
The Golden Hawks, who gagged on a 3-0 lead against the top ranked Toronto Junior Canadiens then beat the JC’s in overtime in Game 7 to move on to the Wellington-Trenton showdown Quinte hockey fans had been craving since being robbed in the COVID-shortened post season of 2020, came into the set full of vim and vigour.
Those who managed to see some of the Toronto-Trenton series noted that the Junior Canadiens, for all their flash and skill, had stopped going into the corners against the Golden Hawks.
The passes weren’t as crisp and the middle of the ice became a no man’s land as the G-Hawks imposed their will from the drop of the puck in Game 1.
That was the type of hard hitting and fast moving opponent Wellington was dealing with.
And without their bench boss who was tasked with serving a ridiculous two game suspension due to the thuggery of the departing Halliburton Huskies at the end of Game 4 of the previous round.
The Dukes started the series off on the wrong foot.
It says here the OJHL, Ontario Hockey Association and Ontario Hockey Federation need to get their act together to ensure teams moving on in the post season have some sort of recourse lest an opposing player at the end of their junior career decides to go loco in one last blaze of glory.
A return to being able to buy back suspensions, a more lenient appeal process that allows players and coaches to defend themselves in the above scenario or something else. Not having Smith on the Wellington bench didn’t necessarily decide this edition of the Battle of Quinte but his absence early on certainly had an impact on it.
Going into Game 5 on Friday, Wellington needed a win to extend the series and seemed to get off on the right foot when Barrett Joynt managed to fire home a shorthanded tally at 7:24 of the first period. Wellington’s Corbin Roach, with a spring in his stride, would fish the puck out of the corner and find Joynt in the high slot. Joynt’s bullet beat Ben Bonisteel to the glove side.
But Trenton would show some pluck and come back on that particular power play with Nathan Oickle serving as trigger man from the high slot, besting Jacob Osborne with a blocker side blast with just a single second left in the power play at 8:18.
Wellington had a glorious chance with an extended 5-on-3 at the end of the frame to push ahead but some great penalty killing by Trenton kept the Dukes at bay.
The teams settled in to a ping pong match with the clubs trading chances here and there but both Bonisteel and Osborne came up huge time and again. The end of regulation came and went with the Golden Hawks pressing to win the series.
Then, in the first overtime, the Dukes came up with a handful of good looks near the Trenton net that went by the wayside.
As the overtime dragged on, it became apparent the game winner would have some odour to it and that’s precisely what happened early in the second extra stanza.
A spin around shot from the left slot area by Jared Fuller deflected off the toe of a Dukes defender 2:29 into the second overtime.
Series and season over. And out.