Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Whalers enter final weekend of OHL season

Fresh off a disappointing 9-4 loss to the top-ranked Windsor Spitfires on March 6, the Plymouth Whalers were looking to bounce back the next night against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

Mission accomplished, in a big way, as the Whalers hammered the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, 8-2, before 3,369 at Compuware Arena.

The Whalers were led offensively by their top scoring line of first star Matt Caria (three goals and two assists), second star Chris Terry (1-2) and third star Tyler Seguin (1-1). Beau Schmitz scored the game-winning goal (sixth) and recorded three assists. Brett Bellemore (second) and AJ Jenks (21st) added single goals for Plymouth.

James Livingston (20th) and Jake Carrick (10th) replied for Sault Ste. Marie.

Special teams played a major role in the Plymouth victory. Whalers went 5-for-9 on the power play and killed 8-of-9 Soo power plays.

Although Caria scored the only goal of the first period at 2:38 to give Plymouth a 1-0 lead, the Whaler penalty killers were the difference in the first frame and they killed off a continuous 5-on-3 Soo power play for a span of five minutes midway through the first period. Goaltender Matt Hackett (pictured) and defenders Michal Jordan, Joe Gaynor, Schmitz and Bellemore – among others – played a key role during that segment of the game.

“That really set the tone (of the game),” said Plymouth associate coach Joe Stefan. “We were really disappointed with the effort we gave last night (in the loss to Windsor). We wanted to make amends. Our penalty killing has really come on in the second half of the year. The boys stepped up in the first period and killed off those penalties. The momentum changed and we took off from there.”

Whaler penalty killers blocked a lot of shots in front of Hackett and Stefan and assistant coach Brian Sommariva had the Whalers penalty killing unit well-prepared.

“They show us a lot of video before every game – especially late in the season, like this,” said Gaynor. “It’s important to know what teams are going to do, because we need these points."

“We knew they were going to go into a sort of a box-and-one formation,” Stefan said. “When we see that happen, our guys know how to defend it and did it perfectly. We had the right guys out there at the right time. The boys stepped up and did a real good job. Hackett made a few big saves when he had to, but the boys got in the shot lanes and took the passing lanes away and we got the clears when we needed them.”

“I think we did a good job staying in the lanes, so they couldn’t shoot the puck and had to pass it,” Gaynor said about Plymouth’s penalty killing. “We were keeping them to the outside – they weren’t getting very many shots. We did what we do best – stay in the lanes and clear the pucks.”

Plymouth blew the game open on the power play in the second period after Greyhounds’ veteran Jordan Nolan was given a two-minute minor for instigating and a five-minute major in an altercation with RJ Mahalak at 2:26 of the period. Power-play goals by Terry (team-leading 38th of the year at 2:31), Schmitz (3:49), Bellemore (7:07) and Jenks (7:21) extended the Whalers’ lead to 5-0. After Livingston scored at 15:19 to cut the Plymouth lead to 5-1, Caria (15:31) and Seguin (18:59) went back to work to give to Whalers a 7-1 lead after 40 minutes.

By the way, Mahalak is OK, but will be held out of the line-up this week for precautionary reasons. Josh Bemis, however, broke a bone in his foot blocking a shot during the second period Saturday night and will miss about four weeks. Leo Jenner and Ryan Hayes received league suspensions for incidents during Friday's game versus Windsor. Jenner received a two-game suspension and will return to the lineup on Friday in the Soo, while Hayes received a minimum of three games with the league reviewing the incident to determining the length of the suspension.

“Coming out of last night’s game, we wanted to redeem ourselves,” Caria said. “Our penalty killing was outstanding in the first period. Chris Terry and Tyler Seguin are so gifted offensively, so it comes easy to give them the puck. You go to the net and you know you’re either going to get it back or they’re going to beat the goalie. Right now, we’re working for each other.”

The victory sets up a wild final week in the OHL’s Western Conference race. Plymouth will play in Windsor on March 12 and in Sault Ste. Marie on March 13 before finishing the season at home on Sunday against Sarnia.

Plymouth has defeated Windsor twice this year and has played three other one-goal games against the top-ranked Spitfires. There’s plenty of respect on both sides of the rink.

“The Windsor game last night really stung us,” Stefan said. “We’re going to go into Windsor really hungry on Thursday. We want to make amends for the effort last night. I know the boys are going to be ready.”

“When Mike Vellucci came back, his team has gone very aggressive,” Windsor head coach Bob Boughner said. “I think that Mike gets the best out of his players. He’s a great coach and they’re a hard working team and they’re a physical team. That’s how you match up against the Windsor Spitfires, you have to match us physically. They have some good young players and good speed.”

THE WEEK AHEAD: As tight as the Western Conference race is, the Whalers may not know who they’re playing in the first round of the playoffs until the evening of the 15th.

Here are the remaining schedules of the Western Conference’s third through eight seeds (all teams have played 65 games):

SAGINAW (35-23-3-4, 77 points, 3rd): Thursday, home vs. Owen Sound; Saturday at London; Saturday, home vs. Sarnia.
PLYMOUTH (35-25-5-0, 75 points, 4th place): Thursday, at Windsor; Friday at Sault Ste. Marie; Sunday, home vs. Sarnia.
SARNIA (33-25-4-3, 75 points, 5th place): Friday, home vs. Owen Sound; Saturday at Saginaw; Sunday, at Plymouth.
GUELPH (33-25-4-3, 75 points, 5th place): Wednesday, home vs. Kitchener; Friday, home vs. Erie; Sunday, at Erie.
ERIE (32-29-3-1, 68 points, 7th place): Friday at Guelph; Saturday, home vs. Kitchener; Sunday, home vs. Guelph.
OWEN SOUND (25-26-7-7, 8th place): Thursday at Saginaw; Friday at Sarnia; Saturday, home to Windsor.

Photo by Walt Dmoch

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