PJHL Pollock Division Finals Preview: Mount Forest Patriots Vs. Walkerton Hawks

With all due respect to the other teams in the Pollock Division, it’s probably safe to say this is the match-up we all wanted to see in the finals of this year’s Pollock Division playoffs.

A rematch of last year’s 7-game war, this promises to be much the same, as one team looks to defend it’s long-awaited title, and the other tries to get back to the top of a mountain they’re very familiar with in recent times. These two teams don’t like each other much. Walkerton felt last year that they made some unfortunate decisions, particularly prior to game 7, and let the title slip into Mount Forest’s hands. Mount Forest felt they simply got the better of the Hawks with a grinding style of hockey and incredible goaltending from what was then the league MVP in Matt Oullette. This year, the teams are closer matched than ever before. Mount Forest paced the division all season, scoring a division high 199 goals to Walkerton’s 173, and the Patriots allowed just 104, second only to Kincardine’s 103. The Hawks allowed just 127, which is astounding alongside their goal total because the team had a brutal year in terms of icing a full roster. Sickness, school and work commitments often left the Hawks with 10 players, sometimes less. They’re hungry to prove that with a full team and a new attitude under interim coach Steve Barrett, who also serves as GM, they can knock the Patriots off and take the title back after it slipped through their fingers on home ice last year. The Pats will be tougher to take down this year, though, as they added some new weapons from last year’s team. Here’s how they stack up.

Offensively, the Patriots ran up scores on teams frequently this year, none more so than one Klayton Hoelscher, who broke the team’s single-season goal mark with 42. He is one third of a top line that has a bit of everything. Hoelscher is the sniper, a player who can disappear and pop into the quiet ice in the offensive zone to allow his elite centre, Blair Butchart, to find him. Butchart, who was named Pollock MVP, is an elite level play-maker at this level, posting 79 points, 56 of those assists. He’s hit the ground running in the playoffs, rattling off 12 points in the 4 game sweep of Wingham. Butchart and Hoelscher are complimented by the two-way engine that is Michael Stefanelli. He is the grinder on the line, but is far more than just a guy who works the walls well. Stefanelli has extremely high hockey IQ, and kills tons of penalties. The depth scoring is very strong here, with puck wizard Riley Cribbin providing a spark whenever he gets possession of the puck, and Ryan Maksymyk always driving hard to the blue paint. This team led the division in scoring for a reason. Walkerton has a rock-solid D-core that plays a highly physical game, but if there’s a group that can test them, it’s this one.

On the back end, Mount Forest has a nice mix of mobile puck rushers and big stout defensive minded players. The group continues to be ably led by captain Shawn Lantz, a great athlete who also plays high end lacrosse. Lantz is the definition of a two-way defender; easily as capable joining a rush and quarterbacking a power play as he is at shutting down top opponents and locking down his own end. He is supported by Derick Acheson and Dylan Brown, who both had solid regular seasons point wise, and are both able to play great defensively, using active sticks and good positioning to force opposing forwards to the outside. Brock Phillips is the physical hammer, amassing 145 PIMs in the regular season. The top 4 for Mount Forest isn’t flashy, but they play a strong style and allow space for the forwards to back check and push chances to the outside, and they are quick enough to get to pucks in their own corners and usually make no nonsense passes to quickly transition to offense. They aren’t wildly physical as a whole, but use their structure from Head Coach Trent McClement and their skating ability to get themselves out of trouble.

In net, David Lobsinger continues his incredible comeback story. After stepping away from competitive hockey for a couple years, Lobsinger stepped back into the crease, joining the Patriots in the offseason after the over age departure of league MVP Matt Oullette. Lobsinger has been excellent all year, and played all 4 games against Wingham, posting a 2.73 GAA and a .910 save percentage, giving up 11 goals. He will continue to carry the mail for Mount Forest, but if something should happen, youngster Aiden Quish is more than ready to step up and lock down the Pats’ crease. Doing so against Walkerton for a series though would be a unique challenge.

For the Hawks, they have been flying offensively since the playoffs started, and even though star defender Josh Deyell leads the team with 14 points in 11 games, the forwards are getting it done. Gary Mantz has been excellent, as he was a consistent force all year for Walkerton, and he has 13 points thus far on this playoff run. He’s fast, dynamic, has quick hands and will shoot from anywhere effectively. He and Spencer Elder, who has 11 points, are the leading catalysts for this group that can’t wait to go after Mount Forest with their furious fore checking that has come back to life after the unfortunate departure of Jamie Petrie behind the bench. After their coach was let go, the players took it upon themselves to right the ship against Kincardine, and Mantz and Elder were two big leaders who led the way in terms of upping the effort levels. Their team mates responded.  Justin Donnelly had 10 points through two rounds, while Ryan Shaw has stepped up effectively as a depth scorer, piling up 9 points. Reid Simmons also sits at 9, and the rest of the team up front pretty much all have multiple points. The Hawks feel like they have the horses now, all together pretty much for the first time all season, to take down the Patriots and claim a title they haven’t held for a few years now.

On the back end, the Hawks have a fearsome group of defenders who absolutely love nothing more than to run the opposition right through the ice. As mentioned previously, Josh Deyell is having himself a heck of a playoffs, and is an early favourite for playoff MVP if this keeps up. His 14 points pace the remaining skaters, and his punishing brand of hitting hasn’t diminished whatsoever. GM Steve Barrett says no one enjoys going for loose pucks with Deyell out there, and he lives up to his fearsome reputation. His skill set is well known, and the Pats will want to ensure they all have their heads up if he’s on the ice. His partner Brendan Welsh has been just as scary good, tied for second in points with 13, and playing the same type of bruising game that Deyell enjoys. Barrett did note he would like Deyell and Welsh to limit their time in the box, with 34 PIMs between them so far, but he also doesn’t want to rein in what makes them so good too much. Quinton Maddock and Kyle Somani fit right into the same mold as the top pair, and both can skate well and make good first passes to the quick forwards the Hawks have. This D-core has a take no prisoners mentality, and it shows, which can get them into trouble sometimes. If they step over the line too often and give a scary Patriots power play too many opportunities, the Hawks might shoot themselves in the foot. But in terms of a defense that isn’t fun to play against, the Hawks have the advantage there.

In goal, Matthew Donnelly is doing some pretty incredible things as a rookie goalie. He had an excellent first year in the PJHL, and has been platooning the starts in the playoffs with wily vet Cody an der Hiede. Donnelly has 8 starts in the post season, winning 6, and sports a 2.85 GAA and a .892 save percentage. His defense shuts things down pretty well, and he doesn’t usually have to be amazing to win, but at times in the Kincardine series he was excellent, especially the last 2 games. Meanwhile, van der Hiede suffered a slight injury in the second round, but will be fine if he’s called upon. He’s won 2 of his 4 appearances, one in which he was replaced because of the injury, and has a stout 2.08 GAA and .911 save percentage. If Donnelly, who likely starts game 1, falters at all, Barrett will have no issue going to the veteran for game 2. The Hawks want this badly, and if a shadow of a doubt creeps in, they won’t hesitate to shake things up, like they did when they let their coach go on their way here.

This series is going to be a war. These teams really built up a dislike of each other last year, and both have something to prove. Mount Forest wants to dispel the notion that last year was a fluke, and capture a back-to-back title. Walkerton wants everyone to know that they let last year slip through their fingers, and let everyone know they’re still the dominant Jr. C powerhouse we’ve seen the last decade plus. Game 1 goes Saturday night at 8 pm in Mount Forest and myself, Steve Sabourin and Scott Brudge will all be in the building, bringing you the action live on CKNX AM920. Enjoy the ride, it should be a gem.

For more on the Pollock Division Finals, check out the full length interviews with Mount Forest GM Rob Nixon, and Walkerton Hawks GM/Coach, Steve Barrett: