PJHL Pollock Division Playoff Preview: Mount Forest Patriots Vs. Wingham Ironmen

After some time off, the 1st place team in the Pollock Division will meet a high flying offensive unit that while viewed as an underdog, will present plenty of dangers if underestimated.

That’s exactly what yours truly, and the Mitchell Hawks, learned about the Wingham Ironmen. That’s not to say Mitchell, or myself, didn’t think the Ironmen were dangerous. It more had to do with their shakier defensive record and the question of whether or not they could play more defensive, shut down hockey that the playoffs can demand. They did just that. Mount Forest will now enter the playoff fray after taking their well earned 1st place bye. Wingham was able to sweep aside Mitchell, but that does come with a slight asterisk. Mitchell was missing their top 4 goal scorers for all but 3 of the games, and they never had all 4 in the lineup together. This will not be the case with the Patriots. They boast the league MVP in Blair Butchart and a cast of excellent two way hockey players that can either score, shut you down, or both. Wingham will need to remain just as stout as they were against the Hawks in order to once again pull off an upset.

The Patriots absolutely shredded teams with their offense this year, scoring a division high 199 goals, 26 better than Walkerton. They boast the best top line in Butchart, Klayton Hoelscher, and Michael Stefanelli. Those 3 had 79, 67, and 41 points respectively, with Hoelscher popping in 42 goals to lead the division. Butchart is the set up man, posting a whopping 56 assists, while Stefanelli is the two way wizard that is excellent at digging pucks out of corners, crashing the net, and playing great defensive hockey. He’s on every penalty kill, and can frustrate the top players on any team. The scoring depth is very impressive in Mount Forest, supplemented by Riley Cribbin (54 points), Luke Hoelscher (29 points), Ryan Maksymyk (29 points), Hayden Coulter (27 points) and Brendon Aitken (25 points). The Pats are extremely dangerous on power plays, and have the ability to jump on teams quickly and bury them early. Wingham will have a much harder test against a healthy, hungry, and well rested squad looking to defend their title.

On defense, the quality doesn’t drop off at all. The Patriots had the second best defensive record this season with just 104 goals allowed, second only to Kincardine’s 103. The blue line continues to be confidently led by captain Shawn Lantz, who had 32 points and is one of the best defenders in the entire league. He’s extremely athletic, quick, and has great vision, able to quarterback a power play just as well as he can lock down a penalty kill. Derick Acheson had a solid year on the back end, posting 18 points and playing a lot of steady minutes for Head Coach Trent McClement. Dylan Brown (16 points), Brock Philips (14 points) and Derek Williams (7 points) add plenty of stability and well rounded play to an experienced defending core. It helps knowing they have two of the best goalies behind them, but this unit is responsible for the excellent season the Pats had, allowing the forwards to pressure and run amok on opposing defenses with near impunity. It’s a big reason the Patriots went 16-3-0-1 at home and 15-4-0-1 on the road. They’ll play you anywhere, and likely beat you, too.

Goaltending for Mount Forest this year was excellent again, after concerns at the beginning of the year on what the crease might look like after MVP Matt Oullette aged out. David Lobsinger hadn’t played competitive hockey in 2 seasons, but walked into Mount Forest and posted sparkling numbers. in 27 appearances, Lobsinger went 19-7-0, with 3 shutouts, a 2.40 GAA and a .924 save percentage. You can’t ask for a better performance. Lobsinger was capably platooned with youngster Aiden Quish, the heir apparent for next year, who went 12-2-0 with 3 shutouts of his own, a 2.80 GAA and a .913 save percentage. The Patriots are wholly confident in either one of their talented crease masters, and they will make life difficult for the high end scorers on Wingham all series long.

The Ironmen couldn’t have been any more impressive in their first round upset of Mitchell. While it might be a tad unfair to label their 4-0 sweep an upset, Mitchell had capable scorers, great goalies, and a much better reputation in their own zone. However, Wingham played stout defense, the best they’ve played all season, and they out gunned a Mitchell team that was missing a lot of their firepower, particularly Derek Elliott. But you can only beat who’s in front of you, and the Ironmen did that by scoring timely goals and playing excellent team defense. Wingham scored 14 goals in the series, allowing only 7, and Jamie Huber led the way with 7 points. Logan Toltan and Scott Stovel each had 4, but the biggest thing the forwards did that made a difference was the way the helped out the defenders in their own zone. If they can play a similar way, it will go a long way toward what would be a massive upset of the defending Pollock champs.

Defensively, this was where the question marks were for the Ironmen entering the playoffs. They were excellent. They quelled any and all fears about their ability to lock it down and stuff opponents in their zone, playing confidently in coverage and rarely allowing odd man rushes. This will need to continue and likely become even sharper against Mount Forest, but in tersm of puck movement and creating offense, Wingham likely has the edge there. Carter Collinson showed exactly why he was named Defender of the Year. His puck skills and passing abilities are immaculate, and his 4 points, 2 on the power play, show why he’s maybe the key piece to Wingham making a long run. With more offense and a continuation in the stout defensive play shown by Jarod Logan, Carter Stewart, and the rest of this quick D core, the Ironmen could give the Patriots a much bigger problem than some may think.

In goal, Wyatt Nicholson was, to be blunt, utterly dominant. In the 4 games, Nicholson only allowed 7 goals, and put up a whopping 1.73 GAA and a .936 save percentage. Safe to say if he can even moderately replicate that performance, the Ironmen will be in every game.

This should be an exciting series with the potential for plenty of goals, or possibly a tight checking goalie dual. The series kicks off on February 17th. Here is a full breakdown of the schedule:

Game 1-Saturday, February 17th, 8 p.m. in Mount Forest

Game 2-Sunday, February 18th, 8 p.m. in Wingham

Game 3-Tuesday, February 20th, 8 p.m. in Mount Forest

Game 4-Friday, February 23rd, 7:30 p.m. in Wingham

If necessary:

Game 5- Saturday, February 24th, 8 p.m. in Mount Forest

Game 6-Sunday, February 25th, 8 p.m. in Wingham

Game 7-Wednesday, February 28th, 8:15 p.m. in Mount Forest

For more on the series, listen to these interviews with Patriots GM Rob Nixon and Ironmen GM Rob Harrison: