PJHL Pollock Division Semi-Final Preview: Mount Forest Patriots vs. Mitchell Hawks

With the first round by the wayside, the pressure ramps up in the PJHL’s Pollock Division, particularly for a Mitchell Hawks team who have to try and knock off a three-time defending champion in the mighty Mount Forest Patriots.

Mount Forest once again snagged first place, passing the Wingham Ironmen and never looking back as they finished tops in most categories, including points (68), goals for (214, the only team to score 200+) and the second fewest penalty minutes (562, with only Kincardine better at just 551). The Pats also had the second best goals against (just 109) behind only Wingham’s stout 107 mark. Mitchell finished 5th (49 points), tied with Hanover, but in the first round Mitchell turned the jets on and downed the Barons in a 4-0 sweep. The Hawks had the third best offense (165 goals for) behind just Wingham and the Pats, but they finished 5th in goals allowed (153 ahead of only Goderich and Walkerton. That will need to change if they want to make it past a very sound Patriots group, and considering the Hawks were well in first for penalty minutes (967, well beyond the 816 of Wingham in second), they may be in trouble on special teams here.

Offensively, the Patriots are unmatched. They’re also rested after taking the bye, and bring in PJHL league leading scorer Riley Cribbin (86 points) to the match-up. Cribbin is a puck wizard who can take over games by himself, and the Bulldogs must shut him down at least partially to stand a chance, and they must maintain their discipline and not give the Patriots too many power plays. Young star centre Jack Birkett (77 points) can also do tons of damage, and Hayden Coulter really took a step forward with a great season that featured 20 goals (and 53 points). However, the Patriots strength continues to be strong two-way play, and no one exemplifies that more than captain Mike Stefanelli (43 points). While his point totals are always welcome, it’s all the little things he does around the sheet that make him so good, as he’s equally capable of scoring on the power play, killing penalties and winning huge face offs. Plus, the Patriots welcomed back scoring star Blair Butchart from the Jr. B St. Marys Lincolns, and he promptly put up 40 points in just 23 games. No one is deeper offensively than this Mount Forest team.

For Mitchell, they have a well rounded lineup with plenty of dangerous scorers. Jake Finlayson (40 points, 2 in the first round) finished tied with Tanner Hertel (4o points, 6 in the first round) for the team scoring lead. They are supplemented by talented sniper Jarrett Bogdon (34 points, 6 in the first round), who led the team with 21 snipes. That group can score consistently and really overrun young defenders with a sweeping fore check. Tyson Hall (31 points, 1 in the first round) and Carter Lewis (28 points, 2 in the first round) both had solid seasons and offer good second line scoring, with Ethan Hill and Ryan Murray both cracking the 20 point plateau. But, can this team outscore Mount Forest, and maybe bigger than that, can they stay out of the box? No one parades their way to the sin bin like this Hawks team, and that is a recipe for a swift exit with the Patriots on the other side of the ice. If this team can’t reign in some of their stars players and keep them on the ice, Mitchell might be done as swiftly as their first round opponents.

On the back end, The Patriots aren’t flashy, but they’re better than the sum of their parts. They’ve plugged different guys in and out of this core for all three championship years and won still by just being meat-and-potatoes simple getting the puck out quickly to their dazzling forward core. Chet Phillips has developed into a rock solid defender who has developed an offensive upside the last couple seasons, finishing with 33 points from the blue line. He’s supported by Nathan Bolger (15 points) who only played 19 games and can bring the heat with rockets from the point. Riley Torrie had a solid year and is a fixture on the penalty kill, and Colton Culbert is as rough and tumble as they come. The Patriots don’t generate much offense from the blue line, but they simply don’t have to. This D-core is required to shut opponents down quickly, strip the puck and launch it up ice. In those parameters, they’re one of the best at that.

For Mitchell, they need to find a way to contain the Patriots and at least limit high danger chances without taking penalties. The D-core is led by the ever reliable Spencer Dowd (27 points, 2 in the first round), who is physical and nasty but has blossomed into a very reliable source of offense. Luken Van Pelt (26 points) is always willing to put his body on the line with big hits and blocked shots, but he missed all of the first series with Hanover, so hopefully he is ready to go because the Hawks will need him. Brett Denny had another solid season, improving offensively (18 points, 3 in the first round) and providing solid stick work and a calm demeanour in his own zone. Depth guys like Riley Keupfer and Callum McMann will be put to the test against the depth scoring that Mount Forest has, and the series may hinge on how well this defensive group can stem the tide on a nightly basis.

In goal, for Mount Forest, number one Aidan Quish had a solid year but was pulled away for stretches due to school commitments. But he’s as reliable as any starter out there, and went 14-3-1 in 21 appearances with a 3.09 GAA and .910 save percentage. When he gets dialed in, he’s hard to beat, with superb rebound control and the ability to make jaw dropping desperation saves. He appears made of rubber at times. Mason Kameka was excellent in the blue paint as well, going 17-2 in 21 appearances with 3 shutouts, a sparkling 1.76 GAA and incredible .940 save percentage. He rarely makes mistakes and his save recovery for the second shot is spot on. Mount Forest have two great goalies, and what a problem to have. Youngster Gleb Poliakov featured in some games down the stretch as well, and could be called upon if need be. He went 2-3 with a 2.99 GAA and excellent .919 save percentage in his 5 appearances.

Mitchell rode the steady play of Seth Monkhouse all year, and they won’t stop now. Monkhouse was so good, that Ryan Govier became expendable, as he was dealt to Hanover to be their presumptive starter next year. Monkhouse was excellent in 23 appearances, going 8-14-1 with a shutout, a 3.28 GAA and .911 save percentage. He held Mitchell in games at times when the offense dried up, and has great flexibility and a very calm way about him. He never lets bad goals, which are rare, rattle him. With Govier departing, young Lucas Bain made 4 appearances, going 2-0-1 with a 2.77 GAA and .907 save percentage. Bain even played a game in the sweep of Hanover, an OT contest that saw him come out the winner, while Monkhouse got the other 3 wins needed for the victory and was rock solid, posting a shutout with a sparkling .52 GAA and sublime .981 save percentage. Hanover just could not solve him. He’s a major X-factor for the hopes of the Hawks winning this series.

Special teams are a mixed bag between the two teams. The Patriots clicked along at 24.5 percent this year, second only to Wingham’s 26.8. On the penalty kill, Mount Forest were excellent at 88.7 percent, the best in the division. This special teams battle comes down to whether or not Mitchell’s power play can go blow for blow with Mount Forest’s. The Hawks were only 5th best on the power play at 16.7 percent, which will not be good enough in this series. Their often used penalty kill was also only 5th best at just over 80 percent, and if that continues, this series will end quickly. This whole thing comes down to Mitchell fixing their discipline issues and keeping themselves involved at 5-on-5.

This will be an excellent series between two teams who have solid offensive options. Mount Forest’s high flying offense versus a well rounded young team with scoring punch of their own. It’s hard to be against the three-time defending champs here, and I won’t, but the Hawks certainly have the makings of a team that could get hot and score enough to cause trouble. I’ll go Patriots in 5. Let it be known that yours truly said Hanover would beat Mitchell in round one in 6, and that came back to really bite me. Let’s see if they can play giant killer. Enjoy the action!

For more on the series, listen to Patriots GM Rob Nixon below: