Story by Brock Ormond
Photo: Amy Deroche/OJHL Images
It’s a postseason series that has been seven years in the making.
The ‘Battle of Quinte’ Southeast Conference Final is set to get underway on Wednesday night between the Wellington Dukes and Trenton Golden Hawks.
It’s the first time the two local rivals have met in the playoffs since 2016, when the G-Hawks downed the Dukes in five games on the road to an eventual Buckland Cup OJHL championship and a national championship appearance
The two teams were set to face each other in Round 2 of the 2020 playoffs before they were cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
The Dukes finished four points ahead of the G-Hawks in the regular season standings and took three of the five head-to-head matchups during the year.
Wellington head coach and GM Derek Smith noted the group battled some injuries down the stretch that they’re still affected by, but the fact that they all banded as one to defeat a hard-nosed opponent bodes well for the next series.
“They’re thankful for the opportunity to get to stay together and to keep playing hockey together,” he said in an interview before Monday’s practice.
Smith touched on how well coached the Golden Hawks are, with Jerome Dupont already the owner of several division titles and championships at the junior level.
“His team plays hard. They’re very well structured, they play hard, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Smith observed.
He added they will need to have all guys connecting, play with pace and physicality and get great goaltending for success.
That great goaltending has come in spades from Jacob Osborne, who has yielded only seven goals in four games in Round 2, including a shutout.
He said he feels confident to lead the team over the hump.
“I just need to go out there, stop the pucks that I can stop, control my rebounds, and make good plays with the puck behind the net,” he said
“If I can do my part and be consistent and strong every game, I think we’ll have a really good chance of coming out on top.”
JH Lages, the lone American on the Dukes, is playing in his first postseason in Canada and said he is elated to face the arch-rival G-Hawks.
“You always look forward to games like that, they’re definitely marked on your calendar,” he commented “Going into a playoff series against them, you almost couldn’t ask for a better storyline.”
On the other side, G-Hawks assistant captain Matt Cato said they are excited and ready to slay another dragon in Round 3.
He said the team is planning to use the same game plan they used to beat the Toronto Jr. Canadiens last round; throwing big hits, working together as a unit and getting under the skin of the Dukes high-end talented players and their goaltenders.
“If their bodies are more tired than ours, then we’re doing something right,” he said.
“Everybody’s got to be dialed in and sticking to the what the team needs, whether that’s a skilled guy making a hit or one of our tougher guys, I guess you’d say, scoring big goals.”
Head coach and GM Jerome Dupont added it is imperative to match the depth of the Dukes with secondary scoring from players lower in the lineup.
“If we don’t other players scoring (besides the top six), then we’ll be in trouble,” he said.
“We’re going need all hands on board and everybody’s going have to make a contribution.”
Another crucial piece to the series for his team, Dupont said, is playing disciplined hockey, with the Dukes being one of the lowest penalized teams in the league.
“They have four lines that can outright play. I think they’ve got more depth actually than the Junior Canadians, so there’s lots of positives on their side.”
With the two local rivals coming together again, the series is sure to have full rinks and electric atmospheres in every game.
“We’re excited. I know the area’s excited,” Smith said.
“My phone’s been blown up from former players and bunch of people in the community. It’s going to be really cool for the local area.”
“I love the energy. It just makes it that much more fun,” Osborne expressed. “It makes you want to go that much harder every shift. I love the impact it has.”
“You see people like walking around Belleville wearing a Dukes hat or wearing a Trenton Golden Hawks shirt. You’ll never see that where I’m from,” Lages said.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this without (our fans),” Cato said. “They give us a little extra life.”
“They deserve to have this series that I guess you could say is a long time in the making,” quipped Dupont, “The rivalry is incredible but it’s also healthy and the fans are amazing on both sides.”
The G-Hawks will be hoping to get a reinforcement on the back end, having missed top-scoring defenceman Austin D’Orazio for the last eight games due to an injury.
Meanwhile, the Dukes will have a disadvantage off the top, with coach Smith and high-scoring blueliner Julien Jacob both set to miss the first two games of the series due to suspensions carried over from the previous series.
The full schedule can be seen below, with all games beginning at 7:30 p.m.