Article By Sam Laskaris/Photos by Chris Archer & N. Schoonderbeek
Go ahead and call them the Championship Eagles.
While the Clarington squad won’t officially be changing their name, the Eagles now have bragging rights as champs as they defeated the visiting Little Britain Merchants 4-3 on Tuesday.
With that Provincial Junior Hockey League victory at the Garnet B. Rickard Recreation Complex, the Eagles swept the Merchants 4-0 in their best-of-seven Orr Division final series.
Don’t pinch yourself, but yes it was members of the Eagles hoisting a championship trophy. Yes, those same players who didn’t even know late last summer whether the organization would even be icing a squad during the 2021-22 campaign.
Thanks to new ownership, a knowledgeable coaching staff which stressed improvement throughout the season and a group of close-knit and talented players, the Eagles are indeed now champs.
Despite sweeping the Merchants, the series was by no means one-sided. In fact, all four games against Little Britain were decided by one goal.
“I think the biggest difference was our depth,” said Eagles’ captain Mitch Doyle. “We were able to roll four lines and six D. They had one line or maybe a line and a half. If you have to rely on that, it’s hard to produce every night.”
Doyle, who is in his final season of junior eligibility, had last won a championship during his minor hockey career.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he said of the Eagles’ title. “It’s a surreal feeling right now. I’ve been chasing this for a long time. To be finally on top again is a sweet feeling.”
Dean Baumhauer, who doubles as the Clarington head coach and general manager, was obviously also thrilled with the accomplishments of his charges.
“We just swept a very good hockey team,” he said.
Like players who had an uncertain future last summer, Baumhauer didn’t know what would be in store for the Eagles this season.
“It was August after it was confirmed,” he said of the franchise’s new ownership. “We didn’t even have a roster then.”
As it turned out, the Clarington squad ended up having one of its previous players, goaltender Alex Lepizerra, return to the fold.
Leppy, as he is affectionately known, had an outstanding campaign allowing the Eagles an opportunity to win every single time he went between the pipes.
Lepizzera registered seven shutouts, had a dazzling 1.41 goals-against average and a 18-3-1 record during the regular season.
And in the post-season thus far, he’s sporting a 12-1 mark, a 1.77 GAA and has two shutouts.
“I’ve been on some really good teams and this team is a very special one as well,” Lepizerra said.
The Eagles also have their share of offensive weapons. For example, veteran forward Dawson Manning scored the first two goals of Tuesday’s contest, his 12th and 13th of the playoffs.
And reliable rookie forward Leyton Aitken scored his sixth post-season goal midway through the second period to give the Eagles a 3-1 lead.
Clarington’s depth was displayed in the final period as it was rookie forward Jake Lemere who netted what proved to be the game-winning and series-clinching goal.
Lemere’s goal, which came in the ninth minute of the final period, was his second of the playoffs.
Lemere found himself in an opportune spot, unattended beside the Little Britain net as he picked up a rebound off a point shot from Eagles’ blueliner Nate Baumhauer (Dean’s son and future defensive partner in a men’s beer league).
Lemere deposited the rebound into an empty net.
“I’ve scored game-winning goals before,” Lemere said. “But that was one of the biggest goals of my career.”
The Merchants entered the series as perhaps slight favourites as they had finished three points ahead of the second-place Eagles in the regular season divisional standings.
“We knew it was going to be a really hard series,” Lemere said. “They were all close games. But we knew we could win.”
The Eagles now move on to face either the Napanee Raiders or Amherstview Jets in the PJHL’s Eastern Conference best-of-seven series.
The Raiders and Jets are currently deadlocked 2-2 in their best-of-seven divisional final. Game 5 is Wednesday in Amherstview.
The eventual Eastern Conference champions will advance to the four-team provincial Schmalz Cup tournament.