Article By Sam Laskaris/Photos by Chris Archer & N. Schoonderbeek
The Eagles advanced to the Provincial Junior Hockey League’s Final Four championship on Thursday thanks to a 4-1 victory over the visiting Napanee Raiders on Thursday at the Garnet B. Rickard Recreation Complex.
With that win Clarington was able to finish off the Raiders and capture its best-of-seven PJHL East Conference series 4-1.
The Eagles are the first squad to advance to Ontario’s Final Four tourney, which will be staged May 7-15.
Also taking part will be the PJHL’s West, South and North champs. Clubs will play each other once in round-robin action.
The Eagles will host a round-robin match on May 8 versus a yet-to-be-determined opponent. The tournament’s final round-robin contests as well as the semi-finals and championship final will be held in Guelph.
“We’re looking to win the whole thing,” said Eagles’ head coach Dean Baumhauer. “It’s going to be tougher in a one-gamer. It’s tournament format, a little different than a series. I think in a series I’d like to be able to think I can make adjustments that can help us win any series but in a one-gamer we’ve got to be ready to play every night. It will be interesting to see. We’re going to the Final Four, we must as well win it.”
Clarington captain Mitch Doyle also believes his squad is capable of winning the provincial title.
“I think we have a special group here, when we play our game,” he said. “I think we’ve showed the past two games, when we play our game, there’s not too many teams that can come close to us. There’s not really anyone that can play with us or hang with us. If we keep that going, there’s nothing stopping us from winning it all.”
Eagles’ star goaltender Alex Lepizzera is also confident his club can enjoy some more success in the coming weeks.
“It’s probably the second best feeling in the world right now,” he said after the Clarington side had captured its East Conference title. “I think we all know what number one is. But we’re not there yet. It’s an amazing feeling though. We’ve worked so hard in the last 7-8 months to get into this position. I expect nothing less than raising another trophy by the end of the year.”
The Eagles got off to a quick start in Thursday’s outing. Napanee was assessed a bench minor at the start of the match since its players were not off the ice during the warmup in a timely fashion.
Eagles’ forward Dawson Manning scored on that initial powerplay, just 24 seconds into the game.
“I don’t like that call either but I like the fact that we scored early,” Baumhauer said.
Owen Manarin gave the Eagles a 2-0 lead when he scored his fourth of the post-season just past the midway mark of the opening period.
The Raiders were clearly the better squad on the ice in the first half of the second period and managed to cut the deficit to 2-1.
“But our guys just stepped up,” Baumhauer said. “They started playing hockey the right way – pucks behind the D, cycling the puck, limiting the odd-man rushes.”
The Eagles were rewarded when Doyle scored a powerplay goal to give his team a 3-1 lead with under five minutes to play in the second period.
Clarington then took command of the game when rookie forward Leyton Aitken scored on a penalty shot, just 24 seconds in the third period, while the Eagles’ were killing off a four-minute penalty.
— Clarington Eagles (@EaglesPJHL) April 29, 2022
Prior to taking his shot Aitken ventured back to his end of the ice to get some advice from Lepizzera.
“I wanted to get an opinion, just to refresh my mind of what I wanted to do,” Aitken said. “And (Lepizzera) said to go low blocker. I didn’t mind that idea but I knew (Napanee’s Bailey Maracle) is an upright goalie standing up a lot so if I could make him move side to side I could put it between his legs. I did exactly that and it worked out perfectly.”
Just like the Eagles’ season and playoff run has been thus far.
Aitken said he wasn’t sure exactly what to think the team’s fortunes would be early on, especially after a few practices.
“As soon as we started to bond, that clicked,” he said. “And then we started rolling. And as soon as we got to the midway point of the season we all realized we had a special group here and that we could go all the way if we put our minds to it.”