Eagles Sweep Panthers, Win Back-to-Back Eastern Conference Championships

Article by I. Schoonderbeek/Media by C. Archer & N. Schoonderbeek

Schmalz Cup or bust!

The Clarington Eagles punched their ticket to the 2023 Schmalz Cup final Wednesday evening with a dominant 5-1 road win over the Port Hope Panthers at Jack Burger Sports Complex. The Eagles have compiled a perfect 16-0 record in their impressive post-season run so far to capture their second consecutive Eastern Conference Championship. The team now gets another shot at claiming the top prize in Junior C hockey in Ontario after a heartbreaking overtime loss in last year’s Schmalz Cup final.

The outcome in game four of the Eastern Conference final series never seemed in doubt from the opening puck drop. The Eagles controlled the play for much of the contest.

Defenseman Jake Dupuis got Clarington rolling two minutes into the first period when he snapped a rocket under the crossbar through a screen from the point.

The one-goal lead stood until the midway point of the second period when Eagles captain Dawson Manning fed a perfect pass from the corner and found defenseman Nolan Matheson on the back door for a tap-in.

Matheson’s second period goal in front of an excited Eagles audience:

“It was a great play by Matheson to bear down on that pass and get ahold of it,” said Manning. “It was in the air and pretty hard, so good on him to get a hold of that. It ended up being the game-winner!”

Clarington carried the 2-0 lead into the second intermission. The Eagles were expecting a big pushback from the Panthers in the third period, but it simply never came.

Cole Williamson put the game out of reach two minutes into the third when he deposited a drop pass from Brady Darrach in the back of the Port Hope goal.

Hayes Bell and Mitch Davies would also add goals for the Eagles in the third.

Goaltender Marc-Olivier Robert, who put in a solid performance in the Eagles game two victory four days earlier, looked comfortable in the Clarington net from the outset. He calmly turned away 24 of 25 shots for his seventh win of the playoffs. The only puck to get by him Wednesday night came on a prime opportunity from the slot resulting from an Eagles missed defensive zone assignment.

“Our goalies have both been impressive throughout the playoff run,” said head coach Dean Baumhauer. “Both these kids could start on any team in the league. Having that internal competition in net is huge for us.”

For defenseman Bryson Kelloway the series had special significance, having spent the first three years of his junior career in Port Hope prior to being traded to Clarington this year. The towering blueliner played his most physical series of the playoff run against his former team.

“I loved my years playing here in Port Hope,” said Kelloway. “A lot of things changed over the summer, and I got moved when I really didn’t want to get moved. But it ended up being the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It feels sweet to take them out on their own ice. I feel for the guys I played with all those years here. That was the final game for some of them. I’m just excited our group gets to keep going!”

Baumhauer was very pleased with his group’s game four performance. “We played a full 60 minutes tonight,” said Dean. We didn’t like our last game where we were flat and maybe a little overconfident. They were down a couple of key guys to injury and suspension today and were already running a short bench. Our depth and our cycle game was difficult on them and we had balanced scoring through the lineup.”

Baumhauer had plenty of praise to spread around as his team celebrated in the background. “Our captain was really good tonight,” said Dean. “He does so many things for us…he’s killing penalties, winning faceoffs, anchoring the powerplay, taking the wing on defensive zone faceoffs in case our center gets thrown out. I can’t say enough about how valuable and versatile he is.”

“I don’t want to take anything away from our other defensemen, because they all played great,” Dean continued. “But we brought Willy and Hallzy in from Junior A for a reason. They came here to have fun, and to win. They both played over 30 minutes tonight and were key contributors for us in this series.”

The Eagles now shift their attention to the big prize. The Schmalz Cup final will take place from May 12-14 in Woodstock. Last year’s champs, the Lakeshore Canadiens, have already qualified as have the Wellesley Applejacks. They await the winner of the North Conference final between the Stayner Siskins and the Mount Forest Patriots. Stayner currently leads that series 2-1.

Prior to championship weekend, Clarington will play one home and one road game as part of a round-robin format to determine semi-final seeding. So, fans will have one last chance to come out and support their team at Rickard Arena this season. Once available, details will be made available through the Eagles’ website and social media outlets.

“The final four is kind of a toss-up,” said Baumhauer. “You’ve got four good teams in a one-game format, so anything can happen. I wish it were a series, but it is what it is. These guys are really looking to finish the business we just barely lost out on last year. We’re going in with a team that’s just as good as the one that took us there last year, so I like our chances.”

When asked about his club’s mindset heading into the final four, Manning answered without hesitation. “I think we’re ready. After last year, all the boys know it’s a business trip. We’re not going down there to (expletive deleted) around. We’re looking to go undefeated all the way.”

Based on the determined look on the captain’s face as he spoke, I wouldn’t bet against them.