By Jeff Gard – Total Sports Media
An unusual season came to an end with an unusual game-winning goal for the Wellington Dukes in the final match-up of their development series against the Trenton Golden Hawks.
James White scored an empty-net goal with 1:08 left in the third period to secure the 1-0 win for the Dukes, which clinched the eight-game showdown victory with five wins and three losses, including one in double-overtime.
“Coming into the game you have a plan as a team to go out there and just execute everything you’ve been working on all season with your development, but it’s emotional,” said Dukes head coach Derek Smith.
“We have a lot of guys moving on, we had four great leaders that are leaving us,” he added, referring to overagers White, Ben Addison, Tyler Ignazzitto and Evan Miller. Brodie McDougall has committed to Bowling Green State University, but could still return to the Dukes with one season of junior hockey eligibility remaining. “It’s tough because to not have a typical end to a season where you’re competing for a title and you really can leave everything out there on the line, it’s tough knowing that no matter what it was going to be the last game for the guys. It was emotional you could tell before the game and it was definitely emotional after.”
Traditionally there wouldn’t be an empty net late in a scoreless game, but the Golden Hawks, trailing by two points in the series through seven games, pulled goaltender William Nguyen in favour of the extra attacker.
“We got off to a slow start, but once again our leaders, our overage guys led the way,” Smith said. “James White getting a goal late in the game to win it, assisted by Tyler Ignazzitto and Ben Addison – three of our overage players – is just a great way to end the season and to end their junior careers.”
Nguyen stopped all 31 shots he faced while giving Trenton a chance to win. The Golden Hawks won three straight games in the series, but dropped the first two as well as the final three.
Wellington and Trenton faced off 17 times in exhibition play, including another eight-game series that began in November. The Golden Hawks also played twice against the Lindsay Muskies.
“A lot of teams in Canada, a lot of players haven’t played any, so we’re very grateful,” said Golden Hawks head coach and general manager Peter Goulet. “Pride was a big word today and the boys came out and played unbelievable. As a coach and a staff, they gave us all they got for eight games and did a great job. That’s all we can ask.
“Both teams should be proud of the amount of games we played and the effort we gave. Now we move on and we start building for next season.”
While games in the development series were exhibition, there was still lots to play for. Coaches Smith and Goulet wanted their respective players to make an impression in their bid for roster spots next season.
Goulet also noted that scouts from higher levels of hockey were watching the games online.
“These guys are still playing for something,” he said, adding “I’m trying to watch for guys for next year. As a coach, your natural instinct kicks in, you want to win every game, you want to do your best. I’m not going out there to lose. There’s games we got to play all four lines and sometimes I had to cut it back just a little bit because a couple guys weren’t getting the job done. That’s sports, that’s hockey, that’s the way it goes.”
Smith was also looking for continued progression from the Dukes players from the time they arrived in Wellington until now.
“We were fortunate to be able to have our guys here for the whole season, except for the shutdown in January,” Smith said. “Coming into the series, as much as it’s labeled a development series and exhibition series, it’s all we have this year and we wanted to play to win. We had a plan in place to make sure everybody is getting a chance to compete and I think for the most part we came to play every night. Obviously there were ups and downs, but to be able to come out with a series win and more importantly some learning experience for our younger guys for next year and a good send-off and showcase for our older guys was probably the most important thing.”
Dukes goaltender Ethan Morrow, a 17-year-old Sudbury Wolves prospect, made 27 saves for the shutout Wednesday. Smith praised Morrow’s strong performance while also crediting his netminding teammates Daniel Botelho and Eli Shiller for their strong play during the series as well.
“They all played well, they all proved they can be good goaltenders at this level,” Smith said. “They gave us a chance to win every night and honestly that’s all you can really ask for from a goaltender is a chance to win.”
While the Dukes have essentially been preparing for the next Ontario Junior Hockey League season for awhile now, that will ramp up even more in the next few weeks.
“In junior hockey you can never stop because there’s so many good organizations and so many good teams out there that all want the same players,” Smith said. “It’s our job to find the right ones that can be Wellington Dukes and help us with our goals of developing players for the next level as best we can and to win a national title, so it just keeps on rolling.”