Winners of five straight, the Elmira Sugar Kings spent the holiday break with a five-point cushion atop the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Midwestern Conference standings.
But with 18 games remaining before the playoffs, head coach Jeff Flanagan says the most competitive hockey is still to come.
“We did an assessment just before the break and we felt that we have been playing fairly well,” Flanagan said. “Overall, we thought that we started out (the season) not quite as well as we would have liked even though we won some games. Then, we went on a 12-game winning streak where we were playing quite well, and as we headed towards Christmas we had lots of guys writing university and college exams along with some illness, injuries and suspensions that provided some adversity for us to deal with. However, I thought we came through it fairly well and then the break came at a time that was certainly opportune for us in that it has allowed some of the guys to get healthy.”
He continued, “Overall, we feel like we have put together a solid first two-thirds of the season and we are certainly looking forward to getting back at it. … We’re going to take it one game at a time the rest of the way through and work really hard to maintain the top spot in the standings. It’s not going to be easy, as teams really start to find their stride in the new year; we also have a tough schedule coming up.”
A first-place finish would give the Kings the highly coveted home-ice advantage through the playoffs, Flanagan added.
In their last action before Christmas the Kings were red hot, earning three victories in four nights.
On December 18, Elmira doubled up on Brantford 6-3 on the road.
The next night, they topped the Hurricanes 4-3 in Guelph.
And on December 21, the Kings bettered Brantford 6-3 once again, this time on home ice.
While the club took some much needed R&R for the holidays, seven standout Kings took part in the GOJHL all-star and prospect games on December 27 at the Waterloo Memorial Recreation Complex.
Defencemen Adam Brubacher and Mac Clutsam along with forwards Mitch Klie and Mitch Wright led the Midwestern Conference to a 10-7 victory over the Western Conference, under an all-Kings coaching staff of Flanagan and assistants Jeff Snyder and Trent Brown.
Goalie Jonathan Reinhardt, defencemen Connor Hall and forward Ethan Skinner skated for the Midwestern young guns in a 9-6 loss to the Western prospects.
“The all-star and prospect games are big feathers in the cap for our players,” Flanagan said before pointing out that there were many other worthy players who didn’t quite make the squads this year. “There was a good turnout of NCAA and CIS scouts there to have a look at the players, so that is a real positive.”
Among the Kings taking part, Skinner shone in the prospect game, notching two goals.
“(Skinner) has really come along this year,” Flanagan said. “His output is 100 per cent all the time and if he makes a mistake he’s able to correct it right away; that leads to him getting better and that in turn generates the interest of other teams who recognize that he’s a dangerous player.”
As the Kings rested up for the homestretch, management acquired defenceman Marselis Subban (cousin of P.K.) for cash from the Cambridge Winter Hawks.
Kings director of hockey operations Keith Stewart commented on the move.
“He’s an offensive defenceman,” he said. “It’s going to take some time for him to get up to speed because he has been out about a month with an injury, but we expect big things from him once he’s able to step into the lineup.”
Subban spent parts of the last two seasons with the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League.
The Kings will need all the help they can get in what promises to be an exciting playoff run, Flanagan said.
“There are a number of areas that we are going to be working on as we head down the stretch. One is that we feel like we’ve been giving up too many shots. We’re also going to be working towards finding better consistency within games. There have been too many games where we are great one period and not as good the next. We’ve got to find a way to stay on an even keel and limit the ups and downs.”
The boys get back at it Saturday in Brantford and will host Guelph tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the WMC.