BAIE VERTE, NL — On paper, a two-time defending champion and regular season leader in a first-round playoff series against a league expansion team may seem like a mismatch.
That’s the scenario as the Northeast Sabres begin their quest for a Central Newfoundland Senior Intermediate Hockey League three-peat on home ice against the Springdale Braves Saturday night.
Not so fast.
Firstly, in their inaugural year, the Braves were in the hunt for the regular season title that went to the Sabres up to the final weekend. Secondly, Springdale owned the defending champions this year with a 4-0 record against them.
The Braves won 7-6 in overtime in Springdale in Game 1 of their first weekend set in December. They followed that up with a 7-5 victory the following day to take a lead atop the league standings at the time.
A late January matchup in Baie Verte was a similar result for the Braves. 7-4 and 4-2 victories would propel Springdale to the top of the standings again. However, the Braves would lose its final two games of the season to the Exploits Blades last weekend to slip to fourth place in the close regular season race, setting up the first-round match against the Sabres.
A fun fact pertaining to the series is some of the players involved in this series were teammates on the Baie Verte team in previous seasons. Guys like Trenton Johanson, Jordan Snow and Sherman McKay played for the Sabres before the Braves entered the league as a fifth team this year.
Stephen Boone of the Sabres said his team was pleased with the way the regular season unfolded. A strong start and finish to the season propelled the Baie Verte squad to home ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
He said the Sabres are aware of their struggles against the Braves this year, but believes it will motivate them in the series rather than question their ability to prevail.
Boone says consistency from the defending champions will be key in the matchup.
“We know what we have, and we are going to put our best lineup forward going into this series,” he said. “If we play the way we are capable of … we have been playing pretty good as of late, after a bit of a downturn we have been stronger again the last couple of weekends.”
Boone believes the Sabres must play against the speed of the Braves, and counter that with its own speed to be successful.
“They come out you fast with a lot of speed up front,” he said. “We have to make sure we are playing to that, adjusting on the defensive side of the puck maybe a little differently than we approached it in the regular season to make sure we are in position to handle that speed coming at us a little more.”
Trenton Johanson of the Braves said dropping to fourth when they had a shot at first place up to the final regular season games was a little disappointing. However, the goal in its first year was to make the playoffs, he said.
The high-scoring forward says the Braves are confident heading into the playoffs and the first-round matchup. He says hard work will be key for his squad.
“If we don’t go out and work hard every shift, we won’t be successful,” he said. “That’s just our game.”
A constant forecheck will be vital for the Braves as a counter to the speed of the Sabres forwards, according to Johanson.
“We have to limit their chances,” he said. “They have some really talented young forwards, like Jasper Dicks, and we have to limit him to as few chances as we possibly can and try to keep him to the outside. Other than that, it is just play solid defence, all five guys.”
Game 1 of the series will be Saturday night in Baie Verte, with Game 2 Sunday afternoon.
The other first-round playoff series is between the Triton Combines and the Exploits Blades. It also begins this weekend. The first round is best three-out-of-five. The Lewisporte Seahawks fell just shy of making the playoffs.