Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
The Stratford Cullitons finished the regular season with a four-point weekend to secure the fifth seed and set up a first round playoff series with the evenly matched Waterloo Siskins.
The series – a rematch of last year’s opening round playoff tilt – is expected to begin Friday in Waterloo, with Game 2 at the Allman Arena Saturday; however, as of Wednesday morning the two teams had yet to work out a full schedule for the series.
As far as motivation goes, the Cullitons won’t have to look back any further than Sunday, when a loss to the Siskins kept them from rising to the third overall seed in the Midwestern Conference.
Sunday’s 8-3 drubbing at the hand of Waterloo meant Stratford finished the regular season with 60 points, tied with both Waterloo and Kitchener. But the Dutchmen took the third seed based on overall wins while the Siskins edged out the Cullitons in the standings based on goals for and against.
The Cullitons hosted the Brampton Bombers Friday night and travelled to Waterloo for both games against the Siskins, ending their 51-game schedule with a record of 27-18-16. Fifteen of those wins came after the Christmas break.
Despite missing out on home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, Cullitons coach Phil Westman said he was more than happy with his team’s effort down the stretch, including its three games on the weekend.
“We ran out of legs on Sunday, not to make any excuses,” said Westman. “But that’s tough to win three in three, especially two in a row in somebody’s else’s rink.”
The Cullitons and Siskins split their season series three games apiece, setting the stage for what Westman expects will be a similarly tight playoff series.
“It’s going to come down to goaltending and special teams,” he added. “And your discipline. We don’t want to be in the penalty box because it’s going to be a powerplay or penalty kill that’s going to be the difference.”
Westman noted the only Cullitons who will not dress for Game 1 will be centre Trevor Sauder, who injured his shoulder in a game against Elmira Feb. 15 and is expected to miss another two weeks.
Waterloo 8 – Stratford 3
The Cullitons couldn’t overcome the Siskins’ powerplay Sunday afternoon in Waterloo and complete the three-game sweep needed to leapfrog their competitors in the standings.
Jacob Bonin had two goals to lead the way for Waterloo, finding the back of the net twice early in the second to take a commanding 4-1 lead.
The Siskins were handed eight powerplays throughout the game and didn’t miss often with the man advantage, capitalizing four times. Stratford totalled 32 minutes in penalties including a 10 minute misconduct for abuse of an official to Shane O’Brien.
Stratford was helped by captain Andrew Barton, who tallied a goal and an assist, scoring 45 seconds into the second. Jake Ryan scored two for the Cullitons in the losing effort.
The Siskins’ Darren Huck stopped 22 shots in the win.
Stratford 5 – Waterloo 4 (Overtime)
The Cullitons saved some of their best heroics of the season for their second last game, scoring with the extra attacker and under a minute remaining to send the game to overtime.
In the extra frame, Ryker Killins, the team’s leading point getter among defencemen, scored just 27 seconds in to set up the all-important rematch the next day.
Stratford was looking at a three-goal deficit with about six minutes left in the third when Ryan Watson found the back of the net for the Cullitons.
Forward Jonathan Langford completed the quick comeback scoring just 14 seconds later and again with 52 seconds left on the clock.
Cullitons goalie Nick Caldwell had his work cut out for him, making 27 saves on 31 shots.
Stratford 4 - Brampton 3
The Cullitons held on the for the win on home ice Friday despite a late push from the Bombers.
Brampton’s Reid Jackman scored in the final minute to get his team within one, but that was a close as the Bombers would get.
Stratford blueliners Mike Pleon and Liam Maaskant each scored goals along with forwards Watson and Mitch Brooks.
The final regular season game at the Allman drew an attendance of 1,402.