Stratford Cullitons can hold their heads high!
And the organization, the Stratford Hockey Club, can be proud of its 2013-14 team.
Cullitons went an impressive 15-3 down the stretch, and then posted a 10-5 record in a strong playoff run. Combining the two, that’s a record of 25-8 over their final 33 games.
Cullitons’ dreams of a Midwest title came to an end Saturday night at the Allman Arena when they dropped a hard-fought 5-4 decision to Waterloo Siskins in front of a season-high crowd of over 1,900 spectators.
The win—the second in a row for Waterloo on Stratford ice—gave Siskins the best-of-seven Cherrey Cup final four games to two.
“You always want to win the last game that you play,” Cullitons’ coach Phil Westman said. “But when I reflect back over our entire season and what we got from these kids, it was nothing but a great effort.
“It’s always tough to win games after Christmas, and we won 10 in a row at one point. Then we swept Cambridge and beat Kitchener, one of the top-ranked teams in the GOJHL. And we competed very well in the final against Waterloo.
“You’re not happy that you didn’t win (the league), but there was a lot of good hockey and excitement along the way. The kids developed and we became a better team and organization because of it,” he added.
For the Siskins, it’s their first Cherrey Cup championship in 20 years—dating back to 1994 when they were involved in a six-team round-robin and then defeated St. Catharines Falcons in the Sutherland Cup final.
For the Cullitons, it was their fourth appearance in the Midwest final in the last five years. Prior to this season, they lost twice to the now-defunct Brantford Golden Eagles and to Cambridge Winter Hawks last spring.
“I’d like to get to that next level,” Westman acknowledged, “but at least we keep showing up (in the final) every year.”
Waterloo 5 – Stratford 4
In Game 6 at the Allman Saturday, Cullitons held leads of 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3, but Siskins’ captain Christian Mroczkowski fired the tying goal at 7:21 of the third period and then the winner, unassisted, with just under seven minutes to play.
Goals by Jake Pleon, Tyson Baker and Deven Kropf staked Cullitons to a 3-2 lead at the end of 20 minutes. Baker and Kropf connected on powerplays. Troy Lajeunesse and Matt Martin replied for Waterloo.
Siskins’ Danny Hanlon scored the only goal of the middle frame, tying the contest 3-3.
Drew Gross, on another powerplay, gave Stratford its last lead at 1:24 of the third. Waterloo’s tying goal came with the teams playing four aside.
“We had a real good game,” coach Westman said. “It was one of those games where we’d miss at their end, and they’d come back and score on us. In the series, it seemed that Waterloo’s goals were well-timed.”
Cullitons out-shot the Siskins in every period and 38-25 overall.
“As the series went along, we definitely got stronger as a team and played better,” Westman continued. “But we didn’t get it going in the first couple of games; we didn’t play with enough desperation. By then, we had dug ourselves a bit of a hole.
“Going into the series, we needed a break, but we ended up being off for over a week. And Waterloo probably carried the momentum over from their seven-game series with Elmira. It took us a little longer to get hyped up and going again.
“Waterloo played real good disciplined hockey in this series, and we took too many penalties to be effective at this time of year.
“It seemed to be an issue we had the entire season. Penalties can wear you down both mentally and physically.”
Stratford 3 – Waterloo 2
At the Waterloo Rec. Complex Friday night, Cullitons spoiled the party Siskins were hoping to have following Game 5.
With their backs to the wall and facing elimination, Cullitons responded with a gritty effort and a nail-biting 3-2 victory in front of over 2,750 spectators.
“We were a desperate hockey team tonight,” coach Westman said. “We were backed in a corner and fighting for our lives. It was like a Game 7.
“We needed good focus and we needed to manage the puck better all over the ice. I thought we did a much better job of that tonight.”
What won the game for Cullitons was a huge second-period effort, which included three powerplay goals. After killing off four minors in the first period, it was the Stratford powerplay which shone in the middle 20 minutes.
Centre Trevor Sauder opened the scoring at 3:21, with his team-leading seventh of the playoffs.
After Christian Mroczkowski tied it at 9:52, man-advantage goals by Deven Kropf and Drew Gross gave the visitors a 3-1 lead. Gross’s goal, set up neatly by Sauder, came with 44 seconds left in the period.
“That’s what it comes down to, winning those puck battles,” Westman noted. “There’s only one team going to win, and that’s the team with the puck.”
For the majority of the third, Cullitons did a nice job of protecting their two-goal lead. However, with 3:27 remaining, forward Tyson Baker took a cross-checking penalty and Danny Hanlon scored just 14 seconds later to pull Siskins to within a goal.
Waterloo applied big pressure after that, looking for the equalizer. Siskins also pulled Lazarev for an extra attacker with 1:42 remaining.
With the net empty, Cullitons hit the post with 49 seconds left. On the return rush, Siskins forced Caldwell to make a big stop.
Overall, Waterloo out-shot Stratford 32-29, including 13-5 in the third.
“Stratford got the bounces tonight, period,” Siskins’ coach Chris Lazary said. “But I don’t think we were ready to go out of the gate.
“Now, it’s back to the jungle in Stratford (Saturday) night. We just have to be ready to go from the drop of the puck.”
Waterloo 4 – Stratford 2
At the Allman last Tuesday night, it was a game of momentum swings as Siskins defeated Cullitons 4-2 in front of about 1,700 spectators to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
It was Waterloo’s first victory in Stratford since Sept. 13, Cullitons’ third game of the season.
Siskins grabbed a 2-0 lead on a first-period goal by Matt Schieck and another by defenceman Matt Martin early in the second.
It was then Cullitons’ turn to control the game’s tempo.
Just 59 seconds after a point shot by Martin beat a screened Nick Caldwell, Cullitons’ Trevor Sauder closed the gap to 2-1. After good hustle by defenceman Jordan Currie and Mitch Brooks, the puck squirted to Sauder in front and he neatly deked goalie Leo Lazarev.
Less than four minutes later, captain Currie ignited the big crowd with the tying goal on a powerplay. Assists went to Shane O’Brien and Ryker Killins.
Waterloo’s Christian Mroczkowski then let the air out of the Cullitons’ tires. With just 1:15 left in the middle frame, Mroczkowski’s sharp-angled shot appeared to fool Caldwell and the unassisted goal would stand up as the winner.
“The kid made a nice play,” coach Westman said. “He’s a left shot and he cut across to the right, and shot against the grain.
“You never like to get a goal scored on you in the last two minutes of a period because it gave them the momentum.”
The desperate Cullitons carried the play in the third, and came close several times, but Siskins would get the only goal.
After O’Brien nearly tied it midway through the period, Siskins’ 15-year-old call-up Logan Stanley scored on the return rush at 11:02.
“I thought we had a tremendous chance to make it 3-3, but their kid (Lazarev) made a nice leg save on O’Brien,” Westman said. “How many times in hockey have you seen where one team misses and the other team comes right down and scores?”
Cullitons fought hard with everything they had in the final 20 minutes, but couldn’t get another puck past Lazarev, who’s probably headed for a pro career.
Overall, Stratford out-shot Waterloo 47-31, including 15-7 in the third. The 16-year-old Lazarev may have been the difference in this game. The diminutive, cat-like netminder finished his night with 45 saves.
“We’ve dug ourselves a bit of a hole, but it’s not something new that our team hasn’t faced before,” Westman pointed out. “We’ve been down before.
“We’ve certainly won on Olympic-size ice before, and we need to do it again. This loss is behind us, and we have to get re-focused and get ready Friday’s game in Waterloo.”
Even one win from the championship, coach Lazary said the series was still far from being over.
“We were down 3-1 (to Elmira) and we know first hand that the other team can come back,” Lazary said. “Your preparation is everything now; it’s still about the process.
“It’s exciting, but there’s still a lot of work left to be done. I know that other team over there won’t quit.”