For the first time in five seasons, the Port Perry MoJacks will be competing for the Cougar Cup COJHL championship following a four-game sweep of the rival Uxbridge Bruins in a 'Battle of North Durham' semifinal series.
Although short-lived, the series lived up to its advance hype, with local fans treated to four thrilling contests over the past week, with two games, including the clincher on Sunday afternoon in Port Perry, decided in overtime.
Graham Lamers ended the affair when he slammed in a rebound just over seven minutes into the extra frame in Game 4 on Sunday, Feb. 21 in Port Perry before a raucous crowd of nearly 500 fans to give the MoJacks a 3-2 victory.
Port Perry will now face off against the winner of the series between the Clarington Eagles and Lakefield Chiefs to determine the 2016 COJHL champion, and the representative of the league in the Clarence Schmalz Cup provincial playoffs.
"We had a goal as a club to get to the championship, and we've met that first goal," jubilant MoJacks head coach Clair Cornish told The Standard following Game 4. "Now, I think that we really believe in the talented hockey club that we are, and hopefully we can continue on this course. I'm glad that all our hard work in our practices is paying off. They deserve to be here, they've worked hard all year. This is their reward, and when we come back to the rink we'll regroup and prepare to go after Clarington or Lakefield."
The series started with a bang on Tuesday, Feb. 16 at the Bear Den, with the MoJacks coming back from a two-goal deficit late in the third period to score a 3-2 overtime win.
A pair of goals from 2016 COJHL MVP Marco Mastrangelo pushed the Bruins to a 2-0 lead with just under five minutes to play in regulation. But, with the MoJacks pressing for a powerplay goal, Kyle Schweda found Jeff St. Pierre charging to the net to bring the visitors within a goal. Then, with just 16 seconds remaining, and a pair of Bruins in the penalty box and MoJacks netminder Brett Chandler summoned to the bench in favour of an extra attacker, Lucas Berkers fired a shot from the point that weaved between the tangle of limbs and sticks in front of the net to tie the game.
Just over three minutes into overtime, Kyle Schweda broke in on goal, and bounced a shot off Uxbridge goalie Branden Francey's facemask onto the stick of a stampeding Jordan 'Bubba' McCullough, and he buried the rebound to score a Game 1 victory for Port Perry.
Both sides would have little time to recover from the physicality of the opener, as they renewed hostilities the following evening at Scugog Arena for Game 2.
There was great energy from both sides through a scoreless opening period, with Chandler and Francey at the top of their games.
With Port Perry on the powerplay, Mitch Gustavsen slammed in a rebound near the midpoint of the second period to open the scoring.
The Bruins would continue to battle throughout the remainder of the game, but could not solve Chandler, with Kyle Schweda providing an insurance goal into an empty net as the MoJacks prevailed by a score of 2-0.
With their backs against the wall, the Bruins returned home to the Bear Den on Friday, Feb. 19 looking to claw their way back into the series.
Boosting Uxbridge's hopes was the return of Daryl Thomson. Although, the team was dealt a blow to its depth chart when dynamic rookie Coby Gardner suffered a concussion in Game 2 that would ultimately sideline him for the remainder of the series.
The MoJacks were able to shake off the slow starts that had dragged them down when visiting Uxbridge for much of the season in the first period, as they took a 3-0 lead into the opening intermission behind two goals from Kyle Schweda and a single from Graham Lamers.
The Bruins would roar back in the second period. But, they could not solve Chandler until just over six minutes were left in the game when Patrick Bolahood jammed in a loose puck on the powerplay to draw Uxbridge to within two goals.
However, that would be as close as the black and gold would get, as Kyle Schweda again provided the insurance, slipping his hat trick goal into an empty net, giving Port Perry a 4-1 win and a stranglehold on the series as it shifted back to Scugog Arena on Sunday afternoon.
There was a buzz in the air, as the MoJacks' largest crowd of the year to date was on hand for Game 4.
The Bruins wasted little time opening the scoring, as Aiden Reilly tipped in a shot from Mastrangelo just 40 seconds into the action.
However, the MoJacks would strike back just over four minutes later when Ethan Ramsden tucked in a loose puck, assisted by Kyle and Liam Schweda.
The score would remain deadlocked in the second period as the pace quickened, with the North Durham rivals trading sensational scoring chances.
Just before the midpoint of the second period, Mastrangelo fought through traffic in front of the net to jam in a loose puck, and his shorthanded goal put the Bruins back in front.
As they had done throughout the season, the MoJacks upped the ante late with additional pressure, and with just under four minutes to play, a bouncing point shot from Liam Schweda found the back of the net to knot the game at 2-2.
Despite a flurry of opportunities late, neither side would add another goal in regulation, and the game eventually headed to overtime.
Then, with just under seven minutes to play, the MoJacks headed to the powerplay, with a face-off to the right of the Bruins' goal. On the play, Lucas Clark won the face-off back to the blue line back to Berkers, and his shot couldn't find its way through the crowd in front. However, Lamers was there to scoop up the puck and fire it through traffic into the back of the net.
Following the game, Cornish noted how closely matched the two sides were throughout the series.
"When we got swept by Uxbridge a few years ago, we had our chances to win in each of the three games, they could've gone either way. It was the same thing here, and we came from behind twice. These were evenly matched teams and that showed over the four games."
Meanwhile, Bruins head coach Geoff Hodgkinson praised the effort put forth by his team, in particular, the team's trio of graduating players: Mastrangelo, Thomson and Francey.
“It's a tough loss to take, because of how tight the games were and how they all came right down to the wire," Hodgkinson told The Standard. "We did everything we could to find a way to win except score goals. It's disappointing for it to end the way it did, especially for our overage players, they gave everything they could for this team."