As fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Bills well know, the playoffs are make or break time, no matter what you do during the regular season.
On Sunday morning, when it counted, the Niagara-on-the-Lake Wolves U11 rep team showed what they were made of.
They knocked off the previously undefeated Thorold Blackhawks – and qualified for the Ontario Minor Hockey League championship tournament in April in Barrie.
The second-place Wolves (19-5) had been neck and neck with Thorold (23-0-1) most of the season. The Blackhawks ended the regular season with 15 wins in a row.
NOTL coach Joe Pagnotta is justifiably proud of his team, who scored a huge 2-0 win on the road in Thorold in their final OMHA round-robin playoff game and punched their ticket to Barrie.
“I told the kids going into the game nothing before today matters. So, all you have to do is win this game” to qualify for the OMHA final.
“They went out there and kept the game super simple and came up with a W,” he said in an interview.
“That was fun.”
But he credited the players for all their hard work to get over the top.
“These kids are amazing,” he said. They’re all good friends and on the ice worked together to achieve success as a team.
They bought in to what their coaches preached and peaked at exactly the right moment.
The final game was a tight one, though.
Scoreless Sunday heading into the final period, it was the kind of game that could go either way.
But NOTL’s James Froese found the back of the net early in the third and Tennyson Powell secured the win by beating the Thorold goaltender in the last minute, Pagnotta said.
Mason Nichols stopped all the shots he faced and recorded the shutout.
Now, NOTL has to get ready for the prestigious OMHA tournament in Barrie, April 7 to 9 – which means they have almost a month to prepare, but not a lot of games to stay sharp.
The Niagara District playdowns will begin after the March Break and NOTL will be seeded #1, which means if they win a one-game playoff against the #4 seed, they could meet Thorold again in the league finale.
Meantime, Pagnotta said he will try to set up some exhibition matches and keep his 9- and 10-year-olds focused and game-ready with some practices.
Because, once they get to the championship tourney, as they already proved on the road in Thorold, anything can happen.