The port the Picton Pirates found themselves sailing into the end of Game 5 of the 2023 Tod Division finals wasn’t the final destination the team had prescribed themselves to when the regular season commenced seven months ago.
But there can be no question the plucky Pirates had plenty to be proud about once the final accounting of the current hockey season was completed. Particularly over the final three months where the squad came together as a band of brothers and stared down adversity. The Pirates wound falling to the visiting Port Hope Panthers on Thursday and the Tod Division title will reside in the Jack Burger Sport Complex for the next 365 days or so after the Cats doubled up on the hosts 4-2.
The Pirates had a pair of glorious opportunities to tie the contest only to see Sam Dingle make a couple of super human saves to keep his team up a pair over the final 20 minutes. The Brighton native attributed himself nicely in Games four and five after surrendering half a dozen goals to Picton through 40 minutes of work in Game 3.
Dingle blanked Picton in Port Hope on Wednesday night in a 3-0 result and then was solid the rest of the way in Game 5 after giving up a pair of goals in the first period.
While a Tod Division finals appearance wasn’t a great silver lining after besting the second seeded Amherstview Jets in the second round, there appears to be some great grass roots development and momentum growing at Huff Estates Arena.
“It’s tough because the team wanted to win so bad and move on to the PJHL Elite Eight but on the bright side, we battled so hard and you could see the way the team came together to play for one another and Coach Kyle Hawkins Schulz and assistants Rick Van Vlack and Mitch Burke ,” Outgoing Pirates General Manager Jason Parks said after the series. “I felt a lot of similar feelings and saw some of the same things I witnessed back in 2011 when the club took significant steps to build what would culminate in a Schmalz Cup championship in 2013. I believe with some luck, good recruiting and sticking with a plan, a return to the top of the division and deep playoff runs are firmly on the horizon for the organization. And I told the players and the staff as much after the game.”
Picton got incredible milage from Brady Spry who Parks estimated was “one of if not the best goalies in the PJHL’s Eastern Conference.” Spry went 8-5 with an overtime loss in 14 playoff games with a pair of shutouts, a 2.09 goals against average and a .933 save percentage.
“As a rookie,” Parks noted. “You will never be able to say enough about the job he did leading us out each night. My only wish was that Ethan Beattie could have been healthy enough to give Brady a break here and there in the second and third rounds.”
Spry’s creasemate dinged up his ankle in the opening round when he shutout the Cambpellford Rebels in his only post season appearance. On the blue line, Picton got exceptional work from veterans Cole Lavender and Trot Davis while Rheydan McCoy led all defenders in points with a goal and six helpers through a dozen playoff games.
“All of them battled hard and battled injuries. I know Rheydan was able to recover quickly to come back late in the Amherstview and make an impact in Games 5 and 6. I was impressed with how our defence was able to button a lot of things down throughout the playoffs. That can be attributed to a combination of desire to play for one another and coaching, ” Parks added. “Even our rookies in Jakob DaCosta and Caleb Martin showed a ton of poise for the stakes they were playing in.”
Martin, a 2006-birth year callup from Belleville Minor Hockey, was tremendous in playing his position, often giving up as many as five years and size and strength to some of the Tod Division’s elite veterans in the corners at the most important time of the season.
“Caleb learned and showed so much in such a short time,” the GM noted. “You have to think there’s a bright future ahead for that kid.”
Up front, the club was led this spring by a good mix of veterans and rookies who came through time and again in clutch moments. Despite playing with a partially separated shoulder, Captain Landon McLellan had seven goals and eight helpers to lead the Picton scoring attack with 15 points. Consecon native and returning veteran Nick Kirby had a dozen points while 17-year-rookie Gerrit Kempers and Cole Stevenson each had nine points through 15 games.
“I’ve watched Landon since he was a rookie and he’s never failed to deliver. He did it again this post season. Most players in our league wouldn’t have dressed with that injury and there he was every night, carrying the puck up ice and leading the charge,” the GM said. “A captain’s captain.”
In the forward ranks, Picton made great use of AAA call ups Carter McKee and Geoff Boates. Or perhaps it was the other way around? “Both those guys came in for the second round and showed immediately they were ready to go and perform at this level,” Parks said. “If they are skating at Jr. A camps later this spring or in the fall, this experience playing against men in the 2023 PJHL playoffs is going to help so much.”
McKee showed a nice finish around the net and scored three times including a dramatic Game 5 over time winner in Amherstview. In total, the Napanee-by-birth, County-native-through-and-through-by-genealogy, had eight points through 11 post season games and etched his name into the pages of the Pirates record books with a unique entry. McKee is almost certainly the first Picton skater to play his first Pirates game in the playoffs and score an overtime winner in the same post season.
“We loved having him skate for us this post season and I know a whole lot of County folks came out for our playoff run to see Carter play as a Pirate. That support was incredible and very much appreciated.” said Parks. “Boatesy, Caleb, Carter, Owen Bird and Trey Cocek were important parts for us this spring and whether they had AP beside their names on the score sheet or not, they were full value Picton Pirates-no question about it.”
Finally, the club got clutch scoring and just about everything else from veterans Zack Brooks, Jack Dow and county native Ian Harrison.
“Those three all factored in at key moments. Ian would throw a big hit or fight someone to change the momentum of a game, Zack was playing the best hockey of his life in the second and third rounds and Jack was able to chip in with timely scoring and keep the mood light when things got tough,” Parks added.
The club will look to gather once more this season for year end photos and then a banquet later in the summer. A Pirates spring camp is in the planning stages.
“That’s the trouble with playing into mid-April, you lose some time to prepare for the upcoming season but I’m positive the staff will have a camp at some point in May or June,” Parks said.