It’s OHL playoff time. And for Sarnia Sting fans that means … well, who knows?
Based on a stellar regular season, this year’s team appears to be a contender. But it would be hard to blame long-suffering Sarnia fans if they exercised some cautious optimism heading into the 2016 OHL postseason.
Round 1 began on the weekend, with the 2nd-seeded Sting hosting the seven-seed Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for the first two games of the Western Conference opening round, before the series shifted to the Soo for Games 3 and 4.
Large crowds were expected at the SSEC, as they were for much of the second half of the regular season. The year began with the Sting playing well but fans took a wait-and-see approach to the squad and team’s new owners.
“Crowds weren’t great last year but we had a couple of sellouts in the playoffs against Erie,” said Sting general manager Nick Sinclair.
“I think, going into the summer, we were hoping we could build off that and things would snowball once the season got started.
“It didn’t work out that way, but as the year kept going and we kept putting wins on the board, things changed.”
Co-owner and coach Derian Hatcher agreed.
“The fans really came around. I don’t know why it took so long, but it’s been great the past couple of months.
“It’s good for the owners; it’s good for the players to play in that environment; and it’s good for the fans. It’s fun for everyone when there is a large, vocal crowd in the arena.”
Thanks to a series of remarkably successful trade deadline moves by Sinclair, Sarnia surged past Windsor and finished first in the division.
The roster reshaping was risky but paid off.
“We had to make some adjustments after the moves but everything came together. We got over the hump and everyone in the dressing room now believes we can win,” said Hatcher, who knows about team chemistry, having captained the 1999 Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup title.
“There’s always a concern when you make more than one or two changes at the deadline,” acknowledged Sinclair. “But the guys we brought in are all ‘character guys’. “(Sam) Studnicka is everything you want in a captain. Everything is team-first with him. (Overage goalie Charlie) Graham is the same way.
“Obviously, Travis (Konecny) is a very exciting player,” continued Sinclair. “He deserves a lot of credit. He’s been everything we could have hoped for.
“(Devon) Paliani works hard and leads by example … and Matt Mistele (who was acquired in December) is a veteran and a leader on this team,” said Sinclair.
The Sting’s second-year GM said credit also goes to the players on the roster prior to the deadline moves.
“Nobody looked at it as a negative, that their roles might be changing or playing time reduced with new players coming in,” said Sinclair. “All the guys here want to do is win.”
With a team record 42 wins and 91 points – and the organization’s first division title since 2004 – Sarnia has proven it can win in the regular season. But can it continue in the playoffs. Does the franchise’s playoff futility of just three first-round series wins in 22 years matter to the team?
“I’d be lying if I said we’re not aware of it,” admitted Hatcher, who noted that the Greyhounds are no pushovers.
“They play a fast game … and they can be dangerous on the rush,” said Hatcher. “But we’re confident. We think we match up well against them and we’ll be ready.”
“This is the real test. The real measurement of how good this team is,” said Sinclair.
“We know everything we’ve accomplished this year will be forgotten if we don’t have a good playoff run.
“There are no gimmes, no easy match-ups in the playoffs, but we really believe we have a team that can go far,” added Sinclair.
“We have a group of guys who want to win, who are committed to winning. At the end of the day, it’ll be up to them.”