Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
June 14, 2024
21° Partly Cloudy
March 18, 2024

Dreams dashed

Dukes upset in opening round at the hands of Toronto
<p>Wellington Dukes captain Dimitri-Alexander Tzaferis leads teammates Zander Latreille and Connor Loerzel to the handshake lineup following the team’s 2-1 overtime loss at Lehigh Arena Saturday. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)</p>
Wellington Dukes captain Dimitri-Alexander Tzaferis leads teammates Zander Latreille and Connor Loerzel to the handshake lineup following the team’s 2-1 overtime loss at Lehigh Arena Saturday. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

It was a bad draw from the start for the Wellington Dukes.

For a team that won 35 games in the regular season, the Toronto Junior Canadiens and goaltender Sergei Litvinov gave the locals fits in their four meetings in the 2023-24 Ontario Junior Hockey League season.

The Jr. Habs rolled to three wins in four meetings against Wellington dating back to the Dukes home opener Fri. Sept. 8, 2023 where the visitors bested the hosts in overtime.

Wellington did manage to get to Mr. Litvinov once, pumping five goals past him at the 2023 Governor’s Challenge in Buffalo during the first month of the regular season.

After that neutral site game, Wellington couldn’t solve the St. Petersburg, RU product or the club coached by David Demarinis.

And still can’t. The three seeded Dukes went out early from the 2024 Buckland Cup finals, bowing to sixth seeded Jr. Canadiens in five games.

After Wellington bopped backup netminder Josh Branton and Toronto on the nose 5-2 in Game 1, Mr. Litvinov came riding in and stymied the locals over the next four games as the Dukes quickly came uncoiled and went down in defeat.

Game 5

It was a good enough start for the Dukes in a must win situation as Ryan Schaap would fire a first period power play tally to give the 925 Wellington fans on hand something to cheer about.

Wellington bench boss Kent Lewis decided to go with Shane Shelest in the home side’s mesh manor and it was a good move. Mr. Shelest, who last saw action against Lindsay Feb. 25, was brilliant throughout and rewarded his coach with a 30 save performance.

Pana Efraimidis is thwarted by Toronto’s Sergei Litvinov. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Through regulation, the only goal to beat the Point Claire, QC native came midway through the third as the Dukes were trying to kill off a 5-on-3 disadvantage.

Luc Malkhassin got open in the high slot and one timed a Connor Van Weelie feed past the Wellington netminder at the 8:17 mark.

Up until that point, Wellington hadn’t given up much offensively and when they did, Mr. Shelest acted as the saving grace. But if the Dukes thought one goal was going to win the hockey game, they were running a fool’s errand.

Wellington would have about a handful of opportunities to pull back ahead over the final ten minutes of regulation but pucks skipped wide and just missed their mark by centimetres. More than once, a volley made it through a maze of legs and hit an unsuspecting Mr. Litvinov.

In overtime, the dagger came quickly.

Nicholas Athanasakos would gain half a step on a Dukes defender and get Mr. Shelest moving hard in his crease to the near post. Swooping behind the Wellington net in an attempt for a wrap around, the Dukes were able to foil the initial attempt. But no Dukes defender was able to sport Will Gourgouvelis who jammed home the series winner two feet from the goal line at 2:39 to dash the dream of a playoff run in celebration of Wellington’s 35th anniversary of Jr. A hockey in the village.

Game 4

Wellington’s loss on Saturday officially came in overtime. Their Game 4 loss was in regulation but for all intents and purposes, it might as well have been a soul-killing extra session setback.

After falling behind 2-0 to the hosts over the opening ten minutes, the Dukes battled back with a pair of of their own. Connor Hunt and Cory Jewitt found holes in Mr. Litvinov to make it 2-2 after 20 minutes.

After a scoreless second, Wellington got burned with just under five minutes left in the as Toronto captain Ethan Lindsay forced a turnover and sprang Mr. Athanasakos for a shorthanded goal.”

In an example of what was the series storyline, Toronto Jr. Canadiens netminder Sergei Litvinov thwarts Connor Hunt during the first period of Game 5. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Wellington did capitalize on the power play as Will Mitchell fired home his third of the postseason at 14:55.

The contest seemed destined for overtime if not for a last second foray by Toronto into the Wellington zone. Mr. Athanasakos would be forced to the corner and surrounded by Wellington skaters with just over a handful of seconds remaining. The threat seemed neutralized. Except Mr. Lindsay had been beaver tailing his stick into the Dukes zone, calling for the puck. He wasn’t giving up on the play. No Duke batted an eye, instead staying focused on the puck carrier. Mr. Athanasakos dangled the puck out of a phone booth, through a maze of Dukes defenders and slipped a slick backhand feed to the slot where Mr. Lindsay was awaiting to fire home a game winner. With three seconds left on the clock, the Jr. Canadiens had pushed the Dukes to the brink of elimination.

A Dukes fan on their social media page asked mournfully “HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN?”

The Dukes franchise will sit the rest of the 2024 post season on the side lines. Had they gotten through this round, a conference semifinals date with St. Mike’s awaited. A solid series for the Dukes box office for sure. And then a potential gate with Trenton if they managed to get to the conference finals.

For a cash-strapped junior hockey club, there was more playoff gate money to be made if Wellington had gotten past these pesky Jr. Canadiens. Alas, into the summer and fall, there will still be the wonder of what might have been in Wellington in 2024.

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