The culmination of the last seven months of Junior A hockey across the country is just two weeks away. The Centennial Cup will take over Portage from May 11-21, and a few teams have already solidified their spot in the colossal event.
The Yarmouth Mariners were the first team other than the host Portage Terriers to punch their ticket to the national tournament. Yarmouth went undefeated throughout the Maritime Hockey League (MHL) playoffs, getting rid of each of their opponents in a four-game sweep.
Head coach and general manager Laurie Barron talks about the league final.
"The finals were against the Edmundston Blizzard. We played in front of packed houses. Our rink holds 1500, and it was sold out. Their rink holds 2800 and, again, sold out," Barron explains. "We were lucky enough to win it in four but the first game was a 1-0 win. Second game, 7-5 (with an empty netter). Third game, we won in overtime, 3-2. We won the fourth game 5-1."
Lots of excitement @ the Mariners Centre on April 22 when the Yarmouth @MarinersHockey brought home the 2023 @THEMHL Metalfab Cup after winning the league championship in Edmundston. The team had a perfect 12-0 record in the playoffs. @HockeyNS @HockeyCanada @cjhlhockey pic.twitter.com/YSIsYgWSiP— Tina Comeau (@TinaComeaunews) April 23, 2023
Yarmouth is on a twelve-game playoff win streak but the uninterrupted victories actually extend beyond the postseason. The last time the Mariners lost a game was all the way back on February 27. Since then, Yarmouth has won 17 straight contests.
Barron believes their group is mature enough to know they can't get too cocky, even after two months without a loss.
"One of our strong points is our dressing room. We have great leadership, not only from our captains, but the 20-year-olds in general. I don't think anyone is taking anything for granted," Barron continues. "We went 12-0 in the playoffs but there were probably six or seven games in that playoff run that could've went either way, and we found ways to win. We know the mountain gets a little bit steeper out there but everyone is really looking forward to getting a chance to get our foot in the door there."
With their sights now set on Centennial Cup, Barron describes how they will be preparing before they head out to Manitoba.
"We gave the guys a couple of days off. It was a nine-and-a-half-hour bus ride home from Edmundston," says Barron. "We had our first practice back on Tuesday, and we're going to go hard for the rest of the week. We're trying to do some little things, a lot of small area games. Funny enough, there's a show going on at our main rink, so we have to move out of our regular ice surface and go to a smaller one. We're trying to use that as a positive, trying to take away a little bit of time and space."
While the Mariners dominated the MHL playoffs, their offence wasn't as high-powered as you may think. Nathan Kelly was the team's leading scorer and he finished 11th in points league-wide. Yarmouth only had one other player in the top 20 scorers, however, they hang their hat on the defensive end, according to Barron.
"We're built from the goaltending out. We have two younger goalies that have both played extremely well; Keegan Warren and Joey Lovullo. I think our strongest point is on the backend. Our D is very good," Barron explains. "We swarm in our own end, and we score by committee. We didn't have anybody lead the league in scoring by any means. We have good depth, and we work extremely hard."
Even though they're a defensive team, Yarmouth still had eight players finish the season with 40+ points. Only two other teams had six players hit that mark, and the rest of the league had five or fewer.
The Centennial Cup format has been altered in recent years, as the tournament now has ten teams involved instead of just five. Barron is very happy about the change.
"I'm super excited. I've been doing this for a lot of years, and in the old system, I was lucky enough to go to three Fred Page Cups (winners of MHL, CCHL, and LHJAAAQ would faceoff in a round-robin tournament) to try and get a chance to go to the nationals. I lost in the finals once, lost in the semis once, and lost in the quarters once," Barron continues. "At 56 years old, this is my first national championship at the Junior A level. I think I'm just as excited as a 17-year-old or 18-year-old sitting in the dressing room. Our whole town is super excited and super behind the team."
Yarmouth is a town in Nova Scotia that has a population of just over 7,000. The Mariners are proud of the support they received from their fans all season, and they hope to return to Yarmouth as the national champions.
Barron plans to make the most of his first trip to the Centennial Cup.
"We're going to try and take advantage of every day from now, until we leave. It's a trip of a lifetime for our guys. Our 20-year-olds are super excited to end off their junior career, and we have a bunch of younger guys, who are excited to showcase themselves at a national level," says Barron. "I've heard nothing but great things about Portage and the city. The funny thing is the only province I haven't been to is Manitoba. So, this is my first crack at going to Manitoba."
The Mariners will play their first game at the Centennial Cup on May 11 against the Alberta Junior Hockey League representative.