During all of the uncertainty that came with trying to run a junior hockey league during a raging pandemic, there was one thing for sure that emerged from the 2021-22 Provincial Junior Hockey League campaign — the Amherstview Jets had a very good team.
Jets win first junior C pennant since 2007-08
The Jets, after losing two of their first five games in a start that didn’t exactly trigger pennant fever, finished the pandemic-stunted season with just two additional regulation losses over the final 25 games and a No. 1 placing in the Tod Division.
Amherstview (24-4-1-1 for 50 points) finished a mere two points ahead of the Napanee Raiders (22-4-0-4), who had won the pennant from 2017-18 through 2019-20 before the 2020-21 season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic first hit the Tod Division in the 2019-20 playoffs when play was cancelled after one game of the division final between Napanee and the Picton Pirates had been completed, on March 12, 2020.
It was the Jets organization’s first pennant since 2007-08 and just its third since joining the upstart Eastern Ontario Junior C Hockey League in 1989-90 as the Ernestown Jets. The league would go on to become the Empire B Junior C Hockey League and then became the Tod Division of the PJHL in 2016-17. The Jets had earlier won a pennant in the old Quinte-St. Lawrence Junior C Hockey League in 1981-82.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the 2021-22 season began about three weeks later than usual and then endured a nearly two-month shutdown that began around mid-December and precipitated shortening the regular season to 30 games from the usual 40-game or more neighbourhood.
Amherstview Jets general manager-coach Denis Duchesne. PHOTO BY TIM GORDANIER /The Whig-Standard
“It’s been quite the season so far, with starting up late and the restrictions and the shutdowns, but like every other team, we’ve had to battle through,” Jets general manager-coach Denis Duchesne said.
“I found the worst part of this year has been playing through with a short bench on so many night with injuries and COVID, as I’m sure other teams have also. But that nasty COVID has hit our team many times, and we have to credit the depth of our team and our four lines and how hard they work. (Assistant coach Evan Robinson) and I don’t say we have a third and fourth line — we basically have two first lines and two second lines because any line can score on any given night.”
The Jets completed the season with a busy three-game week in which they collected two wins and a tie for five points. They opened on Thursday night with a 3-3 tie against Picton, before downing the Frankford Huskies 4-1 on Saturday night (to ultimately clinch the pennant) and topping the Campbellford Rebels on Sunday afternoon, 10-0, to close out the season.
Napanee, meanwhile, which had entered the week leading Amherstview in points, 46-45, would gain just two points — from a 2-2 tie with Campbellford on Friday night and a 1-1 draw against the Port Hope Panthers on Saturday night.
The Jets and Raiders, by virtue of finishing 1-2 in the division, gained first-round playoff byes, leaving No. 3 Picton (16-12-0-2) to take on No. 6 Frankford (1-27-2-0), and No. 4 Port Hope (14-11-3-2) to meet No. 5 Campbellford (8-21-0-1) in best-of-seven first-round series.
Individually, Jets forward Mathieu Halle captured the scoring race for the entire PJHL, picking up six points (four goals, two assists) in the final three games to give him 76 points (31 goals, 45 assists) on the season. He finished two points ahead of Kyle Baker of the Woodstock Navy Vets. By also winning the Tod scoring title, Halle became the first Jets player to do so since 2009-10 when James Cameron chalked up 80 points (39 goals, 41 assists) in 38 games.
Dawson Frost was second on the team in points with 58 (27 goals, 31 assists).
“Halle has been a beast this season,” Duchesne said. “He comes to play every game. He is early to practice and is ready.
“(For example), it’s like the other night. We had clinched first, he had won the scoring title, it’s late in third and we are up by lots and he blocks a shot in the defensive zone. He is a true captain and the players are following suit.
“Other key additions that have got us to where we are this season, other than the returning players who have been great, we acquired Matt Donovan from Brockville (Braves) at the trade deadline, and you can’t get a better player. (He’s) a two-way player who picks up his man defensively and can score and punishes you with his hits.
“Also, Jack Kauffeldt from Renfrew has hit his peak at the perfect time — we will need his scoring abilities to keep going. With COVID restrictions in schools, we gained the services of hard-hitting Gananoque native Jake Leonard as he studies from home. Caden Kekewich and Owen Bauder, both from the Trenton Golden Hawks, have been welcome additions and have rounded out our roster quite well.
“All around, it hasn’t been one or two players. It has been a team effort and players have bought in to the systems implemented.”
Having a power play chugging along at a phenomenal success rate of 36.5 per cent — by far the best in the Tod Division and seventh best in the entire league — was also an asset, Duchesne said.
“Our power play has been key to our success,” he said. “(Defencemen Zack) McMahon and fan favourite (Elliott) Belzile off the ice are best buddies and that seems to translate well onto the ice. As defence partners, they seem to know where each other is on the ice and they make that first unit click.“
McMahon was one of the top offensive defencemen in the league, with 41 points (14 goals, 27 assists) in 28 games while Belzile chipped in with 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 24 games.
Amherstview’s goaltending tandem of Jeremy Piazzi and Carter Page also had banner seasons as both finished with goals-against averages lower than any recorded by a Jets goaltender (with a minimum 600 minutes played) since statistics became available electronically starting with the 2007-08 EBJCHL season. Piazzi was the lowest, at 2.22 over 20 appearances, while Page checked in at 2.60 (2.596) in 11 appearances. The previous low since 2007-08 was Andrew Lumb’s 2.60 (2.603).
“Every season you build to be competitive, and we knew we had a good team, especially with the addition of Jeremy Piazzi, last season’s goaltender of the year in Gan,” Duchesne said. “He was amazing playing against us the last few years, and with Carter Page we figured they would give us two great goalies. Their goals against has really proved that, and each and every night they have given us their best and a chance to win. …
“We sure welcome the two-week bye to practise and rest up nagging injuries and get ready for Round 2. We know it will be a grind and a tough go. Winning our division is in the past now. The teams in the playoffs get a fresh start and you need four wins to knock them out.”