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Photo Credit: Nick Barden

Report from the Rock: Local talent powers Growlers through first playoff series

With all eyes on the NHL playoffs, another team in the Maple Leafs organization has just punched their ticket to the second round.

It was a hard-fought battle that took the full seven games, but the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers ultimately emerged victorious in the opening round of the playoffs against their Canadian rivals from Quebec, the Trois-Rivieres Lions.

“Relieved,” said head coach Eric Wellwood when asked how he was feeling after Game 7. “It was nice to have those nerves again. But yeah, it’s a nice relief. I think the boys deserved that win.”

Home cooking rewards early and often

The series began at home on Friday, April 22, and defenceman Matt Hellickson (who recently re-signed with the Marlies for next season,) got the Growlers’ first goal of the playoffs, assisted by defenceman-turned-forward Riley McCourt.

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Trois-Rivieres stormed back and took the lead with two quick goals before the first period ended, but an offensive outburst from the team’s top forward line, including a four-point night from alternate captain and team MVP Zach O’Brien, led the Growlers to a 7-4 victory.

“Every shift in every game means so much,” said O’Brien. “I always try and play well in the regular season as well. But when playoffs start, everyone just wants to elevate their game that much more. And this is why we play, this is the most fun part of the season.”

Wellwood had lots of praise for his team’s MVP after Game 1.

“He came to me, we were skating around in practice and he says, ‘you know I’ve got more’ and I knew (he had another gear),” Wellwood said. “He did a fantastic job tonight. In my mind, he’s the best player in this league.”

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Game 2 was as close to a rout as the series got. After conceding the opening goal, the Growlers put up five unanswered, including two goals in 40 seconds. Tyler Boland, another Newfoundland-born player who centres the top line, iced the final goal of the evening, (his second of the series,) in a 6-2 win. The game was played in front of the largest crowd the Mary Brown’s Centre had seen all season, just over 5500 spectators.

“It’s incredible,” Boland said of the support “It’s kinda weird though because there’s times when you see familiar faces in the stands, and you want to kind of say hi, but, you know, you got to focus on the game.”

Boland came to the team in March on loan from the Winnipeg Jets’ AHL affiliate. Several players from the Manitoba Moose have found their way onto the Growlers roster this season, but none have found more success than Boland, who thrives on those feelings of support from the local fans.

“Coming down the tunnel after a first period, and I got four of my uncles over the railing, almost yelling at me, knowing that they’re there and watching, it’s amazing,” he said “I have a lot of pride in being a Newfoundlander. And, you know, to play for my hometown team, obviously gives some extra motivation.”

One last time, into the Lion’s den

The next three games of the series took place in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. Both Boland and O’Brien scored again in Game 3, but ultimately that one went the way of the Lions, 3-2 was the final score. Momentum would shift back to the Growlers in Game 4, a 5-2 win that left a sour taste in the Lions fans, some of them even resorting to throwing garbage toward the Growlers as they exited the ice.

With their first chance to eliminate the Lions in Game 5, the Growlers had to deal with adversity, losing top-line winger Orrin Centazzo to an injury early in the game, and though Boland scored two more goals, it was not enough to tame a desperate Lions team, who clawed back into the series, winning that game 3-2.

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Game 6, back at home, was a disaster, early and often. A goal against in the first minute, two more mere seconds apart early in the second. It seemed impossible for the Growlers to get momentum in the game, and the player’s body language suggested that they felt like the odds were stacked against them. Whether by a quick penalty call moments after a goal or quick goals against at the start or end of a period, the Lions sucked all the energy from the crowd and the opposing players and took a 7-4 game, to tie the series at three wins apiece, bringing the Growlers to the brink of elimination for the first time in franchise history.

“I told the boys if there’s one group that I would take in this league, in a do-or-die game, it would be them,” said Wellwood after Game 6. “It’s just another game, it is what it is. We all know what’s at stake. But I know I’m gonna get our best effort tomorrow from the boys.”

Do or die

The series ended as it began: on home ice, in front of a raucous crowd, (surprising for a Tuesday evening in St. John’s,) with the local b’ys putting in the work. O’Brien put up three primary assists and Boland scored his seventh and eighth goals of the series to send the Lions to the golf course in a 5-2 win. Between the pipes, Keith Petruzzelli put on a masterclass performance, stopping the opposition dead in their tracks on the few occasions that they were able to slip past the defenders.

“He stepped up his game, and gave us a chance,” said Wellwood. “Made some big saves at the key moments where the game could have changed. And we might not be sitting here talking about how the series was won in our favour without him.”

“I don’t think he was too happy with himself last night,” added Boland on Petruzzelli “But you know, that shows character, I mean, to be able to bounce back like that. He has a lot of heart and cares a lot about this team.”

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Boland and O’Brien combined for 24 points between them across the seven games, and Wellwood expressed gratitude at having those players available to him, Boland in particular.

“When we got him and he had his first three games here, we’re like, ‘this guy’s pretty good, he can work pretty hard,'” the coach said. “And as the season went on, which wasn’t a lot of games left at that point, he’s really stepped it up. He’s from here, and he’s drinking the water here, (which might be the secret to his success) he’s been fantastic.”

Boland, meanwhile, heaped praise onto his fellow Newfoundlander.

“I mean, you just watch Zach play, and it seems like a silly answer, but he’s so talented,” Boland said “All these little plays he does. As I’ve gotten to play with him more, I’ve gotten used to being ready for those. I mean, that first, the first goal of the game where he hit me backdoor. I think everyone thought he was just going to shoot it and to be able to slide it over (with all eyes on him), he’s incredibly gifted.”

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The Growlers are back in action this weekend, beginning the second round on the road against the Reading Royals. The Royals were the regular season North Division champions and the only team the Growlers struggled with amongst their divisional rivals (the record against them was 4-4-1) though it should be taken into account that three of those losses occurred when more than 10 regulars in the Growlers lineup were unavailable due to injury or due to COVID-19.

Fans can listen to every game of the Growlers quest to reclaim the Kelly Cup at mixlr.com/nlgrowlers or subscribe to FloHockey to watch along.

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