This time last year, Emmett Serensits and his teammates were already turning their minds to the 2018-19 season, simply looking for a respectable finish to what had been an injury-riddled and disappointing campaign for the Sudbury Wolves.
This week, however, the 19-year-old rearguard will enter the final three OHL regular-season games with bleach-blond hair and a determined set to his jaw, knowing the Wolves’ post-season position is firmly in their own hands.
“It’s honestly an honour,” Serensits said. “It’s really nice to be able to play in a first playoff season here. Even though we weren’t very successful last year, we have been able to come out this year and give the fans a playoff run, so hopefully, we can turn that into a lot of success here.”
Still in the hunt for a Central Division title, the Wolves host the Hamilton Bulldogs on Friday at 7:05 p.m., before travelling to face the Peterborough Petes on Saturday and the Oshawa Generals on Sunday.
“It’s a really big weekend for us,” Serensits said. “We have those three games coming up and all six of those points matter to have a good seed in the playoffs.”
Sudbury, with a record of 41-19-3-2, could still finish anywhere from second in the Eastern Conference, awarded automatically if the Wolves overtake the Niagara IceDogs to win the Central, to fourth. But while they’d like the higher seed and, potentially, home-ice advantage through the first two rounds, Serensits said it doesn’t matter who their opponents are.
“We’re going to go in with the same mentality,” he said. “We’ll play these three games like they’re playoff games. It’s going to be the exact same game you guys have been seeing all season. It’s going to be hard-nosed hockey, like we love to play, and it will be amped up, like the playoffs, so hopefully, we can come out and put up 100 per cent effort and it will be a good game.”
While Sudbury head coach Cory Stillman, associate Darryl Moxam and assistant Bud Stefanski would certainly love to win out, even more important will be developing the right habits for post-season success.
“You talk to the guys in that room right now and they don’t really care who they play,” Moxam said. “They feel that what they have to worry about, like we’ve said all year, is how they play day in and day out. It’s not going to really change based on who we play in the first round, the second round or the third round, if we’re fortunate enough to go that far. Our guys are focused on themselves right now and if you tie that into how important the weekend is, well, every weekend is important. Our guys want six points going into every one and this one is no different.”
That the Wolves have been so dominant on home ice – their home-ice win percentage of .803 is third in the OHL, behind conference leaders Ottawa and London – is, in Moxam’s opinion, a testament to his players’ worth ethic. He expects nothing less this weekend.
“You talk to guys around the league and some teams, they don’t like coming in here,” Moxam said. “Do we want home ice? Yes, there’s no question about it. Are we putting any pressure on the guys this weekend in order to achieve it? No, as we’ve said, the focus is on what we do, but do our guys want it? Do they know what’s at stake? There’s no question about it. Hopefully, things turn out the right way come Sunday night.”
Practically speaking, Moxam said, the team entered playoff mode two weeks ago.
“You can’t just flip a switch come the first game of the playoffs,” Moxam said. “So our guys have been focusing on the little things, tightening up in our own end of the ice. I think we have to do a better job generating some offence at even strength right now. They understand those little things are key, being disciplined, because you don’t want one penalty to cost you your season and be the difference of moving on to the second round or third round or not. That’s also going to be one of the key things we focus on this weekend.”
Winger Nolan Hutcheson also stressed the importance of preparation, both this week and next.
“We want to work out all the kinks in our systems,” he said. “Power play’s a big thing right now and we may not be producing a lot, but when you get into the playoffs, it’s different. It’s a whole new season, and if we can get our power play clicking then, it will be huge for us.”
Hutcheson, whose own breakout 24-goal season has coincided with the Wolves’ return to relevance, would be thrilled to bring a division banner to the Nickel City for just the third time in team history.
“It would be important for us, obviously, for higher seeding, but also for the city,” Hutcheson said. “This city deserves a division title and I think with the team we have, anything can happen right now.”
Levin on ice
Out since late January with a lower-body injury, Wolves forward David Levin has returned to skating, with an eye toward returning in the playoffs. Wearing an orange non-contact jersey, the 19-year-old was put through his paces by Moxam on Thursday morning.
“David’s working hard,” Moxam said. “He’s going through all the hurdles and it’s a frustrating for him as it is for us, but he’s putting his head down, working hard and doing everything the doctor asks him to do, so once he’s cleared, hopefully cardiovascular-wise, he’s ready to go.
“Obviously, he’s a big part of our hockey club, like anyone else in that dressing room, and we want him to be back and we want him to be at full strength, that’s for sure.”
Defenceman Anthony DeMeo remains day to day with an upper-body injury, but Moxam said he has shown good improvement since a late-game hit against the Soo Greyhounds last week.