Cape Breton’s highly competitive junior hockey landscape is getting a bit crowded.
But that’s good news for fans of the Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League, especially in the rivalry-laden Sid Rowe Division that now includes the up and coming Eskasoni Eagles.
The Eagles (12-19-1-0, 25 points) finished fourth in the division in just their second season in the league and will take on the heavily favoured Antigonish Bulldogs (25-6-1-0, 51 points) in the opening round of the playoffs.
The other divisional matchup pits the Membertou-based Kameron Miners (24-6-1-1, 50 points) against traditional rival Strait Pirates (19-9-2-2, 42 points).
To make the playoffs for the first time, the Eagles finished ahead of the more established Pictou County Scotians and Cumberland County Blues.
The upstart squad, featuring players from both the First Nation and the surrounding areas, has been a big hit according to Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny, who is hoping for a capacity crowd for the second game of the series that will be played Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Dan K. Stevens Memorial Arena.
“It’s an historic first playoff game for the Eagles and it’s been just amazing to see Eskasoni being represented on the ice,” said Denny, himself a longtime player and supporter of the game.
“It’s also an honour for us to be part of the junior hockey community — we get to express ourselves, our language, our songs and we’re grateful that the league and its players have been so inclusive because we get to share our culture with everybody.”
Denny, who said he expects that Saturday’s game will include a display of Mi’kmaq culture such as traditional pre-game drumming, acknowledged the Eagles are underdogs. But he’s optimistic the team will put forth their best effort against the Bulldogs, who the Eagles took to overtime twice in their four regular-season games.
”We’re playing against a strong team but we’ve beat them before and have had some close games against them,” said Denny.
“It’s important that the boys play all three periods — we’re being very positive and now that we’re done with the regular season we are just focusing on the playoffs and we’re going to take it period by period and shift by shift.”
Miners head coach Ryan Boutilier said staff of the Membertou-based powerhouse suspected back in training camp that the 2019-20 season was going to be competitive.
“We thought this would be one of the toughest years to compete in the junior 'B' loop and there is no doubt that was the case in both divisions this season,” said Boutilier, whose Miners last captured the league title in 2017-18.
“We’re up against a very good team in the Strait Pirates in the first round and that means one very good team is not going to make it out of the first round — in past seasons, this series would have been a division final.”
Pirates head coach Taylor Lambke agrees.
“It’s been very competitive, it seemed that a couple of wins or losses could move a team up or down the standings at any time,” said Lambke, whose team reached the league finals last season only to lose to the Sackville Blazers four games to two.
”We’ve been up and down this season. We had a good run in the first half of the season and we beat the top teams in the league, but then in the second half we played some good hockey and we played some bad hockey. But we’re over our injuries, now we just want to get the group back together and hopefully go on a long playoff run.”
Game 1 of the must-watch series gets underway Wednesday when the puck drops at 7:30 p.m. at the Membertou Sport and Wellness Centre. The best-of-seven series will alternate from one side of the island to the other with Game 2 slated for Friday at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m.
The Eagles start their series at the Antigonish Arena on Friday evening before hosting their first-ever home playoff game on Saturday in Eskasoni.
Meanwhile, the two Fred Fox Division series also kick off on Friday when the Sackville Blazers (22-7-3-0, 47 points) take on the Cole Harbour Colts (19-11-2-0, 40 points) and the East Hants Penguins (23-8-1-0, 47 points) tangle with the Liverpool Privateers (19-10-3-0, 41 points).
PIRATES vs. MINERS
- Game 1 - Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Membertou Sport and Wellness Centre
- Game 2 - Friday, Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m., Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre
- Game 3 - Saturday, Feb. 29, 7:30 p.m., Membertou
- Game 4 - Friday, March 6, 7:30 p.m., Port Hawkesbury
- *Game 5 - Saturday, March 7, 7:30 p.m., Membertou
- *Game 6 - Monday, March 9, 7:30 p.m., Port Hawkesbury
- *Game 7 - Wednesday, March 11, 7:30 p.m., Membertou
EAGLES vs. BULLDOGS
- Game 1 - Friday, Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m., Antigonish Arena
- Game 2 - Saturday, Feb. 29, 7:30 p.m., Dan K Memorial Arena, Eskasoni
- Game 3 - Tuesday, March 3, 7:30 p.m., Antigonish
- Game 4 - Thursday, March 5, 7:30 p.m., Eskasoni
- *Game 5 - Friday, March 6, 7:30 p.m., Antigonish
- *Game 6 - Saturday, March 7, 7:30 p.m., Eskasoni
- *Game 7 - Wednesday, March 11, 7:30 p.m., Antigonish