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Exceeding the league’s expectations – Recorder & Times

Jonathon Brodie – Recorder & Times

The Brockville Braves are locked into the third spot.

A little more than six months ago no one would have believed that sentence.

When the Braves wrapped up their training camp in late August and shaped their roster it was a team filled with mostly unknowns and teens without any junior hockey experience. There were just four players on the 2017-18 opening day lineup that suited up in a Brockville jersey last year.

The Braves tried this exact same experiment last season and failed. Stacked with a roster of rookies Brockville expected to take their lumps early last season and peak going into the playoffs. They ended up getting beaten black and blue.

The expectations were the same this time around. Just like the coach last year, new bench boss Jesse Winchester assured there would be a steep learning curve on the horizon at the beginning of the season.

Early into the 2017-18 campaign it looked like a new team with the same story. Twenty-five games into it Brockville was a game below .500.

Most people looked at the Braves as a bubble team. A club that had a shot at making the playoffs, but likely wouldn’t finish higher than sixth place.

The results even flashed through captain Andrew Jarvis’head, the veteran admitted, his expectations hoping things would be better than last season.

There was a time last year when the young man known for usually having a smile on his face wasn’t happy coming to the rink. It just wasn’t fun for him anymore and each passing game last year provided more and more examples that the wheels were falling off for the team.

“That’s not like me at all,” said Jarvis about his frustrations last season. “It’s just head over heels different this year. Coaching staff, the players, everyone cares and everyone wants to be here and that’s the reason why we’re good.”

Finishing third means something to not only Jarvis, but the entire team. It means they’re given homeice advantage in the first round, but more importantly it shows the type of team they have.

All year the Braves played like they had a chip on their shoulder. They heard the moderate expectations put on them and they wanted to buck them.

They didn’t use their fists or hard hits to hold up their grudge. Brockville aired their grievances by the amount they bought into Winchester’s system – play hard, fast, and gritty. The Braves players used their speed and skill most nights to show that not only do they belong in the league, but they belong closer to the top. Their success is what is putting all their naysayers’faces in the mud.

“Finishing third I think it puts us in a good spot and the rest of the league has to give us a bit more respect, the respect that I think we deserve,” said defenceman Jonathan Hill.

Now the game plan drawn up last year with the Braves expected to peak come playoff time is coming to fruition this season as they’re 13-4-0-1 since the start of February – their recent 3-2 loss to the Pembroke Lumber Kings Wednesday had seven regular starters out of the lineup.

There was a learning curve for the Braves and they climbed it. They didn’t all get up it at the same time. Players like Hill, Eric Holland, Jordi Jefferson and others slipped into the program naturally and helped keep the team afloat. It was enough for management to go out and add players, get better piece by piece – bringing in Michael McArthur, adding veteran Tyson Kirkby, inserting depth with Michael Locatelli, and shipping Eric Faith out and then bringing him back better with more grit.

It’s everything around those key pieces, though, that separates Brockville now from last year and has put them in the position they’re currently in.

Winchester’s imprint, along with assistant coach Devin Payne, are all over the lineup.

He took players like Joshua Spratt and Nicolas Vlahos, who were role players early in the season, and worked with them to turn the forwards into the players he needed them to be. All of a sudden they’ve risen up the depth charts.

Fans are seeing the same thing being done with Christophe Cote and Fred Allaire right now. They were forwards considered depth players in the lineup. Now they’ll play an intricate part if the Braves want to have any shot at making a playoff run. On any given night you’re sure to get a quote from Winchester applauding the two fourth-liners as impact players as often as you would hear him heaping praise to the top line.

“I’ve never been part of a team this tight that works this hard. Each night we set goals and for the most part we achieve them and come out on top,” said Jarvis. “We come to work, we do what we’re supposed to do, and play a complete game. Even with some players out we got the job done and that’s what it’s all about. We find a way to win.”

Now the question is, how many more times can the Braves figure out a way to win? The favourites to win the Bogart Cup are the Carleton Place Canadians and Ottawa Jr. Senators – both nationally ranked. The Braves have proved people wrong before, though.

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