Memories don’t always have to be old to be great. Sometimes the best memories have happened more recently.
This week we only need to go back to the 2017-18 season. A couple of significant trades at the deadline turned the Frontenacs into a title contender. After defeating the North Bay Battalion and the Barrie Colts in the first two playoff rounds, injuries eventually caught up with the Frontenacs against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Despite the third-round exit, Kingston fans were treated to seeing an exciting, talented team throughout the second half of that season.
Jordan Jackson (JJ) and Jim Gilchrist (JG) take a short stroll down memory lane to the 2017-18 Kingston Frontenacs season.
JJ: Jim, last week we talked about the first team to make an extended playoff run in franchise history. This week we will talk about the most recent to do it. That team was the 2017-18 Kingston Frontenacs. Give us a brief rundown of how that season played out.
JG: I thought we would stick with the theme of playoff success this week. This team set the franchise record for latest date playing a game with that game coming on April 26, 2018.
They were a third-place team behind Hamilton and Barrie in the Eastern Conference standings and, of course, we played those teams in the playoffs later on.
Jason Robertson had an outstanding year with 41 goals and 87 points. Linus Nyman was right behind him with 85 points. Gabe Vilardi, who came along at the trade deadline, had 58 points in just 32 games and Cliff Pu had 39 points in just 29 games. They had outstanding talent up front.
Back on defense was future Captain, Jakob Brahaney. He was joined by guys like Jacob Paquette and Liam Murray.
The team had leaders up front like Matt Hotchkiss, who was picked up from Guelph earlier in the year, Ryan Cranford and, of course, Ted Nichol.
The key, I thought, all year was the guy setting records in goal, Jeremy Helvig. He had 31 wins on the year and an amazing save percentage of .916.
It was an outstanding team overall. They had balance right from goaltending on out.
JJ: In the previous season, Paul McFarland had earned a job in the NHL and left the Head Coach role vacant. In came Jay Varady, a guy that most Kingston fans had never heard of. He had spent time in the WHL and oversees before his first North American Head Coaching job in the USHL. What was the reaction like when Jay joined the team to take over the job?
JG: Everybody kind of reacted like “Who is this?” They were going to their files to see who he was and what his track record was, and it was impressive.
I got to know him well. At the start of the year, he was quiet but once we got going, he started to open up about halfway through the season.
He really knew his stuff as far as hockey talent and coaching strategies were concerned.
He came here and had a great record, and it has paid off for him too. Look where he is now! With the Arizona Coyotes after spending some time in the AHL.
He had a lot of talent to work with and after the trade deadline he had even more, and he handled it well.
JJ: I know the trades that were made changed the opinion somewhat, but as the year progressed, was it expected that this team would make a playoff run?
JG: We talked last week about turning points throughout the season. This year, the turning point was the trade deadline.
They picked up Gabe Vilardi from Windsor along with Sean Day on the blue line. They also picked up Cliff Pu from London along with Max Jones who added some toughness up front as well.
That seemed to be the real turning point of the year. We went on a 6-game win streak, and from January 26 to February 23, pretty well a full month that came just a couple weeks after the trade deadline, in 14 games they went on a 10-2-2 run. That seemed to be the big turning point.
There was one game I remember, it was January 7 in Niagara, and we won 8-3. In that game J-Rob went three and one, Vilardi had two and two, Day was one and three, Nyman was one and two, Pu had a couple of assists and the team went 4/6 on the power play.
I think the win streak was a big factor, but that game in Niagara got everyone saying, “Oh my, look at what we have got going here!”
JJ: After such a strong stretch following the deadline, the team limped into the playoffs winning just four of their final ten regular season games. Was there any panic from the team or the fans as the playoffs got underway?
JG: In a way, I think you had to wonder if we had made too many changes and taken the atmosphere out of the dressing room that we had before.
Especially when they lost the first game of the playoffs. If you remember they lost game 1 to North Bay 5-2. I think the fans started to push the panic button, although I don’t think anyone from the team really did, but I think the fans started to think “Uh oh, we made all these trades, and we are going to be out in the first round.”
After that game, the team really put it together and won four in a row to end that series.
JJ: Everyone remembers the series win but the game that gets everyone talking was the triple overtime in game 5. Of course, Gabe Vilardi scored to win the game and the series and save everyone a long bus ride into the early hours of the next morning.
JG: It was the second longest game in franchise history and the longest game ever played in Kingston.
Kingston won 6-5 in the triple overtime period. That was a big one because if we lost that game, we would have had to go right to North Bay right after that game. I had my bags packed with me in the booth ready to get on the bus right after the game, if we had lost, to go to North Bay to play the next day. So that saved us a long bus ride.
That was a crazy game because we led 2-0 after eight minutes but then North Bay came back and took a 3-2 lead after the first period. They were leading 4-2 going into the third period but Sean Day scored the tying goal with just 20 seconds remaining in regulation time.
We ended up outscoring North Bay 22-17 in that series and Vilardi had 13 points just in that series. Cliff Pu had 10 points and J-Rob had 6 as well. The leaders were really the leaders in that series.
JJ: Before we move on, let’s talk about a guy that doesn’t get enough credit for what he did on that team and that is “Teddy” Nichol. He may not have had the points that others had but he did so much for that team including a big assist on that Vilardi goal in overtime. Can you talk a little bit about “Captain Ted”?
JG: As you mentioned, “Captain” kind of says it all. He had some points, but he was tough too. He would drop the gloves with anyone at anytime if he felt like it would spark the team. He would take a hard check to finish a play and complete a pass.
His work away from the puck is something that the average fan may have not seen, but the players and coaches really noticed and that is the reason he was a Captain.
JJ: It was a bit of a slow start in the North Bay series, but after four straight wins everyone was feeling good heading into a series against Barrie. The slow start struck again, and Kingston went down 2-0 to Barrie. Did panic set in before Kingston made the big comeback against the Colts?
JG: After going down 2-0 to Barrie, and remember both of those games were in Barrie because they had earned the #2 seed, fans just started to think “Well, at least we got out of the first round, but this isn’t looking good.”
Game five in Barrie was the big one here. Kingston was up 5-1 after the first period and ended up winning 7-1. Barrie just could not rebound after that. They seemed to be really down after that game, and Kingston ended up winning it in six games.
JJ: That put us in the Conference Finals against a strong team in the Hamilton Bulldogs. It seemed a lot like the ‘92-93 team facing a powerhouse Petes team in the Conference Finals. Were the Bulldogs just too much to overcome?
JG: It was the first time out of the second round since ‘92-93. The guys were beat up again, just like we talked about last week with that team, and it was the main guys.
It really wasn’t made public at that time, but it started to come out later on that guys like Vilardi and Robertson had injuries that they were playing through. If they had of been regular season games these guys wouldn’t have been playing but they toughed it out during games.
I thought it was game 2 that really made it tough for the guys to come back. In Hamilton, they were down 5-0 after one period and that was kind of the turning point of the whole series. It was going to be tough to come back from 2-0, and in fact they went down 3-0 after losing game 3 on home ice.
Vilardi had no goals in that series and J-Rob still managed three in the five games but they were pretty beat up even though it wasn’t made public. It was just too much going up against a very talented Hamilton team.
JJ: Let’s talk about some of the records that were set that season. Vilardi made his way into the franchise record books despite only playing in Kingston for half of a season, and Jeremy Helvig earned multiple franchise records over the course of the season.
JG: Vilardi set the franchise record for goals and points in a single postseason with 11 goals and 22 points in the 16 games. Scott Howson had held the record of 19 points in 14 games but Vilardi surpassed that.
Helvig came up with some incredible games, especially late in the season and into the playoffs. He would set records for wins (81) and shutouts (10) by a goaltender in Kingston franchise history.
JJ: It had been a long time since Kingston went to the third round. The previous couple of years Paul McFarland had coached the team into the second round and then Jay Varady had this run into the third round. Do you think that stretch rejuvenated the fan base and got them more interested in Frontenacs hockey?
JG: I think so. Getting past the second round for the first time in a while really helped but I think seeing the way fans picked up after the trade deadline and we won some big games, I think the fans saw that there was some good talent on the team.
I think it also helped that Vilardi was a local kid and fans really liked that.
JJ: Both the 1992-93 team and the 2017-18 team won the first round 4-1, the second round 4-2, and lost the third round 4-1. Other than numerical, do you see any other similarities between these two teams?
JG: I think the scoring was pretty spread around. You had your big shooters on both teams with Gratton and Corpse back then while here you had Robertson and Vilardi. Both teams had good goaltending as well.
I think just the overall balance of both teams was the difference and when you look at winning teams in the OHL, they have that good balance with goaltending, some toughness, a solid blue line, and some big shooters up front. I think that is what is most similar about what we have talked about over the last couple of weeks.
JJ: It’s just speculation at this point but imagine two health squads on both sides. How do you see the series against Hamilton playing out?
JG: Oh boy, that would have been a great series! We were saying that after game 3 of that series.
The other thing to consider is that it was a little bit of payback for Hamilton. If you remember the year before we beat them out in the opening round with a game 7 winner in overtime by Linus Nyman. So, they had that on their minds too. That may have encouraged them in a series against Kingston a little more.
JJ: Obviously, the game 5 overtime winner is a favorite memory of many, but is there a different moment in that season that sticks out as your personal favorite?
JG: I think winning that game in Niagara that we won 8-3 and having five guys pick up three points or more, which I checked, and, at that time, that set another franchise record. We had four guys do it in the past but never five. That’s when you could see everyone pick it up from there on.
Then we went on that hot streak from late January through late February. If you look at teams from the past, January and February haven’t always been kind. That’s when we have lost playoff positions or couldn’t fight our way into one, but this season was different, and they solidified the playoff spot that year.