The Sarnia Sting has played almost half their regular season and yet they have not played one of their division and conference rivals once.
But that is about to all change.
The Sting opens the second half of their Ontario Hockey League season on Wednesday night when they take on the Plymouth Whalers.
Game time is 7:05 p.m. at the RBC Centre.
It will be the first of six meetings between the two rivals. They will play five more times during a stretch of five weeks in January and the first week of February.
“It’s weird,” said overage Sting defenceman Brent Sullivan, when asked about not having played the Whalers yet.
“When the Whalers are a division rival, you would have thought we would have played them by now. Somebody asked me recently about a player on the Plymouth team and I didn’t know anything about them because we haven’t seen them yet.”
Sullivan added, “playing them a lot over the next month or so should develop a bit of a hate for them and that always creates a better rivalry.”
Before Tuesday’s game (Plymouth in Erie on Tuesday night), Plymouth held a four-point lead over the Sting with each team having played 33 games.
Sarnia is currently one game under the .500 mark at 14-15-3-1. They are coming off an emotional 5-4 overtime win over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in their final game before the Christmas Break.
“We’ve had our highs and lows over the first half,” said Sullivan. “We are still a fairly young team so we have to take the positives from the first half. We are almost a .500 team in a tough Western Conference. We need a good second half and surprise some people.”
Sullivan talked about the positives.
“One of the high points is the fact we’ve been competitive in most games. Even during our five-game losing streak early in the year, we only lost those games by one or two goals. Another positive is we’ve shown we can be a resilient team. We’ve battled back in several games to pull off a victory.”
But Sullivan says there have been some low points.
“We seem to want to give up a lead early in many games and that makes things that much tougher. We need to play a full 60 minutes. We need to get some secondary scoring and not rely on just one line. We also need to keep the puck out of our net and that comes with good team defence.”
Sullivan added, “I think we have matured as a team over the first half. If we play a team game and not be individuals, we give ourselves a good chance of winning. We are a close-knit group and the team chemistry is there. We need to get on a hot streak.”
As for the second half of the season, Sullivan says it’s not going to be easy.
“We are going to be in a battle right until March 19. We certainly can’t have any long winless streaks. What would really help would be to string a few wins together. It just means every game and every weekend is so important. We can’t take any nights off.”
The Sting will have rookie sensation Nail Yakupov in their lineup this week. He was not named to the Russian team for the World Juniors and practiced with the Sting earlier this week.
Defenceman Joe Rogalski is listed as day-to-day as he continues to recover from a concussion suffered Dec. 5. Forward Brett Ritchie is expected to play after missing two games with a hand injury.
Garrett Hooey is with the Ontario team and the world under-17 tournament in Winnipeg while Nick Latta is at the World Juniors in Buffalo with Team Germany.
Kale Kerbashian leads the Sting in scoring with 21 goals and 28 assists for 49 points. He ranks sixth overall in OHL scoring as Jason Akeson of Kitchener leads with 15 goals and 45 assists for 60 points. Two Ottawa players follow, as Shane Prince is two points back with 19 goals and 38 assists while Tyler Toffoli has 29 goals and 27 assists for 56 points.
Yakupov remains the top scorer for OHL rookies with 22 goals and 25 assists for 47 points. Alex Galchenyuk is third in Sting scoring with nine goals and 24 assists for 33 points. Tyler Peters is next with 32 points on 14 goals and 18 assists while Brandon Francisco and Joe Rogalski round out the top five with 18 points each.
John Cullen has played 1,249 minutes in goal for the Sting and has a 3.60 goals against average, one shutout and a .893 save percentage. Teammate Brandon Hope has played 759 minutes and sports a 4.58 g.a.a. and a .875 save percentage.
Scott Wedgewood has seen the bulk of work in goal for Plymouth, 1,602 minutes and has a 2.51 g.a.a., two shutouts and a .917 save percentage. Matt Mahalak has played just 383 minutes and has a 4.54 g.a.a.
Stefan Noesen is the top scorer for Plymouth with 15 goals and 21 assists for 36 points. Robbie Czarnik is second with 32 points on 13 goals and 19 assists while Tyler Brown is third with 11 goals and 16 assists for 27 points.
– After tonight’s game Sarnia will return home Friday, (New Year’s Eve) to host the London Knights for the first time this year. Note the starting time is 4 p.m. The two clubs meet New Year’s Day in London at 7 p.m.
– Tonight’s buffet at Coyote Jack’s Restaurant at the RBC Centre is Pub Grub. It includes seasoned chicken tenders, make your own nachos, pizza, hotdogs, burgers, crispy fries, onion rings and a dessert bar. Reservations can be made by calling 519-541-1000, Ext. 109.
– Tickets for both home Sting home games this week are available by calling the RBC Box Office at 519-541-1717 or going online at Sarniasting.com
– Of Sarnia’s 35 remaining games, 17 are at home and 18 on the road. But 11 of those home games come over the next 16 games.
Dave Borody is a freelance writer who covers Sting games both home and away and also does features for the Sting Website.