Nathan Perry and Franky Palazzese have a lot in common, including taking a course at Holy Cross high school together. It’s in that religion class that the pair spends most of their time discussing their shared faith: hockey.
“I can say we don’t really pay attention to that class all that much,” Perry said recently.
But Perry, Palazzese and the rest of their Kingston Frontenacs teammates could have used some divine intervention on Friday night as they were ousted out of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs with a 6-2 loss to the Oshawa Generals. Perry, who was making his third career OHL start, made 31saves in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final. “I’m disappointed with the loss,” said Perry after the game. “A lot of the guys were worn down, it was a physical series, but the guys were there to help me a lot. There were times where they didn’t have an option, they tried their best and there were a few times when I guess you could say I was left out there, but I have to make those saves.
“There were big saves that were game changers, but unfortunately there were a few I couldn’t get.”
Perry says the whole OHL experience was overwhelming considering he had been playing Junior C hockey only a month ago. Now he was being called upon to save the Frontenacs season yet again after helping them stave off elimination in Game 4 with a 7-4 victory on March 29.
“It’s been a huge jump, a lot of change,” said the 17-year-old. “It’s a lot quicker, but I was starting to feel a little more comfortable.”
“It’s a lot different; the shots are coming a lot quicker, the plays come a lot quicker. Where I played before I would have time to think.”
The Frontenacs were forced to scramble for goaltending after mononucleosis sidelined Philipp Grubauer, a Memorial Cup champion last season, in mid-February. It was at that time that the Fronts called up Perry from the Empire Jr. C league, where he had been playing with the Amherstview Jets, just down the highway from Kingston. Grubauer’s rookie backup, Palazzese, filled in for the rest of the regular season and started the first two games of the playoffs. Both games were blowouts -- 7-3 and 10-1— though it was in the second game that Perry got his first taste of playoff action at home at the K-Rock Centre.
“When I got in after Frank got pulled, I got caught looking around a bit, because it was cool seeing all the people there,” said Perry.
Palazzese was then diagnosed with a hip flexor injury, meaning the fate of the Fronts would be resting on the shoulders of a rookie goaltender with scarce OHL experience.
“Nathan Perry did what he could do,” said Kingston general manager Larry Mavety. “He played better than anybody expected…he did the best he could. He’s a kid that probably played four periods of major junior hockey coming out of Junior C and I thought he played incredibly well.
In the first period, Perry stopped 12 of 13 shots and looked solid while the Frontenacs killed off a big 5-on-3 man advantage for the Generals to keep the score tied at one goal a piece. In the second period, the Frontenacs imploded, taking ill-advised penalties and falling behind 4-1 - essentially putting an end to Perry’s improbable OHL run. By the third period, with the score 6-2, the catcalls had begun with Generals fans cheering each time he stopped the puck.
The harshest critics however will likely save their venom for Mavety, head coach Doug Gilmour and team owner Doug Springer for another season of playoff failure. In the 10 years they’ve failed to qualify for the post-season five times and haven’t won a playoff round since beating the Generals in Game 7 during the 1997-98 season.
“I guess I’m used to the criticism,” said Mavety of the fan and media firestorm long brewing in Kingston. “But now it’s getting vindictive. To me it’s being stupid, they’re going after the owner, they’re going after (Gilmour). If you want to bitch about it and everything else, fine. Do what you’ve got to do, I’ve been in the league long enough that I can take it. There are days when you get pats on the back and there are days when people know more than you do, and that’s fine.”
Mavety’s big gruff exterior have tempered with age. He broke his hip and pelvic bone earlier this year and uses a crutch to help him get around the rink. During the games in Oshawa he had a seat set up on the concourse so he could watch his Frontenacs in relative comfort. After the loss on Friday, the affable 68-year-old looked tired and dejected. He was asked point blank whether the pressure and abuse – warranted or not -- that comes with being the GM of a long struggling team is still worth it to him?
“Well, I still enjoy the kids. I still enjoy coming to the rink,” said Mavety, who started as a coach with the OHA’s Belleville Bulls in 1979 after his minor league playing career ended. “I still enjoy the game. But the other part of it is probably bothering me more that it has in some years.”
He said he hoped fans could understand that losing Grubauer, a three-year veteran with both playoff and international experience, was something completely out of his control.
“If he had of gotten hurt in a hockey game it might have been different, but to lose him to mono with 18 games to go (in the regular season), it’s devastating,” said Mavety, who has been with Kingston since 1997-98.
“It’s like a car - if you lose the key components of it, it’s not going to run and that’s what happened. I’m not making any excuses for it, it’s a fact. That’s what happened.”
But some have blamed Mavety for leaving his team in the position of having to rely on green goaltending in the postseason.
“You get an older backup and he wants to play,” said Mavety. “Now you’ve got problems that way. I mean you’ve got to replace Grubauer next year and (Palazzese) was the guy, when he played he played well.”
Listening to Mavety explain the playoff disappointments of years past, it sounds like Murphy’s Law has been in overdrive conspiring against the Frontenacs in every conceivable way. Last year it was injuries to top forwards overager Joe Plekaitis and Ethan Werek who were injured just before their Game 7 showdown with the Brampton Battalion which they eventually lost.
He remembered the 1999-00 team he assembled which included the likes of NHLers Mike Zigomanis, Sean Avery and Andrew Raycroft. That team also finished fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 38-22-5-3 record and expectations had been high for that team to make noise in the playoffs, only to suffer more injury woes and that led to a first-round crash and burn as the Frontenacs were ousted in five games by the fourthe-seeded Sudbury Wolves.
“We had a real good club and Zigomanis tears his stomach muscles and Avery breaks his tailbone,” said Mavety. “(Jonathan) Schill who had close to 40 goals sprains his ankle and can’t play for god’s sakes. Who’s fault is that?”
At the end of the day, though, Mavety understands the passion fans in Kingston have for the Frontenacs – he shares it, too. And while he knows the buck stops with him, he’s not prepared to take the blame for what he perceives as the hand of fate constantly tinkering with his lineup.
“I can see the frustration and there have been years, yeah, that we just didn’t play the way we were capable of and maybe had the wrong people in place,” he said. “I’ll take the blame for that, but some of the time there were circumstances beyond my control and anyone else’s control.”