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The Leamington Flyers and Chatham Maroons have both had to overcome obstacles to reach the Western Conference final of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.

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The top-seeded Flyers reeled off four-straight wins to oust St. Marys in the semifinals after dropping the first two games of that series. The third-seeded Maroons dropped the series opener with London before taking the next four games to eliminate the four-time defending champion.

Now, the two meet in the final for the first time since 2014 with a chance to advance to the Sutherland Cup. Game 1 of the best-of-seven series on Thursday at the Nature Fresh Centre. Game time is 7:10 pm

“I was introduced to Chatham coaching my first pre-season game,” Flyers’ first-year head coach Dale Mitchell said. “They’re always a team I have respect for. They play a hard game, an offensive game and this is not a team you want to trade chances with.”

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While Leamington and the LaSalle Vipers often battle for bragging rights in Essex County, nearly a third of Chatham’s roster is from the area and that has sparked its own unique rivalry.

“I have a lot of old teammates play on Leamington,” said Maroons’ goalie Luka Dobrich, who is from Belle River and a Sun County minor hockey product. “This isn’t just a series like any other. This is one you remember for the rest of your life and against guys that I’ll see the rest of my life.”

Dobrich was an affiliated player with Leamington at one time while Chatham forwards Cam Symons, Lucas Fancy and Julien Gervais both played for the Flyers.

“There’s a couple players that were former flyers and will no doubt have extra drive to beat us,” Mitchell said.

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But revenge or a rivalry isn’t what’s carried by each team to this point. After having parts of two seasons wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Flyers, who are aiming to claim the team’s first title since 2015, are learning what it takes to win playoff hockey.

“It’s new to all of us,” said Flyers’ forward Gavin Grundner, who leads all Western Conference playoff scorers with 12 goals and 19 points in 10 games. “We have a team full of rookies and it’s weird. It’s a bit of adjustment with the bumps and bruises and flow with things.

“We have to eat maximum intensity every game. The first series (against Strathroy) was a sweep, but once the second series came, (St. Marys) got up 2-0 and we faced adversity for the first time. For Game 3, if don’t come ready, we knew this could be end. After that, we learned we have to come ready.”

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The Maroons, who were last in a final in 2014 and have not won since 2006, have found inspiration in the playoffs following the sudden death of longtime equipment manager Randy DeWael last month.

“Our team has been unbelievable through this playoff stretch and know what we’re playing for,” said the 19-year-old Dobrich, who is a former OHL Under-18 Draft pick by the Windsor Spitfires. “This playoff, it’s bigger than us. A full community’s behind us, Randy’s family is in the corner every game and we have a badge on our glove with Randy’s initials.”

The Maroons have paced all Western Conference teams in scoring in the playoffs with 47 goals in 10 games while the Flyers will continue to lean on the team’s big unit of Grundner, Connor MacPherson and Ryan MacPherson, who have 17 goals and 44 points combined in 10 games.

“I’m playing on a good line with the MacPherson twins and I couldn’t do it without them,” said Grundner, who is an OHL Guelph Storm prospect. “I know (the extra defensive attention) is going to be there. St. Marys tried to line match and we just dealt with you.

“You just focus on every shift. We just have to focus on defense first, reducing their scoring chances and ours will come. ”

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