Powers took the reins as head coach and general manager in August 2015 at the same time as a 16-year-old Vinogradov moved up to the junior B team from the London Junior Knights.
Since then, the Nats have won four straight Western Conference championships and they’ve made three Sutherland Cup final appearances, coming closest to franchise’s second Greater Ontario Hockey League title last year when they fell 3-2 in overtime in Game 7 to the Waterloo Siskins at Western Fair Sports Centre.
It’s a long road back to another Sutherland Cup final, but it’s something the Nats, who finished first in the West regular season at 42-5-1-2, have had in their sites since their heartbreaking loss last spring.
“That’s all we want right now,” Vinogradov said. “It’s been in our heads the whole season.
“We’ve come pretty close all five years. So, this year we are just going to take it round by round and hopefully we win it.”
Powers took over as head coach from Kelly Thomson, who led the junior B franchise to its only Sutherland Cup title in 2013.
A player on the London Knights 2005 Memorial Cup championship team and a London native, Thomson died last April at 34.
Vinogradov said helping the Nats win their second league championship in the franchise’s almost 70-year history would be a dream ending to his time with the Nationals.
“That would be a huge accomplishment for my junior career and I’d be the happiest guy,” the third-year criminology major at Western said.
“I have no doubt that all the boys are going to give it their best effort and I’m excited to see what happens.”
The Nats kick off the playoffs against the eighth-place Sarnia Legionnaires in a best-of-seven quarterfinal series, starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday night at Western Fair Sports Centre, but they can’t look past any team in their post-season marathon.
“In Sarnia, we are playing a really big, physical team in a very small arena,” Powers said. “No series is going to be a cakewalk. Every team brings its own challenges to us and we have to be prepared.”
“You are looking at potentially 30 games to get (to the Sutherland Cup final). It’s a long road and we have to make sure we take it one game and one series at a time.”
Vinogradov said his time playing for his hometown team has gone too fast.
“It feels like it just flew by. It feels like last year I was 16 and now it’s my last year,” the 21-year-old said. “Even this season, we treated it like every game could be our last. You are never going to play junior hockey again . . . so you might as well give it your all.”
Powers is confident Vinogradov will leave everything on the ice, but the five-foot-seven right wing is not the only National hungry for a GOJHL championship.
“He knows that this is his last kick at the can, so he’s definitely highly motivated, but we have Cal Davis who’s never won (a Sutherland Cup) either and he’s in his last year,” Powers said. “Michael Boushy is in his last year. These guys are all looking to move on to university hockey and the longer you play, the more eyes see you.”
Davis led London with 30 goals and 70 assists, playing in all 50 regular-season games. Vinogradov was second with 35 goals and 52 assists and Boushy had 35 goals and 41 assists, but the Nats have been getting balanced scoring throughout their lineup.
“If you rely on scoring from one line, it’s easy for teams to match up against you,” Powers said “You look at all 13 of our forwards, they’ve all put up decent stats, regardless of age or amount of ice time.”
The Nats also are getting solid production from 16-year-old blue-liner Logan Mailloux who scored 18 goals with 50 assists in the regular season.
That would be a huge accomplishment for my junior career and I’d be the happiest guy
“He’s a guy on the back end that we rely on a lot,” Powers said of the six-foot-three Belle River native. “We know he’ll be moving on next year to the London Knights and he wants to make sure he squeezes every ounce of experience out of this level as he can.”
The Nationals picked up some insurance in net, adding Brock Baier in a deal with the West Kelowna Warriors of the British Columbia Hockey League on Jan. 10 and he is 8-1 with a 1.65 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage since coming to London.
The 20-year-old Stratford native, who played for the Listowel Cyclones in 2016, gives the Nats a solid and experienced goaltending tandem with 19-year-old Shawn Wiranata, who has a 2.12 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage in 19 games.
“We essentially have two starting goaltenders,” Powers said. “Shawn Wiranata came in from Calgary and he’s been great for us, but when Brock Baier became available, we thought having a 20-year-old option was something that we couldn’t turn down.
“You play a lot of back-to-back games and wear and tear really takes its toll on goaltenders especially. . . . and we just wanted to make sure we had confidence in every positional player on our team.”
The Nats are looking good going into the playoffs, but Powers says only time will tell.
“It comes down to hard work and determination, but it also comes down to luck,” he said. “You have to make sure you stay healthy and illness doesn’t creep in. . . . Guys can get worn down. They can get broken down. They can get mentally tired, injured. There’s a lot of things that can happen and you just have to hope for the best.”