SUMMERSIDE — The Summerside Storm will begin life without captain and point guard Al Stewart on Thursday night.
And the Storm could not ask for a better opponent to gauge where they stand. The league-leading London Lightning will be in Summerside for a much-anticipated matchup between the two top teams in the National Basketball League of Canada. The opening tip-off at Eastlink Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m.
“We’ve had some great games with them,” said Storm head coach Joe Salerno. “It’s interesting because both those teams know where they are going to be in the playoffs.
“I think it will be just as intense as any game we’ve played this season with them. Us, as well as London, want to prove we are the best team in the league.”
The Lightning, who sport a 32-6 mark atop the Central Division, will go into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed.
The Atlantic Division-champion Storm (22-14) will go into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed, and will open the best-of-five semifinal series at Eastlink Arena on Sunday, March 24.
However, with two games remaining in the regular season, which concludes with a home game against the Halifax Rainmen on Saturday at 7 p.m., Salerno and assistant coach Mike Leslie will be keeping a close eye on how the team plays without Stewart, who was the undisputed team leader.
Stewart played his last game with the Storm on Sunday, and he has returned to his hometown of Chicago to accept a full-time teaching position.
“It’s going to be interesting to see our first game without Al,” said Salerno, who is expecting guards Josiah Turner and newcomer Royce Parran to step up in Stewart’s absence.
Salerno confirmed Turner will move into Stewart’s starting position.
“Josiah will definitely have the ball going forward,” said Salerno. “It’s been very good for Josiah as a rookie and a 20-year-old kid to play behind a guy like Al Stewart.
“It’s almost like a passing of the ball now. Josiah has learned a lot from Al in the time he’s played behind him, and I think he’s ready to step up and run this team.
“The guys have confidence in him, and I certainly do. We are excited for Josiah to have that opportunity, and I think he’ll do well.”
The six-foot-three and 190-pound Turner has averaged 7.31 points and 6.46 assists in 13 games with the Storm.
Parran, who is no stranger to Storm fans having played with the Quebec Kebs last season, made his debut with the Storm against Oshawa on Friday night.
As for a leadership void created by Stewart’s departure, Salerno is confident other players will step up.
“Greg Plummer is really our vocal leader,” said Salerno. “Guys like Chris Cayole is going to have to step up, he’s a veteran on this club.
“Actually, to be honest, since Royce got here, he’s a veteran player too, he’s been in the mix communicating with guys. When you lose a guy like Al Stewart, you need your entire roster to step up and I think the guys are going to do that. They are competitors and want to win.”