By Jon Zacks
The Huskies jumped out of the gate, and doubled Grande Prairie in scoring through the first two periods of the pivotal game three on Friday night.
But, they came unglued in the third, as the Wheelers stormed back to win the game, and take a stranglehold on the best-of-seven semi final.
The Huskies took a 2-1 lead after the first period, on goals from Cam MacKinnon and Luke McInerney, with Cory Littman finishing a clever passing play for Grande Prairie’s lone marker.
Early in the second, Cody Hildebrand scored a sensational short-handed goal, when he outraced Nathan Johnson to a clearance, swooped to the net, and deaked around Kris Dika. Nick Fitzpatrick soon backhanded a puck past Ty Gullickson, but after an unsuccessful Huskies 2-on-1, Kole Norris stole the puck back, and fed Cody Kalb in front, giving the Huskies a 4-2 lead after 40 minutes. “In the first two periods we came out better than we have the whole series” said Huskies coach Jeremy Clothier of his team’s start. “We forechecked and they had a tough time getting out of their end.”
But, desperately needing a win, the Huskies couldn’t finish the Wheelers off. A combination of a hyper-aggressive Grande Prairie attack, and soft defence from Fort St. John, allowed the visitors to climb back in the game in the final period.
In just 11 minutes of play, the Wheelers scored four consecutive goals. Cordell Shmyr, Kyle Weegar (2), and Patrick Pearson all beat Ty Gullickson, three of them on second or third opportunities. Amazingly, all four goals were scored before the Huskies had a single third-period shot. “In the third period, I don’t know what team decided to come out in and play“ said Jeremy Clothier of the collapse. “We came out and we just gave them the puck.”
Now trailing by two goals, the Huskies slowly turned the tide, and forced the play back into the Grande Prairie zone. But, it was too little too late, and GP goaltender Kris Dika was seldom forced to make a difficult or second save. With 36 seconds left, and Mark Sauchenko in the penalty box, the Huskies scored a 6-on-4 goal to get within one. But, there were unable to get the puck deep again, and the Wheelers held on for the victory.
“We came out real strong in the first and second, and really that should carry over to the third period” sais Huskies forward Steven Fast after the game. “We were lacking that extra drive tonight” he said. Fast was playing his first game since game three of the Beaverlodge series, and admitted that being on the outside looking in made it a little harder to get fired up for the game. “It’s a little tough getting the legs going a little bit, but once it hits the second period then usually I get back to my game.” Fast will play game four on Sunday, before returning to Calgary.
Grande Prairie is now comfortably in the driver’s seat in the series, leading three games to none, with game four at the Coca-Cola Centre on Sunday afternoon. For the Huskies, the climb will be steep, but the game-plan is simple. “Come out and play a full 60 minutes” said Fast of the challenge, adding “we’ve got to get pucks out – that was our main problem in the third period tonight.”
The Huskies will look forward to the return of their Captain on Sunday, with Payden Wongstedt now ready to return from his four-game suspension. Jeremy Clothier admits getting Wongstedt back in the lineup will be huge for his team, but he knows they’ll need to play a complete game like they did through the first 40 minutes on Friday. “It’ll be a surprise” said Clothier, adding “I don’t have a clue which team is going to show up, just hopefully it’s the right one.
Sunday’s game starts at 4:30/5:00, and will be broadcast live on Moose FM. It will be a do-or-die game for Fort St. John, with the Wheelers one win away from a berth in the NWJHL finals. “We’ve just got to find a spark” said Fast, adding “I think Payden will be that spark.”
In other NWJHL news, the Whitecourt Wolverines advanced to their third consecutive finals on Friday, with a 9-3 win in Dawson Creek, completing the sweep of the Jr. Canucks.