Early period goals set the tone all night long as the Spruce Grove Saints doubled up the Lloydminster Bobcats 6-3 in game one of the Alberta Junior Hockey League's North Division Final on Friday night.
Photo Credit: Mitch Goldenberg, Postmedia Network
The scoring started shortly after puck drop in the series opener as Austin Hunter knocked home a rebound just 1:08 into the first period to give the Saints an early period lead. Scott Ferguson was credited with the assist after jamming the puck at the side of the net, forcing a rebound off of Bobcats goaltender Alex Leclerc that Hunter was able to capitalize on.
However, the Bobcats were unfazed by the early marker, with a swift response.
Just 0:11 after Hunter's goal, Cole Josefchak pounced on a turnover in the offensive zone, firing a puck towards the net that was blocked in front. The puck kicked over to Nick Quillan on the right wing side, who stepped in and beat Saints goaltender Matt Murray cleanly under the glove to knot the game at 1-1.
After snatching momentum back from the Saints, the Bobcats found themselves behind the eight-ball minutes later as Morgan Messenger delivered a check on Saints forward Josh Harris, that led to Harris needing assistance off of the ice, and the forward would not return to the game. The call on the ice was a five minute major and a game misconduct for a blow to the head, assessed against Bobcats forward Austin O'Rourke, who was sent to the dressing room for the rest of the night.
On the ensuing powerplay, the Saints looked disjoined through the opening minute, before Brendan Holterhus was whistled for goaltender interference, which negated the mana advantage and led to 4-on-4 play.
With both sides down a man, the Saints regained a one-goal lead as Conner Lukan got past Bobcats defenceman Alex Pernitsky – who was hobbled due to a shot block earlier in the shift – before lifting a puck over Leclerc and in to make it 2-1 just 6:49 into the first period.
The Saints regained the powerplay for 1:53 on the tail end of the major to O'Rourke, but the Cats penalty kill continued to stump the Saints until they returned to full strength. 5-on-5 play didn't last long, as the goal scorer Lukan hooked Brett Smythe, giving the Bobcats a two minutes power play of their own.
For the next two minutes, the Bobcats controlled play in the offensive zone, firing pucks towards Murray's goal. In total, four shots hit the net while at least four were deflected wide, but Murray kept everything out on th penalty kill, and would stymy a Bobcats onslaught for much of the next ten minutes. Spruce Grove pushed back late in the first, but neither side found another goal as they headed to the dressing room with Spruce Grove leading 2-1.
After a fast, even first period, the Saints jumped ahead in the second on an early goal from Brandon Biro, who slipped a puck between the legs of Leclerc that just barely trickled over the line to make it 3-1 Spruce Grove. The Saints continued the attack to start hte middle frame and would add another before the Bobcats could get off their heels.
Saints forward Jake Mykitiuk, looking to send the puck backdoor for Tyler Busch, threw a backhand toward the net that found a way through to extend the lead for the home side to 4-1.
By the midway point of the second period, the Bobcats were able to get back on their game and started to push the puck back towards the Saints end. At the 12:21 mark, defenceman Christian Lloyd fired a slapshot from the half wall toward the goal through a screen, fooling Murray to cut the Saints lead in half at 4-2. The two sides continued a relatively even pace throughout the rest of the period, but that's where the score would sit through forty minutes.
The Bobcats had two power play opportunities in the second while the Saints had one, but the penalty kill units remained perfect.
Looking for a spark early in the final frame, the Bobcats found the opposite instead as Biro scored his second of the night on a clean breakaway, beating Leclerc for a 5-2 Saints lead, making for a larger mountain to climb for the visitors.
Cats forward Kevin Darrar was whisteld for cross-checking just over five minutes into the third period, setting the table for a possible knockout blow from the Saints, but once again the Lloydminster penalty kill came up big and kept the puck out of the net, giving the Bobcats a boost with just over 12 minutes to play.
As they had done all night long, the Cats scratched back on a misplay by Murray, as Kris Spriggs intercepted his behind the back pass behind the Saints net, feeding Brett Smythe in front who finished into an empty cage, bring the Bobcats back to within two.
Lloydminster continued to apply pressure for the remainder of the game, and pulled Leclerc with over two minutes to play, but couldn't get another puck through before Riley Simpson iced it with an empty net goal from his own zone, setting the final score at 6-3 Spruce Grove.
The two penalty kills combined for a perfect mark of 6/6 throughout the game, with both sides killing off three penalties. Murray stopped 33 of 36 shots directed his way, while Leclerc blocked 30 of 35.
NOTES: After league review, it was determined that O'Rourke's major penalty should have been given to Messenger, and with the five minute major for a blow to the head, an automatic two game suspension has been assessed to Morgan Messenger, who will now miss games two and three…Christian Lloyd (missed four games) and Troy Van Tetering (missed six games) both returned to the Bobcats lineup after missing playoff time due to injury…Six Saints players (Connor James, Lukan, Mykitiuk, Simpson, Biro, Trey Fix-Wolansky) had two points in the contest…This was the Bobcats first loss of the 2016 postseason, while the Saints remain undefeated…After remaining down for several minutes, Josh Harris was able to make it back to the Saints dressing room with assistance after the hit from Messenger…Both goaltenders allowed their highest number of goals against so far this postseason…Shots favoured Lloydminster 20-17 after one, Spruce Grove 31-27 after two, and finished even at 36-36 after three periods…Griffin Mumby missed his fourth consecutive playoff game to injury, while Connor Odelein was the other Bobcat out of the lineup…Dondre Watson and Isaac Farrah were each serving their second of a two-game suspension incurred during the Sherwood Park series, and will be eligible to return in game two for the Saints…Cole Plotnikoff, Ryan Cox, and Jack Hamly were also out of the lineup for Spruce Grove.
Game two goes tonight at the Grant Fuhr Arena at 7:00PM. The Bobcats fan bus will leave the Civic Centre at 3:30, call or text Kandace at 780-808-1819 to reserve your seat.
If you can't make the game, catch the call on 95.9 Lloyd FM with pregame at 6:40PM.