A team loaded with heavy expectations is certain to be tested often, and that was certainly the case tonight as the Lloydminster Bobcats kicked off their season as RBC Cup hosts with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over the Bonnyville Pontiacs.
Goaltender Alex Leclerc made his regular season debut between the pipes for the Bobcats, and showed a flash of brilliance midway through the first period when he appeared to be down and out, but sprawled to his right and robbed Chandler Klein of what looked like a sure goal. This highlighted a strong first period for the 20 year-old native of Longueuil, PQ, with 12 saves in the first frame.
Pontiacs goaltender Joey Desrosiers seemed to be up to the challenge in the early going, and kept things and a deadlock towards the end of the period, but the Bobcats were able to break through for two quick goals before the buzzer. On a delayed penalty with just less than two minutes to go, Kevin Darrar came onto the ice as the extra attacker for the ‘Cats and unloaded on a feed from Taylor Allan just as he stepped over the blue line, with the rebound ending up sitting right beside the net where Zac Giroux was ready to tuck it into the open net to give Lloydminster the lead.
Just 62 seconds later, Darrar retrieved the puck behind the net and found Morgan Messenger alone in front of the net. Finding himself with time, Messenger patiently faked Desrosiers to his left and pulled the puck around to his right side to find a vacated net to tuck the puck into. With two quick strikes, the Bobcats took a 2-0 lead into the dressing room after 20 minutes.
The Pontiacs were able to stem the bleeding in the second period, and push the play back towards the Bobcats. Tensions arose midway through the period as the Bobcats’ Austin O’Rourke and Bonnyville’s Holden Daley dropped their gloves and exchanged blows in the Pontiacs zone, with both players being ejected from the game. Less than five minutes later, the Pontiacs were finally able to break through Leclerc, as Klein got redemption with a quick low-blocker shot that snuck by the Bobcats net minder to cap off a nice rush by the 18 year-old forward.
With momentum on the Pontiacs side, they continued to press until Erik Donald was called for high-sticking in the final minute of the middle stanza. Although they were able to kill off the first half of the penalty before the horn, the Bobcats would start the third period with a minute of powerplay time.
Early in the third, the Bobcats struggled to get any momentum going on the man advantage, and the Pontiacs were able to escape a shorthanded situation unscathed for the third time of the night. However, less than 30 seconds after Donald stepped back onto the ice to put the teams back at 5-on-5, Bobcats defenceman Alex Pernitsky hammered a one-timer from the top of the slot which found its way between Desrosiers’ legs to give the Bobcats a 3-1 lead.
Finding themselves down two goals again, the Pontiacs refused to give in and continued to push back until 19 year-old forward Bobby McMann was able to beat Leclerc 8:16 into the third period to cut the Bobcats lead in half once again.
However, despite several stretches of sustained pressure in the final minutes, the Pontiacs were unable to find a way past Leclerc for a third time, falling one goal short in the end.
Both teams went 0/4 on the power play, with only a handful of quality scoring chances arising on special teams for either side. Desrosiers, given the start on opening night after serving as backup to Troy Trombley down the stretch last season, made 23 saves on 26 shots faced in front of 962 fans at the RJ Lalonde Arena in Bonnyville.
The two teams will face each other again tomorrow night with a rematch at the Civic Centre in Lloydminster at 7:30PM.