Heading into the Sutherland Cup finals against the Niagara Falls Canucks, the Elmira Sugar Kings were seen by some as a younger, smaller, less experienced team that didn’t stand a chance against their veteran-laden opponents.
But three games into the series, which Elmira leads 2-1 after a Tuesday night win, it’s clear that someone forgot to tell the Kings to just roll over and accept defeat.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people and I’m not sure a lot of them gave us a chance,” said Kings coach Geoff Haddaway. “They (Niagara) are older, they’ve got some OHL experience, and they build their team a lot differently than we do with so many 20-year-olds.”
For the record, the Canucks have a 15-pound advantage on average over the Kings and their roster boasts eight 20-year-olds, compared to just three for Elmira.
“But when you get on the ice, none of that stuff matters. They’re not thinking that when they play and we’re not thinking that either. It’s just two good teams,” said Haddaway.
That certainly is the truth thus far. Elmira took game one on the road 4-2 on Apr. 29, dropped a 6-5 overtime decision at home Sunday, then won a hard-fought 3-1 decision back in Niagara Tuesday night. The two teams matched up again Thursday and Friday night of this week but results were not available before press time.
In game one, the Kings scored their quickest goal of the season – just seven seconds in – courtesy of Brady Campbell from Josh MacDonald to stake the Kings to an early advantage.
“I don’t think you could draw that up any better,” Haddaway told reporters after the game.
The Canucks responded at the 4:31 mark of the first on a powerplay marker with Shane Smith in the box for hooking.
The quick goals continued on into the second when Campbell tallied his second of the game at 4:06 from MacDonald and Andrew Smith, with the Canucks Cam McLean knotting it up once again just 17 seconds later.
MacDonald restored the one goal cushion by tallying the eventual game-winner at 11:44 from Campbell and Smith.
Smith and MacDonald would pair up again for the fourth Kings goal of the night at 6:15 of the third, this time Smith scoring the goal, to put the game out of reach.
Goaltender Matthew Smith was solid in goal making 29 saves for the win.
Heading into game two on home-ice the Kings were looking to extend their series lead to 2-0 in front of a home-ice audience of just over 1,700 fans, but it was the Canucks who would rally behind a small but vocal cheering section of their own.
The game remained close at the end of two periods with Niagara nursing a 3-2 score before the flood gates opened in the third.
Niagara scored a pair of powerplay goals just 50 seconds apart at 12:38 to take a 5-2 lead and sending a handful of Kings fans home early in disappointment.
Yet those fans missed out, as the Kings responded to tally three goals in the final four minutes of the game, forcing overtime thanks to some undisciplined play by the Canucks.
Niagara’s David Grant took a slashing penalty and game misconduct at 15:23 of the third, followed up by a slashing penalty to George Dunn to give the Kings a 5-on-3 powerplay.
Haddaway opted to pull goaltender Matthew Smith for a 6-on-3 advantage. Brad Kraus rewarded his coach’s risky decision by converting a nice pass from Josh MacDonald right in front of the net just 34 seconds later to make it 5-3.
“I think if we go one minute into that 6-on-3 and not score, it’s a different result,” said Haddaway. “I think there was enough time on the clock to sort of convince the guys (of a comeback).”
With a one-man advantage still in effect, Haddaway once again pulled Smith to make it six on four, and Josh MacDonald scored just seven seconds later to make the score 5-4, assisted by Brady Campbell and Kraus. Suddenly the heat was on the Canucks.
The crowd got back into the game, and Haddaway said his team was brimming with confidence that they could tie it up.
“We still had a few minutes and were only down one goal, which was still lots of time.”
Defenceman Shane Smith completed the comeback at 18:01 on a nice wrist shot that eluded Niagara’s Cody Vinnai and knotted the game at five apiece. The Kings continued to pressure the Canucks for the final two minutes but couldn’t force another one over the line before the final buzzer.
“The worst thing that happened was the period ending. The two coaches were thinking opposite things – he was probably thinking ‘hurry up lets get out of here’ and I was thinking ‘come on let this thing last.’”
In the overtime period the Kings kept the pressure up, but the strain of closing a three-goal deficit was likely too much, and the Canucks Kyle Steckley ended the game at 6:53 on a give-and-go with Cam McLean.
Matthew Smith took the loss, making 30 saves on the night. In the end it was the Kings’ penalty kill that let them down, surrendering three goals in 10 chances.
On Tuesday night, the Kings looked to put that disappointing effort behind them on the road in Niagara, and seemed to do just that. The game was much tighter, with fewer scoring chances all around.
“I think the first 10 minutes or so, both teams were sort of feeling each other out, punch/counterpunch, there was not really a lot going on,” said Haddaway.
Niagara’s Dustin Scott tallied the opening goal at 13:15 by batting the puck out of mid-air past Nick Horrigan, but Brad Kraus continued his clutch playoff scoring by tying the game just 69 seconds later from Ryan Clarkson and Lukas Baleshta.
The first 20 minutes ended with a 1-1 draw heading into the dressing room. No penalties were called during the first.
“(Tied) 1-1 after the first period on the road after suffering a pretty demoralizing defeat two nights before, I would have taken that,” said Haddaway.
In the second, the Kings Colton Wolfe-Sabo broke the tie with a powerplay goal at 15:28 from Shane Smith and Andrew Smith to give the Kings a lead they would not relinquish for the rest of the evening.
Brady Campbell scored an empty net goal at 19:32 of the third from Shane Smith to seal the win.
A tighter defensive effort and solid goaltending from Horrigan, who made 26 saves, allowed the Kings to escape Niagara with a 3-1 win and a 2-1 series lead. There were only five combined powerplays in the game, compared to 16 in game two in Elmira, and Haddaway credited his
penalty killers with a much stronger performance.
“We just showed them some clips, and walked through some stuff the
night before, just to tidy it up and tighten it up a little bit. Fortunately we didn’t have to kill ten of them,” he said.
The teams faced off again on Thursday and Friday night, with the series shifting back to Elmira tomorrow night (Sunday) if necessary.