Hockey is a game of inches, and the Elmira Sugar Kings are learning that the hard way as they’ve fallen behind the Stratford Cullitons 3-1 in their best-of-seven semifinal series and are on the brink of being ousted from the playoffs. The Game 4 loss came on home ice in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people on Wednesday night as they dropped a 2-1 decision to the visiting Cullitons. The Kings lost Game 1 of the series 4-1 on Mar. 16 in Stratford, but responded with a hard-fought 2-1 win on home ice last Sunday.
The team followed up their win with a devastating double-overtime loss in Stratford on Monday night, a game in which the Kings hit the goal post twice in the first overtime. All four games thus far have been typical playoff hockey, with big hits and bigger saves at both ends of the ice. The same was true on Wednesday night, but the Kings head coach was unhappy with his team’s overall play in what was a crucial point in the series.
“The better team won. The group that came out and played as a team won the hockey game, and the group that came out and played as individuals didn’t,” Dean DeSilva said following the Game 4 loss Wednesday night.
“We’ve got a game plan in place, we’ve talked to them about it before the game, but once that game starts it’s up to them to execute it.”
Four minutes into the game goaltender Nick Horrigan made a spectacular left pad save on Stratford’s Chad Binning, then followed it up with another big right pad save seconds later on Ryan Watson to keep the score tied at zero. Those saves jump-started the Kings and less than five minutes later Brett Priestap fired his fourth goal of the playoffs and first of the series past Cullitons netminder Jesse Raymond to give Elmira a 1-0 lead, assisted by Michael Hasson and Riley Sonnenburg.
The Kings dominated the remainder of the period, outshooting Stratford 21-12 and leading 1-0 heading into the intermission, but in the second period bad habits and bad penalties snuck into the Kings game.
“I thought I had addressed that with players before the game but obviously not,” said DeSilva.
Stratford turned the tables and tied the game at 18:29 when the puck bounced onto Ray Huether’s stick in the slot and he tapped it into the open net from five feet out. The Cullitons outshot Elmira 10-8 in the second, but the home team still had their chances, in particular Brady Campbell who was stopped on a partial breakway with 11:08 left on the clock, and again with 3:15 remaining when he stripped the defender of the puck and walked in alone on Raymond but was turned aside to keep the game tied.
The third period turned into a war of attrition as neither side was willing to give an inch past their own blueline, but again the Kings had their chances and were stymied. The best came with about 8:50 left on the clock when Priestap was sent away on a breakaway, but robbed by the left pad of Raymond as Priestap tried to cut across the front of the net and tuck the puck home.
That turned out to be the save of the game – and perhaps the save of the series – as Stratford immediately turned up the ice and scored a rather weak goal on Horrigan on a shot that eluded him through traffic. The final seconds were frantic as the Kings tried to tie it, but they failed to do so, falling 2-1 on the scoreboard and now trail 3-1 in the series heading back to Stratford on Friday night. Raymond finished with 38 saves in the win and has now made 159 saves on 165 shots in the series, but Priestap wouldn’t go so far as to say that the goalie is now in shooters’ heads.
“He’s making the saves from outside it’s just that nobody is going to the dirty areas to put the puck in,” Priestap said. “Since Game 2 we haven’t kept it simple, we’ve been trying to do too much, and Horrigan is keeping us in it so we have to help him out a bit.”
For DeSilva, the reason the team trails in the series is his players’ refusal to do all the little things necessary to win in the playoffs.
“Guys are trying to be too fancy instead of just getting the puck down low and jamming it at the net, which is what we want to do. Just jam and look for rebounds and create confusion in front of the net and score ugly goals.
“But these guys want the highlight reel goals, and they don’t realize that the dirty goals win you championships. The highlight reel goals will make you a hero for one night.” Game 5 of the series goes Friday night in Stratford at 7:30 p.m., and should the Kings force a Game 6, it will be played at the Dan Snyder Arena on Sunday at 7 p.m.