In the world of sport, luck – or the lack thereof – is often to blame for the outcome of a game: an improbable bounce here or rebound there that ends with a puck in the net, drawing a stark line between the ebullient victors on one side and the dejected vanquished on the other.
For the Elmira Sugar Kings, who lost the best-of-seven series against the Kitchener Dutchmen in game six Sunday, the cruelty of chance boiled down to such a single, fleeting overtime moment. It came at the 12:08 minute mark of overtime, with the Kings and the Dutchmen tied 3-3.
After fending off a flurry of fourth-period shots, Elmira netminder Jake Williams, who had kept his team’s playoff hopes alive by making several clutch saves, saw Derek Schoenmakers cross the center line. He skated into position, cut down the angle and got ready to make another crucial save. Then the Dutchmen forward let one rip from Williams’ blocker side and the Elmira goalie made the save, blocking the puck with his upper body. But somehow the evasive puck crept over his frame and just barely trickled its way into the Elmira net.
With that single play, the Kings’ season came to a crashing halt.
“It was a tough way to end the season. In the game I thought we played really well and deserved to win but unfortunately came up a little short,” said coach Geoff Haddaway after the 4-3 loss.
“It’s disheartening and no one felt worse than he (Williams) did.”
It was a cruel finish especially for Williams, who had come up big between the pipes several times throughout the games, bailing his teammates out on several plays, and stopping 38 of 42 shots on the night.
“No one’s going to remember those big saves, unfortunately, they remember the ones that go in – that’s the nature of the position,” said the coach.
Despite the final outcome, Haddaway was pleased with his squad as it came out of the pen ready to force a seventh game; and indeed, from the initial drop of the puck, things looked good for the home team.
Josh Ranalli, from linemate Brent Freeman and defenceman Trent Brown, opened the scoring for the Kings at 18:37 of the first frame.
In the second period, a towering but soft-handed Kyle McNeil, who had just finished threading the needle with a number of beautiful passes, powered his way to the left side of the Kitchener net, where he managed to sneak the puck between Jordan Bowes and the left post. The Kings were now up 2-0.
Judging by the way they were playing – solid on defence, aggressive on the forecheck, and with a sharp netminder – the Kings looked entirely capable of forcing the seventh game.
“I felt we played really well,” Haddaway said, noting the team eliminated some of Kitchener’s most threatening players from the scoreboard, killed all its penalties, and managed to score with the man advantage.
“We had a lot of things going our way, just [not] the final score.”
Down 2-0, Kitchener reacted and finally got on the marker at 13:07. Jordan Hardy, from Mike Doran and Justin Knee, made it 2-1 off a beauty of a wristshot that sailed over Williams’ glove side.
In the third period the Kings came out hard, making it a 3-1 game less than two minutes into the period; Kyle Blaney, the diminutive yet gritty forward, converted on a Mike Therrien pass to make it 3-1 at 1:59. The zippy, opportunistic Blaney was a pesky presence all night, making life difficult for the Kitchener defense every chance he got.
The Kings battled hard in a physical contest, and the fans got their fair share of playoff action as players like Nic McEachern delivered some thundering hits. Williams made a number of crucial saves, and his defencemen, several times, dropped like potato sacks to block shots.
Kitchener got back into the game with two consecutive third period goals to force the overtime; Hardy, unassisted, narrowed Elmira’s lead at 2:34 to make it a 3-2 game.
Both teams jostled for that all-important goal, and Elmira came close to potting it when Blaney knocked in his own rebound off a breakaway slap shot. But his Ovechkin-like celebration quickly turned sour when the referees ruled it a no-goal, deeming that he had purposely kicked the puck in. The Kings and the fans protested that there had been no kicking motion on the play, but it was to no avail: the score remained the same.
Down one goal with approximately a minute left to play, the Dutchmen pulled Bowes for the extra attacker and the move paid itself in dividends as Tony Blyde from Todd Martin evened the score at 19:18.
In the overtime period both teams came out eager to win. However, a turnover near center saw Kitchener’s Derek Schoenmakers get as far as the blue line where, pressured by the Elmira defence, he unleashed a quick shot on Williams, who appeared to make the initial save, but then failed to corral the puck as it tripped over him and into the net.
It was an unfortunate finish for the plucky Elmira team. But after the game, no one wanted to talk about luck.
“We tried not to let it become a factor; we didn’t talk about it, we didn’t discuss it … in the history of sports, those kinds of things seem to happen a lot where a sequence of events takes place where one team seems to be able to take advantage of a non-call, or a bad call, or a controversial call the other way, so, it was frustrating, but what are you going to do?” said Haddaway.
Thankfully, there’s always next year.
With just three 20-year-olds graduating out of the system (Patrick Shantz, Brent Freeman and Kyle McNeil) the Kings have a solid group of players on which to base next year’s project. But that’s not to say that there won’t be competition when training camp opens next season.
“We want to be better than we were this year.”