The Elmira Sugar Kings continued their assault on opposing goaltenders and the Midwestern Conference standings last weekend, running their perfect record to 7-0 with wins over Waterloo and Guelph.
The latest results, a 4-1 win in Waterloo on Sept. 24 and an unlikely 5-4 come-from-behind victory at home on Sunday, are just the latest highlights for fans who have not seen their team lose since May 1, a 6-5 defeat at home to Niagara in Game 2 of the Sutherland Cup finals.
Sunday night was by far the Kings most exciting game of this young season when the Hurricanes looked to have the win sewn up until the final two minutes, at which point the Kings rode the experience of veteran forwards Lukas Baleshta and Andrew Smith to the last-second win.
With his team trailing 4-3 and the clock ticking down, Baleshta tied the match during a mad scramble in front of the net that saw the third-year forward tap the puck past the sprawling Guelph keeper, Colin Furlong, with just 1:14 left.
Smith then tallied the winner with only 57 seconds remaining when he took a great pass from Baleshta and was left all alone in the slot. He fell to one knee as he put a wrist shot high to the blocker side past Furlong for his third goal of the night to complete the hat trick and bring the crowd of more than 600 fans to their feet.
“I was just yelling for the pass,” said Smith after the game. “[Baleshta] made a great play hustling after the puck and he took a pretty good slash to get the puck to me, and I just closed my eyes and shot.
“I’m just thankful it went in.”
Despite the impressive start to the season, head coach Dean DeSilva knows the team still has a lot to work on.
“September was just basically working on forechecking and d-zone, but in October we want to get into specialty teams and that’s what we’ll do,” he said following the win Sept. 25.
For the first two-and-a-half periods, the Kings looked like a team destined for their first loss of the season. After Smith opened the scoring at 15:40 of the first, the offence evaporated as the Kings began a parade to the penalty box.
The team took five straight penalties in the first and second periods, and eight of the first 10 by the end of the second. Riley Sonnenburg was ejected with just 10 seconds left in the first for a headshot against Guelph’s Brandon Stewart, leading to a five-minute powerplay that saw Guelph score twice.
Smith tied the game 2-2 at 11:19 of the second before Mark Bell gave Guelph the 3-2 lead heading into the third with Justin Cooke in the box for crosschecking.
Guelph extended the lead to 4-2 with their fourth powerplay goal of the night at 11:30 of the third before Elmira’s Pat McKelvie reduced the deficit to one 24 seconds later by shovelling a loose puck through the legs of Furlong.
Guelph finished 4-for-11 on the powerplay – two of them in 5-on-3 situations – and the Kings didn’t get their first powerplay until the start of the third period, a fact that didn’t escape the head coach.
“There might have been some questionable calls but you’ve got to battle through it,” said DeSilva. “Referees aren’t going to change their mind and put their hand down and say ‘you’re right, we made the wrong call’.”
Netminder Nick Coone was the team’s best penalty killers all night, and despite giving up four goals, he made at least a dozen key saves to keep the score close heading into the third. He finished with 25 saves on the night for the win.
“This game is all about momentum swings and when he comes up with a big save for us, the emotion and energy it creates on the bench is unbelievable,” said DeSilva.
Despite the shortage of calls their way, Elmira made them count when it mattered most.
They got their own 5-on-3 opportunity at 18:13 of the third, drawing the ire of the Guelph coaching staff, and Baleshta – who also finished the night with three assists – tied the game just 33 seconds later with his first goal of the year.
Smith completed the comeback 17 seconds later with his team-leading sixth goal.
“This is the type of win that we’ll learn from and put in our back pocket and take it out at crucial times by saying ‘we can come from behind,’” said the head coach. “Guelph played very, very well. They pushed us and played with a lot of emotion.”
The Kings will be hard-pressed to keep their winning streak alive this weekend with three straight games. Following a trip to Listowel Friday night, the second goes Saturday in Guelph starting at 7:30 p.m. The Kings return home to take on the Kitchener Dutchmen Sunday night at 7 p.m.
“We’ll have a good hard week of practice and get back at it and hopefully keep the winning streak going,” said Smith.