By Gord Montgomery
OKOTOKS — In hockey, there’s nothing better than winning a game in OT … unless it’s a playoff game … or two back-to-back playoff games … on the road … and in a league championship series.
While that’s a mouthful, the Spruce Grove Saints took a big bite out of the AJHL Inter Pipeline Finals’ sandwich, and the Okotoks Oilers who are the No. 1-ranked team in the Canadian Junior A rankings, as they skated back home with wins of 4-3 and 3-2 over the weekend. Both of those wins came in extra time, with captain Josh Harris netting the winner in Game 1 and Chris Van Os-Shaw potting the winner the next night.
Speaking outside a jubilant Saints dressing room after the second win, their bench boss, Bram Stephen, agreed that maybe, just maybe he was the happiest hockey coach in all of Alberta. And if not that, then certainly in Okotoks at the very least.
“Yeah, we’re a pretty happy group,” he quipped, breaking into a smile, in regard to most visiting teams just being happy to leave the road rink with a split of the first two games. “They were both within the margin of error,” in terms of winning and losing. “They can go either way. We were fortunate enough to get the first two and if the next two (Monday and Tuesday in the Grove) are as close, there’s such a thin line, things could go the other way so we have to make sure we’re sharp.”
Speaking of sharp, the man who spearheaded the first OT win with a great centering pass to Harris, Van Os-Shaw, said the leadership shown by the Saints’ captain not only in the playoffs but all through the season, has meant a lot to his teammates.
“Josh has always put everything into the game. Every shift, every game, he’s always putting his heart and soul on the ice for us. He’s such a good leader and everyone looks up to him including myself. I mean, if you want a captain, just email Josh Harris!”
While the opening game was a tale of different games through all three periods, with the Saints owning the opening frame, the teams playing evenly through the second and then the Oiler dominating the third, out-shooting the visitors 11-4, it was the Saints who scored the only goal thanks to Sean Comrie who tied things up at three at 13:37 allowing Harris to walk away the hero in the end.
In the second game, Okotoks came out banging and crashing, looking to stymie the Saints speed, and for a while it seemed to work. But, Stephen noted, that’s a tough way to play the game.
“It’s tough to play like that all the time, at this age in junior hockey. Maybe in college and the pro level it gets a little bit easier but it’s tough to play that aggressive, that physical,” for an entire game. That showed as the Oilers backed off in the final two periods, and OT, letting the Saints once again step on the gas.
As for that tying goal in Game 2 with goalie Nolan Kent on the bench for the extra skater, Stephen agreed that headed into the extra time intermission, it gave his guys a huge lift.
As to what led up to that tying goal by Harris, Van Os-Shaw said: “I think they (Oilers) thought they had it. On the bench, we were all just calm and collected. We knew there was a job to be done. We just went out there and got it done. Harris got a nice pass from (Parker) Saretsky and banged it home (with 47 seconds left) and the momentum obviously shifted,” going the Saints way headed into OT. “We went into the dressing room and it was like, ‘Boys, we’re gonna win this hockey game!”
Said Stephen about the comeback, the win and the momentum shift: “Yeah, and that had just happened to them the night before so it makes it a little more difficult (for Okotoks to come back) for sure. It will be tough to handle for them moving forward.”
As for that beauty of a winner in Game 2 by Van Os-Shaw, Stephen noted it was a set play, sort of along the lines of something kids would draw up on a chalkboard and then try to make work, likely unsuccessfully, on an outdoor rink.
The game-winner came about when Jamieson Ree let fly with a cross-ice pass off the far boards from deep in his own end that hit Van Os-Shaw, who was well behind the Oilers defence, in full stride at the Okotoks blue line. The big winger, the league MVP and scoring champ, made no mistake in burying that breakaway opportunity.
“It was a little bit of a different exit out of the zone,” said Stephen, who noted they’d used that particular play once before, to similar success, during the regular season.
But let’s let the man of the moment, Van Os-Shaw, explain how things played out and what went through his mind not only with that goal.
“Reesy made an unbelievable pass,” he began, sharing the credit for what transpired in Game 2. “I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted. I saw the low blocker (side) was open, so I shot and it happened to go in.”
Add to that the penalty shot marker the previous night that got the Saints offence rolling and which goal was most exciting to him, Van Os-Shaw summed it up perfectly with this: “They were both up there for pretty special moments. Last night (penalty shot) was definitely a special moment with respect to my buddies who didn’t make it,” when after scoring he pointed skyward in saluting his fallen friends and former teammates on the Humboldt Broncos. “Tonight, to win that game in overtime for the boys was incredible!”
And so far that’s what this series has been — simply incredible hockey turned in by the top two teams in the AJHL battling it out to see who is the best. Games 3 and 4 go in the Grove at the Grant Fuhr Arena on Monday, April 16 and Tuesday, April 17, at 7 p.m.
Photo credit: Frank Watting Photography
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