Saints, Bandits all tied up in Gas Drive Cup Championship quest
The only thing better than free hockey is free hockey between the top two teams in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. And that’s exactly what fans got, twice over, at the Grant Fuhr Arena as the Spruce Grove Saints and the Brooks Bandits opened up their Gas Drive Cup Championship series.
The Bandits took the first game in the best-of-seven series 3-2 with a goal midway through the first overtime period. The Saints answered that challenge the next night, post-ing an identical 3-2 victory, with the winner coming early in the second OT frame.
Saints head coach Jason McKee admitted his troops may have been a bit lucky to make it into the second extra frame in Game 2 after taking a couple of penalties in the first extra session, but as has been the key in this whole playoff run, his PK units were up to the task. In fact, Brooks first goal, on the power play in the first regulation time period, was the first of that type his team has allowed in this post-season. But they weren’t about to let that happen again in OT.
“We took some penalties in the (first) overtime there and they took some momentum off it. We were under siege there,” he noted, adding goaltender Matt Murray lived up to ex-pectations, playing what was undoubtedly his best hockey of the season.
Murray was a bit of a surprise getting the nod as the starter, his second in a row, a step away from what has been a continual rotation with fellow puck-stopper Ravi Dattani. McKee’s reasoning for starting Murray couldn’t be argued with though.
“We won because of our goaltender. He saved us in the first OT there and gave us a chance in the second. Our best offensive player (Brandon Biro) made a great play to win the game.”
***Saints goalie Matt Murray, shown here tangled up with teammate Macklin Pichonsky, earned back-to-back starts and proved his coaches hunch right by coming up with terrrific performancesin both games, earning the 3-2 double OT win in Game 2.
Biro, the Saints leading scorer in the post-season had been held to one assist through the first two games until he broke free in the extra session to net the winner.
“The puck kind of popped out in the corner,” he explained of the game-ender. “I had a chance to get it and I made like I was going to go behind the net. When I saw no one was really in front I just walked out … and I don’t even know where the puck went,” he said about sliding the backhand shot between Garret Hughson’s legs. “It was nice, for sure.”
While Biro picked up the winner, it was Murray who put his team in the position to earn the win and split the first two games of the series. He came up with a number of show-stopping saves, including a couple with his team short-handed in the first extra period.
The Bandits dominated play in the OT sessions by having a more sustained offensive attack, thanks largely to those penalty calls, but it was Murray, and then Biro, who put an end to another edge-of-your-seat contest.
“I thought Matt looked like he was really dialled in last game (Game 1) and gave us a chance last night,” McKee said of the young tender who last year, against Brooks in the final, stepped up and showed the talent he had. “Obviously he’s played some big games (including last season’s Cup winning 2-1 OT game) and I just had a feeling he was going to have a big game tonight.
“Matt has great size and he’s athletic. He’s never down and out on plays,” the bench boss said in relation to just a few of the stops Murray came up with. “He’s a competitor and that probably gives him the opportunity to make some saves he shouldn’t.”
This series is likely to be just as intense, and just as exciting, for fans at least, going for-ward. McKee said the ability of his team, and in particular his veteran players, to not pan-ic in tense situations and to stick with a game plan is going to be important going for-ward.
“Those core guys have been unbelievable. They played a lot of minutes and skated miles tonight. My hat’s off to them. I was awfully proud of the way we played. Win or lose tonight they really gutted it out. I was really happy as a coach. That was pretty gratifying to see they way we played tonight.”
***While this serieshasn't been quite as physical for the Saints as their first two rounds were, there were still some big hits being dished out. Here, vet Austin Hunter takes a Brooks player hard into the boards during the first game.
This series has been one of firsts for both teams in the 2016 playoff run. For the Saints, it was the first time they’ve trailed in a series when they lost the opening game. For the Bandits, it’s the first time they’ve been even after two games, having swept their first two rounds. For both teams, these were the first two OT experiences of the post-season. And finally, the loss for Brooks was their first this post-season.
While the Saints have had some unreal scoring chances turned aside by Hughson, Biro said that’s all part and parcel of the game. While it may dismay the loyal Saints fans to see those opportunities go for naught, the forward who robbed the Bandits of a two-game lead heading home said it’s all part of the game.
“I don’t think it’s really frustrating. A team needs a good goalie to get to this point so I think you just keep plugging away and you’re going to get a good bounce,” which he made the most of to close this one out.
***The Saints have found Brooks goalie Garret Hughson tough to beat, but they have dented his armor a few times and finally found a way to hand him his first loss in the post-season in Game 2.
This series has now become a best-of-five and it shifts to Brooks for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Tuesday. The fifth game will be played at the Grant Fuhr Arena on Friday, April 22 at 7 p.m. The sixth and seventh games, if needed, will be played in Brooks and the Grove respectively on Sunday, April 24 and Tuesday, April 26 (again at 7 p.m.).
Tickets for the Grove games are available at Spruce Grove City Hall during business hours, on this website or at the door of the rink on game night. With sell-outs for the first two games, chances are the old barn will be full again for one, or both, of the upcoming Grove home games as fans can expect nothing but the same type of performances from both teams going forward.
And who knows, there may even be some more free hockey tossed in by the teams to re-ward those who come out to watch. * PHOTOS BY DAVE ROSS