Over the course of a long hockey season special teams play comes to the forefront more than once or twice, but rarely if ever, does it show up like it did in the latest win for the Spruce Grove Saints.
The North Division leaders in the AJHL found themselves slapped with a nine-minute short-handed situation in their game against the Whitecourt Wolverines when newcomer Tristan Sieben was tagged with a fighting major along with instigator and boarding calls eight seconds into the second period with the score tied 1-1.
On the ensuring long-term man advantage, which actually turned into a power play extending for over 10 minutes including the minor penalty Connor James took for slashing just before the end of Sieben’s penalty, the Saints only gave the Wolverines one goal, a huge factor in what turned into a 6-5 win.
Speaking after the game, Saints assistant coach Michael Ringrose said that penalty kill was a vital piece of the win.
“I thought our special teams were the difference tonight for sure,” he commented. “We were flat in the first but that nine-minute kill gave us momentum. We were able to build off that and get a couple of power play goals right after that.”
Defenceman Cole Nicholson said his team’s theory was simple in killing off that lengthy sentence to Sieben.
“We know if we kill off penalties we’re going to get momentum off that,” he said, adding that was the “longest penalty kill I’ve ever been part of.”
“You just have to keep composed and work shift by shift,” he said of the team’s approach to taking care of business. “You just keep working at getting the puck down the ice,” not paying attention to how much time is left in the penalty.
Ringrose said there wasn’t any special plan put in place for that particular game situation, especially considering the Wolverines scored their only goal in that stretch just after the first minor penalty expired.
“After that it was a decision, I think, on the bench that we needed to get it done to give ourselves a chance (to win) and we did, so that was good.”
The game itself was a ragged affair with lots of penalties, lots of goals and plenty of high emotion running around the ice. Ringrose said because of all those conditions things at times looked a bit off-kilter.
“The game didn’t have a ton of flow. We were a little flat in the first and they were flat at times in the second, especially after that power play. They came hard in the third so it was kind of a disjointed game. In games like that you just have to make sure and stay focused and remember what’s at stake.”
As the season winds down the importance of this win, especially considering the lengthy penalty kill and the fact it wasn’t a smooth running contest means a lot, Nicholson noted.
“It’s good that we can squeeze out wins when we need to, when we’re not really playing our best.”
In the win, Parker Mackay led the Saints with his first-ever AJHL hat trick while Corey Chorneyko had two goals while Carson Samoridny had a single.
In their other game last week the Saints were playing near the top of their game as they downed Grande Prairie 7-1, out-shooting the Storm 20-0 in the opening period. Ringrose said neither he nor head coach Jason Mckee had ever been part of that sort of stat in any of their years of hockey.
“That was a credit to our group being ready to play. Contrast that to the game tonight where we weren’t great in the first period. It shows us we need to bring that kind of mentality to the start of the game every time. That’s something for us to strive for.”
Goals in that big win came from Tyler Busch (2), Cameron Hughes, Mackay, Macklin Pichonsky, Nicolas Correale and Jake Mykitiuk.
As for this coming week, the Saints, still ranked as the No. 1 team in Canada hook up with the No. 2-ranked squad, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, tonight (Jan. 24) in what is a pivotal game for each team. Ringrose wouldn’t go as far as to class it as a “must win,” but he noted it will have a major bearing on the year-end stats.
“I think they’re all important games from this point forward but I don’t think you want to use the term ‘must win’ with any game. For sure it’s one both teams have probably had circled on their calendar. The season’s series (2-0-2 for Fort Mac) has been exciting so far and I expect another exciting game.”
What would make it even more exciting, the coach said in closing, is if the stands are full.
“Last time they were in town I think was our best crowd of the year and the atmosphere was great, unbelievable so hopefully we can get that same kind of support for this game.”
Game time is 7 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena.
The Saints will pay a visit to Lloydminster on Saturday night and then are home on Wednesday, Jan. 29 vs. the Sherwood Park Crusaders.