As their 40th anniversary looms large on the horizon, and memories of past playoff successes radiate through town, there is no doubt that the Elmira Sugar Kings are looking forward to a long and fruitful playoff run. But they have to get through the final 14 games of the regular season, first.
It was with that thought in mind that the Kings entered action last weekend against the Guelph Hurricanes and the Stratford Cullitons, the top two teams in the Midwestern
Conference all season, and responded with a 5-3 victory in Guelph on Saturday, and a 4-0 win over the Cullitons at home on Sunday.
“Going into Guelph we were a point behind them (for second place), and you don’t really have to say too much to the guys,” said head coach Geoff Haddaway about the importance of the two games. “It’s that time of year (and) the boys should be ready and be prepared.”
It was the second time the Kings had beaten the Hurricanes on home ice this season – the other came on Nov. 13 – and both were by a 5-3 margin.
The Kings got off to another quick start in this one, as Spencer MacCormack made it 1-0 just 3:31 into the first from Wade Pfeffer and Andrew Smith. Elmira dominated the period, outshooting Guelph 12-3 in the frame, but Guelph would tie it up at 12:35 and the two teams headed into the second period deadlocked at 1-1.
Brad Kraus built on his strong return from an injury by giving the Kings the lead at 17:52 of the second period from Shane Smith. It was his third goal in two games since missing a month with an injury.
Elmira’s Ryan Clarkson extended the lead to 3-1 with a successful penalty shot at 2:32 of the third period, but Guelph wasn’t going to go easily.
A two-goal outburst just 21 seconds apart at 7:37 and 7:58 of the third tied it up for the Hurricanes, but Haddaway said the Kings remained calm.
“I think every coach in the past week that has blown a two-goal lead in the third starts to think if they should call a timeout because of what happened with Team Canada,” said Haddaway with a laugh. “For some reason I felt good about our team and that it was an opportunity for us to dig down and show some grit. I didn’t sense any panic on the bench.”
Elmira captain Josh Woolley proved his coach right when at 18:33 of the third he scored the eventual winning goal on the powerplay, assisted by MacCormack, and with Guelph goalie Jeff Flagler pulled for the extra attacker MacCormack scored his second of the night into the open cage.
Matt Smith made 17 saves for his 10th win of the season.
The following night at home the Kings were in for another tough matchup as the faced off against the division-leading Stratford Cullitons in a 2 p.m. match. Heading into the game, the Kings trailed Stratford by five points for first in the division, and the Kings had lost their previous meeting with the Cullitons by a lopsided 7-2 score in Stratford.
“They thumped us pretty badly in their rink the last time we played and I don’t think you need to remind the guys of that. We were able to jump on them early and we sustained that momentum for most of the first period,” said Haddaway.
For the third consecutive game the Kings scored early. Brady Campbell made it 1-0 just 44 seconds in – barely enough time for the fans to warm up their seats at the Woolwich Memorial Centre. It was his 20th goal and 41st point in what has turned into a tremendous season for the rookie.
Colton Wolfe-Sabo made it 2-0 on the powerplay from Lukas Baleshta and MacCormack at 7:12 of the first. It was a dominant period that had fans buzzing as the Kings outplayed, outhustled, outhit and outshot their opponents 22-10 at the buzzer.
The second period saw the action slow down a little bit as both teams were held off the score sheet and Elmira held a 10-6 advantage in shots. At the 18:00 mark of the period Baleshta thought he had put the Kings up 3-0 but the goal was waved off after a high stick made contact.
For its part, Stratford had a difficult time moving through the neutral zone with any speed, and setting anything up in the offensive zone.
In the third the Kings once again got the early jump on the visitors and went up 3-0 at the 4:18 mark of the period on a nicely executed 3-on-1. Baleshta and Andrew Smith started the rush, and after the Stratford goalie kicked aside Baleshta’s initial shot, MacCormack came roaring in to clean up the rebound with his 20th goal of the season. MacCormack also extended his point streak to eight games, scoring 12 goals and 19 points over that span.
Chris Zubac iced the game at 19:50 with an open net goal, his first of the season from Jarred Parent.
Nick Horrigan kicked aside 27 shots for his fifth shutout of the year and 15th win of the season.
Monday night also marked the trading deadline in the GOJHL, and the Kings picked up former Sugar King Nic MacEachern from the Guelph Hurricanes. MacEachern, who played 11 games with Elmira last season and 52 games the year before, has 17 goals and 18 assists this season for the Hurricanes.
The Kings (25-10-2) faceoff against the seventh-place Winter Hawks tonight (Saturday) in Cambridge, then have a rematch against Guelph at the Woolwich Memorial Centre on Sunday. Both games start at 7 p.m.