Looking to solidify their top-four position in the division standings, the Elmira Sugar Kings helped their own cause last week with three straight wins to move into a tie for second overall in the Midwestern Conference.
The Kings defeated Brantford 4-2 Feb. 17, Waterloo 3-1 the following day, and returned home last Sunday to win a tight match against Listowel 3-2 in overtime, with all three games having a definite playoff atmosphere.
“I don’t think that caught us off-guard at all,” said head coach Geoff Haddaway of the playoff feel now in the air. “We tried to prepare our guys for that, and as you get closer and closer (to the playoffs). I know what the other coaches are preaching, so it’s exactly what we expected.”
On Feb. 17 in Brantford, the Kings gave up the early lead to the Golden Eagles just 2:51 into the first. Once they managed to get their legs under them, they responded with two goals in the second, both courtesy of Brady Campbell. His first came at 1:55 from Matt Smith and the second at 15:43 from Jarred Parent, allowing the Kings to head into the third period tied at two.
“I thought the second part of the game we played better,” noted Haddaway. “Sometimes you go in there against the champions and you’re more hyped up than you should be, so maybe it took us a little while to find our legs. But I thought as the game went on we sort of settled in, and the third period was our best of the game.”
In the third, Spencer MacCormack finally broke the deadlock at 17:57, from Lukas Baleshta and Ryan Clarkson, and Cass Frey iced the game with an empty-netter at 19:53 from MacCormack and Shane Smith.
Matthew Smith made 32 saves for the victory.
The following night the team rolled into Waterloo looking to keep their six-game winning streak alive.
However, much like the Brantford game, Elmira fell behind early against the Siskins. Waterloo scored just 2:27 into the first. But Campbell continued his strong play by tying the match 1-1 at 12:22 of the first.
Ryan Clarkson then gave the Kings the lead for good at 17:46, from MacCormack and Wade Pfeffer.
The second period was scoreless, with Elmira outshooting the Siskins 16-13 in the frame.
In the third, Campbell scored his second of the night at 2:25 from Chris Zubac and Parent, while Nick Horrigan was outstanding all night, making 32 saves for the win.
Finally, the Kings capped off their winning weekend with a thrilling 3-2 overtime win against the Listowel Cyclones on Sunday night in front of more than 1,100 fans at the Dan Snyder Arena to push their winning streak to eight.
As they had done all weekend, the Kings fell behind in this match as well, with Listowel’s Ryan Horvat notching a shorthanded goal at 3:37 of the first.
The Kings, however, overcame that early deficit by scoring once in the second –MacCormack at 16:23 from Clarkson and Baleshta – and a highlight-reel goal courtesy of Josh MacDonald at 5:02 from Campbell and Parent. MacDonald beat the defender to the outside using a burst of speed and slid the puck past the sprawling Cyclones keeper to tie the game at two.
In overtime, MacCormack iced the game at 3:31 by tipping a Jordan Benton point-shot past the keeper. Smith made yet another strong start in goal by kicking aside 40 saves for the win, including three in overtime.
Prior to the game, Kings captain Josh Woolley was also awarded the Barbara Schaefer Memorial Award as the fan favourite, as voted by the fans.
The weekend was a fruitful one for the Kings, but still had a couple of troubling signs the coaches would like to clear up before the start of the playoffs next week. The Kings allowed the opening goal in all three games, and went 0-13 with the man-advantage.
“I thought on Saturday our powerplay was better, we just weren’t rewarded with a goal,” said Haddaway. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of building momentum and taking those two minutes to establish a strong
presence in their zone, then you’ll be rewarded later on.”
The weekend also highlighted the strong play of what will be one of Elmira’s key lines heading into the playoffs, the line of Baleshta, MacCormack and Clarkson, which combined for four goals, six assists, and all three game-winning goals over the weekend.
Elmira can boast potent secondary-scoring, as well, headlined by rookie Brady Campbell, who currently leads the team in goals with 28, and another 24 goals from their defence.
The team also is capable of riding either goalie, as showcased by the strong play of Smith and Horrigan over the weekend. Prior to the game, Horrigan was awarded with the goalie of the month award for January by winning three of five games, and posting back-to-back shutouts to start the month.
“We think it’s a strength, and we believe in both players,” said Haddaway of his goaltending situation. “I don’t sense that the players want one goalie in net over the other. I’ve been on teams where you get the feeling where they would rather have Goalie A in rather than Goalie B.”
The Kings wrap up their season tonight (Saturday) on the road against Cambridge. The playoffs get underway next week. With 68 points going into tonight’s game, the Kings could still finish as high as first in their division, or as low as fourth, with Guelph, Brantford, Elmira and Stratford all within three points of each other.