The Brantford Golden Eagles are the two-time defending Cherrey Cup Champions, and on Wednesday night at home the Elmira Sugar Kings learned why by finishing on the wrong end of an 8-5 loss in game-one of their semifinal matchup.
“They know how to win and they have a lot of guys who have won over there,” said head coach Geoff Haddaway following the loss. “That’s why they’re the champions.”
The start of the game offered a hint of what was to come in the high-scoring affair, as Elmira’s Ryan Clarkson opened the scoring just 48 seconds in on a great pass by Wade Pfeffer to spring him on a breakaway – he made no mistake. Clayton Greer picked up the other assist on the goal.
Like most great championship teams, however, Brantford didn’t allow that early goal to rattle them. Mitch Brown responded at 2:25 to tie the game by tipping a nice little pass between the legs of Kings goalie Matt Smith.
Greer restored the one-goal lead for Elmira at 16:04 of the first from Nic MacEachern, but that was the last time the Kings would lead for the rest of the night.
In the second period, Brantford’s Marc Madarasz scored twice less than one minute apart – once on the powerplay and once shorthanded – to give the Golden Eagles a quick 3-2 lead just 3:51 into the second.
MacEachern tied the game at 3-3 on the powerplay at 5:11 from Andrew Smith and Shane Smith, but the wheels fell off after that.
Brantford scored four more times before the end of the period – at 8:43, 10:15, 10:44, and 14:27 – to go up 7-3 heading into the third.
“I just think we lost our composure a little bit (in the second period) and struggled to get it back,” said Haddaway. “Brantford is like sharks in the water with blood, they were sensing that and they just pounced on it. But we’ll learn from it.”
Elmira performed much better in the third which was some consolation for the coach. Spencer MacCormack scored at 6:11 from Lukas Baleshta and Colton Wolfe-Sabo, and Josh MacDonald tallied a powerplay marker at 12:03 from Brady Campbell and Pfeffer.
But by then it was too little, too late. Brantford’s Brock Smith scored at 9:30 to finish out his team’s scoring on the night.
It was, by far, the Kings worst performance in the playoffs to date. Haddaway blamed the week off between series as part of the culprit, but also said that the team got away from their game plan in the second period and were rattled by Brantford’s quick transition game.
Goalie Matt Smith – rock-solid thus far in the playoffs – was pulled following the fourth Brantford goal in favour of Nick Horrigan, finishing the night with 19 saves. Horrigan was pegged with the loss after he gave up four goals on 24 shots.
Coming into the game, Smith had performed well in the playoffs, posting a 4-1 record, a 2.00 GAA and a .920 save percentage.
Haddaway said he is unsure yet who will get the start in game-two in Brantford Saturday night.
“Five goals are certainly enough to win a playoff game but we can’t just sit here and blame our goaltending,” he said. “We allowed eight goals together, as a team, so we’ll address that.”
The series is a rematch of last year’s semifinal matchup between Elmira and Brantford, where the Golden Eagles emerged with a six-game victory in a hard-fought series and went on to beat Stratford in the finals in six games as well.
On paper, this year’s series appears very evenly matched. Both teams finished the regular season with 70 points apiece, but Elmira finished second in the standings over Brantford because of one more victory.
Brantford advanced to the semifinals after their game-six victory over Kitchener last Saturday, and have now won three in a row.
This series also features one of the leagues better powerplays, Elmira at 25.5 per cent coming into game one, against the league’s number-three ranked penalty kill in these playoffs in Brantford, 90.2 per cent.
Elmira continued their success by finishing 2-8 with the extra man on Wednesday night.
Heading into game two, however, Haddaway knows that a better effort all around will be required to tie the series up at one. The team was forced to play without their captain, Josh Woolley, who the coach said was fighting the flu and hoped would be in the lineup Saturday night.
He said that some guys, Andrew Smith, Jarred Parent and Josh MacDonald, picked up their game on Wednesday night in the absence of Woolley, but added that others would need to do the same.
Game-two goes tonight (Saturday) in Brantford at 7:30 p.m.