With about seven minutes left in the second period of Wednesday night’s 4-2 loss to the St. Thomas Stars, Kings forward Lukas Baleshta – minus his left glove after being shoved to the ice by a Stars defender – skated to the bench on a line change and smashed his stick against the boards.
It was an obvious sign of frustration, and one that was indicative of the teams play through the first two games of the Sutherland Cup round-robin series against Niagara Falls and St. Thomas. The Kings lost game one of the series 6-3 in Niagara Apr. 15, and followed it up with a disappointing 4-2 setback on home ice Wednesday night in front of more than 1,100 people at the Dan Snyder Arena.
“You get frustrated every game, but you have to battle through it and keep your head up and keep doing what you have to do to win,” said Baleshta, who scored the Kings’ second goal late in the third period on a tipped point shot.
“They better be (frustrated),” said head coach Geoff Haddaway after the 4-2 setback. “We lose a couple games, and they all know what’s at stake.”
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The loss drops the Kings record to 0-2 in their four-game round-robin series, an unwelcome wakeup call following their thrilling six-game Cherrey Cup win over Listowel back on Apr. 8.
Niagara Falls is currently 2-0 while St. Thomas – which lost 7-3 to Niagara on Apr. 17 – is now 1-1, and only the top two teams advance to play each other for the Sutherland Cup title.
Game one against Niagara Falls did not start out the way the Kings envisioned in their bid for the finals. They surrendered the first goal just 45 seconds into the game and never recovered, trailing 3-0 after the first 20 minutes, including a powerplay goal with Niagara on a 5-on-3.
“That’s a pretty dangerous thing to do against a talented team like Niagara Falls especially in their own barn,” said Haddaway of the slow start.
Niagara would add another 5:04 into the second to take a 4-0 lead before Cass Frey, assisted by Andrew Smith and Nic MacEachern, cut into the lead at 7:33 to make it 4-1.
Niagara would add another before the end of the period to restore the four-goal cushion.
In the third Elmira took control of the game, outshooting the Canucks 11-8 and outscoring them 2-1 on goals from Brad Kraus (Brady Campbell and Wade Pfeffer) just 56 seconds in on the powerplay, and from Colton Wolfe-Sabo (Josh MacDonald and Pfeffer) at 11:04 to make it 5-3.
Elmira would surrender a sixth goal at 19:22 to ice the game, 6-3. Matthew Smith took the loss in net making 16 saves on the night.
In game two of the round-robin schedule, the Kings seemed to carry that momentum from the third period against Niagara into their match against St. Thomas.
Ryan Clarkson opened the scoring at 12:57 of the first on a nice give-and-go from Josh MacDonald and slid the puck in the empty net. Spencer MacCormack picked up the second assist on the goal.
“I thought we came out really strong and had a really good first period,” said Haddaway of his teams effort to start the game, “but their goaltending was outstanding tonight.”
Following that goal the Kings got into the same penalty trouble that plagued them in game one against Niagara, taking five straight penalties in the first and into the second period.
St. Thomas tied the game at 18:48 of the first period with their first of two powerplay goals on the night when Brad Kraus took an ill-advised roughing penalty in the St. Thomas end after Elmira had placed tremendous pressure on the Stars.
Brennon Pearce and Andrew Smith would each take a penalty at the 19:30 mark of the first to put the Kings down by two men for a full two minutes.
The Stars would score on that 5-on-3 just 26 seconds into the second when Dylan Thomas scored into a wide open net to give St. Thomas a 2-1 lead.
“I’m not sure if in a championship series five penalties in a row are warranted, but that’s the way it happened, and we had to deal with it,” said Haddaway of the Kings’ penalty trouble in the game.
Down 2-1, that was when the Kings’ frustration started to show. St. Thomas goaltender Torrin Lauziere stood on his head all night, making 36 saves for the win and stymied Kings shooters again and again, including Josh Woolley and Brady Campbell on two separate breaks that could have tied the game at 2.
Riding their hot goaltender, St. Thomas used their speed to score two more quick goals at 14:52 and 17:35 of the second to take a 4-1 stranglehold on the game.
Baleshta scored a late powerplay marker with the extra attacker at 19:16 of the third to make it 4-2 from Wolfe-Sabo and Jordan Benton, but it was too little too late, and now the Kings have dug themselves an 0-2 hole and face a must-win situation in their remaining two games.
Nick Horrigan finished with 34 saves in the loss.
The Kings play game three of the round robin tonight (Saturday) in St. Thomas, and close out the series at home the following night against Niagara Falls. Both games start at 7 p.m.
Haddaway said the secret for the Kings to make it past the round robin is clear.
“We’ve got to win. It’s simple, we’ve got to win,” he said.
Baleshta echoed his coach’s words.
“We’ve done it the hard way all year, so this doesn’t change anything. We know what we have to do, we have to win these next two games and see what happens.
“We’re OK, we just have to stay positive and do the things that we’ve doing all year to get us this far.”