The Elmira Sugar Kings saw their four-game winning streak halted Dec. 2 in a 6-4 loss to the Listowel Cyclones, but followed it up two days later with one of their stronger performances of the year, a 4-1 win over the Brantford Golden Eagles at home.
It was the third meeting of the season between Brantford and Elmira but the first one to end in regulation, as Elmira took the first match 3-2 in overtime back on Sept. 18 and Brantford responded with their own 3-2 win in a shootout on Oct. 30.
The Kings’ head coach was pleased with the effort in Sunday’s win over one of the tougher teams in the league.
“From top to bottom I thought we had an outstanding game,” said Dean DeSilva. “Our best players and our veteran players were our best, and it carried right on down to everyone on the bench.”
The Kings were led by the line of Andrew Smith, Lukas Baleshta and Brady Campbell. Smith scored Elmira’s first three goals of the game for his second hat-trick of the season, with Baleshta assisting on all three.
“They were outstanding tonight. They were dangerous every time they were on the ice,” said the coach. “Andrew Smith did what he does best, going to the net and scoring goals, Brady was strong on the puck all night and had his chances, and Balestha was outstanding on faceoffs and on the penalty kill and the powerplay.”
The game started slowly for the Kings as Brantford came out flying and had them on their heels for the first five minutes. The Kings didn’t record their first shot on goal until the 5:41 mark of the period, but in the second half of the period the team started to loosen up and make some good plays.
The highlight of the period came with just 2:30 left on the clock when Baleshta weaved his way across the Golden Eagles blue line and made a nice drop-pass to Smith, who fired a quick wrist shot into the top corner past the glove of Brantford’s Bryce O’Hagan to make it 1-0. Colton Wolfe-Sabo picked up the other assist on the goal.
Smith struck again at 8:57 of the second period on one of the more creative goals that the Kings have scored this season. After Baleshta recovered the loose puck at his own blueline, he spotted Smith breaking down the right wing and out of the zone.
Baleshta made a high, arching pass over the heads of everyone and it landed right in front of Smith as he neared the Brantford blueline, giving him a clear line to the net.
Smith made no mistake as he made another quick wrist shot into the top corner count, making it 2-0.
Baleshta said his drop pass and the alley-oop were the result of trying to relax out on the ice and be more creative, something the trio talked about with their coach before the game.
“We want to bring some fun into the game,” said Baleshta. “They’re some different things I’ve seen on Sportscentre and I’ve been trying to integrate them into my game, and it worked out alright tonight.”
Smith finished off the hat-trick with his third of the night at 15:58 of the second by capitalizing on another play started by Baleshta.
The centre won a faceoff to the left of O’Hagan and pulled the puck back to defenceman Wade Pfeffer, whose wrist shot led to a big rebound which Smith calmly deposited into the back of the night past the diving goalie to make it 3-0.
Brantford’s Mike Riley tallied a shorthanded marker at 17:53 to make it 3-1, but Brett Priestap sealed the win just under three minutes into the third period on the powerplay with his 13th of the year from Riley Sonnenburg and Will Cook.
The three goals by Smith give him a total of 26 on the year, eclipsing the 25 he scored all of last year and putting him just two behind the league-leader Brad McClure of Stratford.
Baleshta also moved into third in the league with 31 assists and he said he has embraced the role of the setup man this year rather than always looking to pull the trigger himself.
Baleshta has just five goals through the first 28 games of the season, after managing 22 last season.
“This year we’ve got so many guys that can put the puck in the net so I’m 100 per cent OK with being the setup man, especially being on a line with Smith and Campbell who are both great goal scorers.”
Slightly overshadowed by the exploits of Smith and Baleshta was the performance of goaltender Nick Horrigan, who quietly put together another solid game and made 33 saves for the win after a tough outing two nights earlier in Listowel where he allowed five goals on 28 shots.
Desilva said there was no question in his mind that he would go back to his number one goalie against Brantford.
“Friday night was a tough game in Listowel he’d like to have it back, but he was very, very focused (against Brantford) and there was no hesitation to go with him.”
Horrigan made the big saves when he needed to, particularly in the third when Brantford really turned it on and fired 18 shots on goal.
“For the first time in a few games I felt like my movement was good,” said Horrigan. “I don’t know what it was, you just go through stretches of the season where your feet aren’t where you want them to be, but I felt good tonight.”
The Kings face a tough weekend ahead. After a stop in Owen Sound Friday, they travel to Brantford Saturday for a rematch against the Golden Eagles, and return home for a Sunday afternoon tilt against Cambridge. Starting at 2 p.m., the game includes the club’s annual teddy bear toss, so be sure to bring a bear to throw on the ice after the Kings score their first goal.