After sweeping through their first-round series against Brantford, the Elmira Sugar Kings are in tough against Stratford. They’re going to need at least six games after the Warriors tied the series at 2-2 with a victory Tuesday night.
As with Stratford’s previous win, Tuesday night’s game needed overtime to decide it.
“Stratford has led in this series for zero seconds – they haven’t been leading a game, they haven’t carried the lead in this series for any time, and it’s 2-2, which is crazy to think about. Welcome to playoff hockey – crazier things have happened,” said head coach Rob Collins.
While the Kings captured top spot in the GOJHL’s Midwestern Conference, they expected a tough battle against their long-time rivals in Stratford. That the series wasn’t going to be the cakewalk that was Brantford became obvious in the opening game April 20 at the WMC, a low-scoring affair that saw the Warriors win in OT.
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After a scoreless first period, Brody Leblanc put Elmira ahead 1-0 with just 23 second left in the middle frame, assisted by Aidan Yarde and Nathaniel Mott.
Stratford got the equalizer at 6:58 of the third while on a power play. That’s how things stood until the Warriors scored at 9:30 of the extra stanza to take a 2-1 victory.
Shots were 29-22 in favour of Elmira, including 6-4 in OT. The Kings were 0-1 with the man advantage, while Stratford was 1-3.
It was a different story in Stratford two nights later, where power-play goals abounded in a 7-3 win for the visitors. The Kings went up 3-0 in the first and never looked back.
Luke Eurig got things rolling at 9:26 of the first, with assists going to Jaxson Murray and Owen O’Donnell. At 14:56, it was 2-0 courtesy of Jayden Lammel’s power-play marker, assisted by Kurtis Goodwin and Brock Reinhart. Twenty seconds later, Leblanc (Eurig, Adam Grein) scored a power-play goal of his own.
Stratford got one back at 16:27 to end the period down 3-1.
In the second, the only scoring was another power-play goal by the Kings, this one off the stick of Murray, assisted by Liam Eveleigh and Lammel.
The pace picked up in the third, with Stratford making it 4-2 just 32 seconds in. That was as close as they’d get, however, as the Kings exploded for three more goals in a little over four minutes: Daniel Fraleigh (Mott, Yarde), Grein (Lammel, Goodwin) and Logan Crans (Leblanc, Grein). The last was a power-play marker at 9:05.
The Warriors got one back with less than two minutes to go, but there was never a doubt about the outcome, a 7-3 win for Elmira.
Shots were 32-19 in favour of the visitors, who were 4-5 with the man advantage, while Stratford was 1-5. Netminder Dan Botelho, who didn’t get much run support in the opener, stopped 16 for the win.
With the action back in Elmira Sunday, the teams got off to a tentative start before the Kings put away a 4-1 victory.
There was no scoring in the first. Leblanc put Elmira up 1-0 at 1:28 of the first, assisted by Eurig and Murray. The Warriors lone goal – a power-play marker – tied the match at 10:39, but six minutes later it was 2-1 for the home side courtesy of Murray, from Eurig and Leblanc. That’s how things would stand heading into the intermission.
In the third, goals from Murray (O’Donnell, Eurig) and O’Donnell (Eurig, Leblanc), the latter on the power play, sealed the win.
Shots again favoured Elmira, 27-17, with the Kings 1-3 on the power play and Stratford going 1-5. Botelho stopped 16 en route to the win.
Tuesday night’s game saw plenty of power play chances on both sides, but it would prove to be a low-scoring affair that would require double OT to decide.
The opening period was again scoreless, but Elmira’s Chris Black scored his first of the playoffs unassisted to give the Kings a 1-0 lead that would stand until 8:36 of the third period, when Stratford tied the game.
The first OT settled nothing, but 12:59 into the second extra frame, Stratford managed another 2-1 overtime victory. Shots were 35-33 in Elmira’s favour, though the Warriors had a 17-11 edge in OT. Neither team connected with an extra man, Elmira going 0-7 and Stratford 0-8.
“Credit to their goalie – he’s playing really, really well right now. I thought he was outstanding last night as well,” said Collins on Tuesday. “They found a way to win and that’s the most important thing in the playoffs.”
While running into a hot netminder is something that happens in the playoffs, Collins notes the Kings have shown they know what to do.
“It’s an absolute real thing. By no means am I saying that their goalie is keeping them in this series – that’s a good hockey team over there. We just got to find ways to get pucks by them.”
The series resumed Wednesday night in Elmira, though results weren’t known before press time. Collins said his players were itching to get back to it, knowing that how they played all season applies right now.
“I think as a group, we found a recipe that works for us – just kind of stick to it. It’s just the attention to details, and the focus just needs to be there. The little things go such a long way in the playoffs. So, if you lack a little thing and it costs you one goal against, say, it could be very well the difference,” he said.
“The guys are excited about getting back at it. They want to get back out there and compete. They have a sour taste in their mouth when they left the rink last night (Monday), so hopefully that translates to what’s needed.”