The Pleasantdale Panthers are, once again, Antigonish Rural League hockey champions.
They skated to their second consecutive crown on the strength of a 5-1 victory over the Heatherton Warriors Saturday night (April 20) at the Antigonish Arena.
With the win, the Panthers captured the best-of-seven championship series 4-1.
After the regular season champion Warriors took Game 1, the Panthers rattled off four consecutive victories.
Facing elimination, the Warriors came out strongly in the opening five minutes with their top line - Ricky Bowie, Mike Tobin and Alex Bonaparte - buzzing around Panther goaltender Brandon MacDonald. Off a goal-mouth scramble, Bowie - Heatherton's veteran captain - almost stuffed one in.
The Panthers first scoring opportunity came off the stick of defenseman Brian MacDougall, when he hit the goal post behind a screened Luke Melanson between the pipes for the Warriors.
After Pleasantdale pressured to open the scoring, led by the rushing defenseman Mack Derraugh, the Warriors responded with a two-on-one attack by Tobin and Bonaparte, with the shot sailing over the cross bar. Seconds later, after trailing the play, Bowie took a feed in front and made no mistake - sliding one along the ice behind MacDonald to give the Warriors a 1-0 edge. Tobin and Bonaparte notched the helpers.
A few minutes later, Tobin stole the puck from Derraugh and raced into the offensive zone, but the Panther defenseman caught up and prevented a quality scoring chance.
The Warriors tried to double their advantage, with Bonaparte picking up the rebound on the lip of the crease of an Oliver Ross MacDonald point shot, but MacDonald made the save.
Late in the opening frame, veteran Mike Decoste of the Panthers rang a hard shot off the goal post behind Melanson.
After the first period, the Warriors led 1-0.
Early in the second period, Heatherton almost made it 2-0, but Jason Tait's shot through a sea of bodies caromed off the goal post.
On the first power play, for either side, Tobin threatened for the Warriors, but MacDonald - last season's playoff MVP - was equal to the challenge.
Off a later feed from Bowie, first-year defenseman Dylan MacLean couldn't find the mark with his point shot.
After the successful penalty kill, the Panthers focused on knotting the contest, starting with Brandon Verge and Decoste racing in two-on-one, but the puck rolled off Decoste's stick as he made a nifty deke to his backhand.
Seconds later, as Pleasantdale pressed for the game-tying goal, MacDougall fed Brennin Fraser, whose shot came off the heel of his stick and went wide.
The Warriors replied with a strong shift from the Bowie-Tobin-Bonaparte trio.
Nevertheless, the Panthers were able to make it 1-1, midway through the second period.
The Warrior defense blocked a shot from the slot from Verge, but he corraled the loose puck and his follow-up backhander was turned aside by Melanson, but Mitch Warner poked in the rebound.
Jack Macquarrie collected the other assist.
Just more than three minutes later, with the man advantage, the Panthers took a one-goal advantage. Playoff leading scorer and MVP Garrett Lambke completed the scoring play from King and MacDougall.
With the Panthers looking to go ahead by two goals, on another power play, the Warriors limited them to one shot.
Buoyed by that defensive stand, the Warriors threatened for the equalizer, including a pair of chances for Bonaparte.
In the final minutes of the middle stanza, while on another man advantage, Verge of the Panthers ripped a shot wide.
While shorthanded, Bowie made a steal and glided into the Panther zone and uncoiled a hard slap shot, but MacDonald smothered the puck.
The Panthers took a 2-1 edge to the locker room after 40 minutes of action.
Early in the third period, Pleasantdale started strongly, including a one-minute or so stretch where they penned Heatherton in their zone. The best scoring opportunity of that foray came off the stick of Verge, but Melanson made the stop.
The Warriors countered with Bonaparte re-directing a point shot from defenseman Kory Tate over the cross bar.
A short time later, Tate connected on a pinpoint stretch pass to Bowie, whose shot trickled through the crease after MacDonald made the save.
With less than 10 minutes remaining in regulation time, the Panthers made it 3-1, after a Panther duo broke in on Melanson, who made a sparkling save on a backhander from Justin MacKay, before Fraser poked home the rebound.
In the following moments, Melanson made a handful of stops to keep the Warriors within striking distance.
In the final three minutes, the Panthers sealed the deal with a pair of markers, including one on the power play, to make it 5-1.
At 2:39, on that man advantage, Lambke tallied his second marker, with Derraugh and Verge collecting helpers.
With just more than 90 seconds remaining, Brett Murphy - from Jeremy Sheppard and MacKay - wrapped up the scoring.
Along with the presentation of the Hockey Nova Scotia banner and championship trophy, league officials recognized year-end award winners.
Lambke received the Jay Doyle Memorial Award (playoff MVP) and Lauchie Chisholm Memorial Award (top playoff scorer).
King collected the Donald Kennedy-Luke Brown Memorial Award, which goes to the leading point-getter in the regular season.
Kenzie Melanson of the St. Croix Angels and Scott MacInnis of the County Outlaws received the Allister and Jon Beaton Memorial Award as the most dedicated player.
Warrior head coach Donald Chisholm earned the Ernie ‘Jack’ Chisholm Memorial coach of the year award.
First-team all-stars include Melanson, defencemen MacDougall and Marc Fougere, along with forwards King, Bonaparte and Verge.
The second-team squad is Blair Van Oirschot (Angels), in goal, MacLean and Cory Bennett (St. Croix Angels), while Josh Robinson (Warriors), Patrick MacIsaac (St. Croix Angels) and Josh Landry (County Outlaws).
The Warriors also received the regular season championship trophy.