The Strait Pirates completed a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in their best-of-seven Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League (NSJHL) Sid Rowe Division opening-round series against the Antigonish Farmers’ Mutual Junior Bulldogs with a 5-0 victory on home ice Tuesday night.
It was a full house at Veterans’ Memorial Arena in the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre, with more than 1,000 fans watching the latest chapter in the storied hockey rivalry.
“I just think that we played our game – we cycled the puck, we created chances and we defended – we did a good job in all three areas of the game,” head coach Taylor Lambke said.
“It was, probably, our most complete game of the season, to be honest with you. We just came up big at the right time.”
The Bulldogs garnered the first quality scoring chance, when Fearghus MacDonald and Spencer Barron skated in, 2-on-1, but Pirate goaltender Cody Smith turned aside a hard shot from MacDonald to keep it scoreless.
Moments later, Josh MacMillan tested Jared Green, but the Bulldog goaltender – who was spectacular in the series – made the stop.
The Pirates opened the scoring at the 16:01 mark, when Avery Warner made a nifty centering pass to Cullen MacEachern, who shovelled it behind Green from the lip of the crease.
Seconds later, the home side nearly doubled their edge, but Green snagged a hard shot from the top of the circle, off the stick of Randon MacKinnon.
On a Pirate power play, Taylor Pierce raced into the Bulldog zone, on his off wing, before ripping a wrist shot just wide, blocker side. He then took a centering pass, but Green stoned him.
After a Pirate penalty and some four-on-four play, the Bulldogs had a man advantage for just more than one minute.
The first chance of that power play came from the Pirates, shorthanded, when Austin Woodland challenged Green, but he came up empty.
The best chances for the Bulldogs to tie the contest, on that power play, came off a point shot from Kieran Devine and rebound shot from Keegan Gauthier, but Smith made the stops.
At 5:41 of the first period, the Pirates doubled their edge, with Josh MacMillan depositing the rebound, off a MacKinnon shot, behind Green.
A short time later, the Pirates almost made it 3-0, but Green turned aside Pierce on a two-on-one opportunity.
On a late man-advantage for the Bulldogs, Smith barred the door, with the best scoring opportunity coming from Branden Dauphinee of the Pirates, but Green smothered his backhander.
The Pirates led 2-0 after the first period.
“I thought that we played a really good first period – identical to the way that we played all series long,” Bulldog head coach Dave Synishin said.
He added, despite the two-goal deficit, they continued “to plug away.”
“We were down 3-0 in one game earlier in the series, so we knew that we could come back, so that wasn’t an issue,” Synishin noted.
A step back
In the second period, the second-year Bulldog head coach said his team “went back to our regular-season self.”
“I am not sure why, but that happens in sports. We stood around and we watched plays happen. We got completely away from how we played in this series and, by then, it is 4-0, and it is pretty tough to climb back,” he added.
Early in that middle stanza, MacKinnon came out flying, the power forward breaking in alone on Green, who made another great stop.
At the 12:31 mark, the Inverness native made it 3-0, when he picked up a juicy rebound and made no mistake.
Pirate captain Matthew Morgan and Brendan Lanning collected the helpers.
On another Bulldog power play, the Pirates, once again, garnered the best scoring chance, with Pierce lacing a shot wide from the slot.
While on the man advantage, MacKinnon extended the Pirate advantage, banging in a centering pass from Pierce, while Morgan scored the second assist.
The Pirates took a 4-0 lead to the locker room after 40 minutes of play.
After some early chances for the Bulldogs, Pierce – on an assist from Sebastian Vella – tallied at the 9:40 mark to give the Pirates a five-goal edge.
With several saves down the stretch, Green kept it 5-0.
In the final minute of regulation, Smith preserved the Pirate shutout by stopping Logan Deyoung from close quarters.
Smith finished with 21 saves, while Green turned aside 35 shots.
“Cody stepped up and kept us in the game, when we needed it, and tonight he – and everyone – just played a complete game, buying into what we wanted to do,” Lambke said of his goaltender’s play during the series.
He also credited Green for his performance.
“Jared played a hell of a series for them. In the middle part of the series, he was the difference in the hockey games, he was making a ton of saves,” Lambke said.
Describing Green as “fit and athletic,” Synshin said “he plays goal that way.”
“It was so nice to see how he performed. Obviously, without him, the series would have been different,” he added.
Synishin was asked about his fourth-place team, which finished 25 points behind the Pirates in the regular-season, being able to take them to the brink of elimination.
“We had a good chat before the first period of the first game. It was about convincing, most of all, our forwards to start playing physically,” he said.
“We weren’t physical all year long and we came out banging in the first period. That’s really what it was – we weren’t going to go away. Our team, in general, became more physical than they were all year, especially our forwards.
“Instead of being skilled guys, they became grinders, and they all worked their butts off. They played physically and really took time and space away. It was a key for us – we never quit coming at them,” he added.
And, of course, the rock solid – at times, spectacular – play of Green, along with the support his teammates provided.
“We were strong, as far as getting pucks out of danger and blocking shots but, again, Jared had a phenomenal series, and that was really nice to see from him,” Synishin said.
He also noted his team approached the series without any pressure.
“We were going to go hard and see what happens,” Synishin added.
As the series went on, and the Bulldogs starting winning periods, he said their confidence grew.
“I think that’s what everyone saw,” Synishin added.
As for the how the Pirates rallied, Lambke said the team had “a good meeting” before Game 5.
“I just told them that we needed to win one hockey game. We just had to win that game and get the pendulum swinging in our direction, and then we could build off that,” he added.
“We just kept fighting and clawing. We wouldn’t give in and we got rewarded for it tonight.”
Synishin said the Pirates deserved “a ton of credit” for rebounding from the 3-1 series deficit, noting their overtime win in Game 5, at home, to stay alive.
“It would have been over for them, but they battled back, and they played well in Antigonish [in Game 6],” he said.
“We had a 2-1 lead in that game, but we had a couple breakdowns.
“But that’s the way that hockey goes – sports in general – and it was a fun series to be part of,” Synishin added.
Despite coming out on the short end, Synishin said it was a great series for both organizations.
“It was a ton of fun for everyone to play in it,” he added.
Both coaches also credited the fans, at both arenas, for their support.
“It was huge – it was, kind of, what we earned all year, with the record that we had, the chance to have Game 7 at home,” he said.
“It was awesome – the fans filled the building and the atmosphere was great. We are just happy that we had this game at home, and we were able to play well and get the win.”
The Bulldogs make their first-round playoff exit after posting a 17-15 mark, for 34 points, in the regular season.
When asked about their campaign, Synishin noted there were 16 new players on the Bulldog roster.
“Almost a full line-up – people getting used to each other, getting used to the coaches and trying to come together but, I think, we did a good job of it, especially when the first round of the playoffs started,” he said.
“That’s what you want – really, the regular season is about learning from mistakes and getting better, as individuals, and then, hopefully, in the playoffs you make a run.”
Facing the Miners
With the series win, the Pirates move on to the Sid Rowe Division final, where they will face the defending league and Atlantic champion Junior Miners, who scored a five-game opening round victory over the Pictou County Scotians.
Game 1 of that series is set for Friday (March 15) in Port Hawkesbury.
Puck drop is 7:30 p.m.
“Like we did against Antigonish, we are going to have to get pucks in behind their defense. We are going to have to defend first and make sure we take care of all three phases of the game,” Lambke said.
“Hopefully, we can also keep the offense rolling, now, and keep scoring goals.”
Lambke expects to have a full line-up for the series; only Josh Foster will miss Game 1 for the final game of his suspension.
“Everybody is good health-wise – we got through this series pretty good,” he said.
“And, Antigonish didn’t make it easy on us – it was a physical, back-and-forth series with plenty of hitting. They played a hell of a series and pushed us right to the end.”
Game 2 of the Pirate-Miner series will take place Saturday, at 7:30 p.m., in the Membertou Sport and Wellness Centre.