HAMILTON — And in the end, if this was the end, let it be known that Cory Schneider went down fighting.
The Manitoba Moose netminder, in what will almost certainly be his final game for the Moose in what has been a spectacular three-year American Hockey League career, did everything possible — and a few things that weren’t — to keep his team alive in their opening-round playoff series with the Hamilton Bulldogs.
But in the end, not even the magic of Schneider that Winnipeggers know so well was enough to turn back a Bulldogs onslaught that had to pepper the Moose goalie with 49 shots in Game 6 Sunday night at Copps Coliseum before they were finally able to break the 23-year-old phenom.
And when it came, that 49th shot — the overtime winner at 8:49 that gave Hamilton a 3-2 victory and this series four games to two — wasn’t a shot all, but rather a puck redirected off the skate of Hamilton grinder Grant Stevenson that dribbled under Schneider’s pad.
It was the 12th shot that Schneider had faced in a ridiculous overtime period that saw the Moose netminder abandoned by his teammates, left to find a way to salvage a tumultuous Manitoba season on his own by forcing this series to a Game 7 the Moose players were convinced would be theirs to win.
And when he couldn’t stop the last one, Schneider still kept fighting, pleading his case at centre ice to referee Ghislain Hebert that the puck was illegally kicked in by Stevenson.
Meanwhile, the Hamilton players celebrated in the Manitoba end, where they’d spent the entire overtime period.
Schneider lost the argument and the Moose lost the series. Schneider still wasn’t convinced in the Moose dressing room afterward that Stevenson had scored.
"He kind of fanned on the shot, so you have to wonder how else it got into the net (if it wasn’t kicked in)," Schneider said.
"Watching the replay, it was pretty obvious he dragged it under his foot. Seeing all the goals in the NHL this year that were disallowed for that, it should have been a pretty easy call that it was no goal.
"But it was a bang-bang play. The officials did the best of their ability.There’s no replay here and we’re just going to have to live with it."
It won’t be easy. Moose forward Dan Sexton, singled out for unfathomable punishment by the Hamilton checkers during the last two games, said he felt the better team lost last night. "It’s so hard to watch the puck slide in like that," Sexton said. "It’s your season and it’s over in one blink of the eye.
"And honestly, I really think we were the better team that series. I think if we win that game tonight, there’s no way we lose Game 7."
Moose head coach Scott Arniel agreed. "As the series wore on, we got stronger and stronger. And we got them worried,"
True enough, said Hamilton’s leading scorer in the series.
"We knew we didn’t want to play a Game 7 against those guys," defenceman P.K. Subban said. "We knew we needed to win that game right there."
The Moose had the lead twice, scoring early in the first and second periods, only to yield power-play equalizers to Hamilton before either period would expire.
Manitoba opened the scoring at 4:03 of the first, scoring their second short-handed goal of the series when forwards Guillaume Desbiens and Yan Stastny broke loose on a two-on-one. Desbiens had just stepped off the Moose bench on a change and with the Hamilton bench howling for a too- many-men-on-the-ice call, the leading scorer for the Moose in the playoffs broke down the left-wing and fired from the faceoff circle. Stastny took the rebound in his skates, kicked the puck to his stick and deposited it in the Hamilton net.
Hamilton got that one back with less than two minutes to play in the first. With Moose defenceman Ryan McGinnis in the box for slashing, Subban faked a point shot to freeze two
Moose defenders, then slid the puck down low to centre David Desharnais, who one-timed a sharp-angle shot past Schneider.
The Moose took the lead again early in the second when Peter Olvecky stepped out of the penalty box and immediately went on a breakaway. Olvecky shot high over Desjardins, but got the puck back moments later, thanks to an errant Hamilton clearing attempt and made no mistake this time, beating the Hamilton netminder with a point-blank backhand just 33 seconds into the period.
Hamilton appeared to have tied the game at 11:10 of the second on a goalmouth scramble, but referee Hebert waved off the Andrew Conboy goal, ruling Schneider had been interfered with by a Hamilton player in the crease.
Hamilton scored again — and this one counted — at 15:26 of the second when Desharnais faked a shot and slid the puck to Brandon native Ryan White, who was parked in front of the Manitoba net — as he’d been all series — and neatly redirected the pass past Schneider.
Hamilton advances to the North Division final, where they’ll play either Rochester or Abbotsford. That series is tied 3-3, with Game 7 set for Tuesday in Rochester.