Ice hold on for Game 1 triumph
Game Thunderbirds push hard for late equalizer but come up short
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The Winnipeg Ice did just enough to stave off a shocking upset to open the franchise’s biggest series since relocating to the Manitoba capital.
What started with two periods featuring stretches of pure dominance from the top-ranked Ice ended in pandemonium as the visiting Seattle Thunderbirds roared back within one goal in the game’s waning moments.
The Ice built a 3-0 lead in the first 40 minutes of the game, but that was chopped down 28 seconds into the third period thanks to a deflection from Edmonton Oilers prospect Reid Schaefer. Then, with the goalie pulled, Chicago Blackhawks blue line prospect Kevin Korchinski beat Ice goaltender Daniel Hauser with one minute and 42 seconds remaining in the game.
The visitors continued a strong push, highlighted by a chance from forward Jared Davidson, who sent a shot wide of an open cage with under 10 seconds remaining.
The Ice barely held on for 3-2 victory in a Game 1 of the Western Hockey League’s championship series that lived up to its billing in front of 5,531 fans at Winnipeg’s downtown arena on Friday.
Connor McClennon, Evan Friesen and Carson Latimer scored for the hosts while goaltender Daniel Hauser staged a rock-solid performance on the strength of 27 saves.
“I like the way we started,” said head coach James Patrick. “Coming off nine days off, you often wonder about it. But I like a lot of things we did, there’s still some areas we need to clean up. Probably the last three and a half minutes, that was a bit of a concern. But outside of that, there was a lot to like.
“You never want to give up a goal in the first shift of a period — usually they say the first and the last. But you want to come into a period and be as good defensively as possible when you have a 3-0 lead. I think it gave them a bit of life but they still weren’t getting a lot of chances after that until the last four minutes. They got some real good looks, we got a great break.”
Indeed, it was an encouraging start for the Ice — a statement, in many ways. It was the Thunderbirds who appeared to hold the advantage on special teams entering the series, but it was the Ice who delivered on this night.
The opening goal of the series belonged to McClennon at the 9:13 mark of the opening frame when the Ice’s leading scorer found some room above the right faceoff dot a fired a perfectly placed wrister under Milic’s blocker to join Thunderbirds’ Dylan Guenther atop the league-lead with 14 goals in the post-season.
“Anytime you can get the first goal, it’s huge,” said McClennon. “I think we kind of fed on that, the crowd kind of fed on it.”
“It was super exciting to get to play in this building. I think we fed off the crowd early and it was huge to get that first goal and the 3-0 lead. It kind of helped us all night long.”
The Ice finished one-for-four with the power play while holding the fifth-ranked Thunderbirds’ unit scoreless on two attempts. The Ice started the playoffs with an abysmal record on the penalty kill, but got back on the right track in the Eastern Conference final series, killing 10 of 11 chances afforded to the Saskatoon Blades.
“That’s huge. Their power play has been one of the best, obviously, with the high-end talent. You spend so much time — we’ve watched hours of their special teams… and then you try and come up with the best way to stop it.
“But at the end of the day, it’s still the skill players making saves, your goalie making saves, blocking shots. It’s going to have to be good for us to be successful.”
Six minutes later, Owen Pederson staged a remarkable solo effort, showcasing his strength by fighting off a Thunderbirds’ defender before sending a shot on net. The puck rebounded to a crashing Friesen, who slapped the puck into the open cage to notch his fifth goal of the playoffs and double the lead for the hosts.
While it won’t go down as a power play goal, the Ice effectively stayed hot with the man advantage as the second period passed the seven-minute mark. As Thunderbirds forward Nico Myatovic was exiting the penalty box, Latimer ripped a snap shot over Thunderbirds’ goaltender Thomas Milcic’s right shoulder from the right faceoff dot to give the hosts a three-goal lead entering the final act.
It’s fair to think that won’t be the last time these two powerhouses will need a dramatic finish to settle a game in this best-of-seven championship series.
The Ice and Thunderbirds are back at the downtown rink tonight for Game 2 (puck drops at 6 p.m.). They’ll travel to Seattle for Games 3, 4 and 5.
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.