Jets’ prospect breaks Ice
Lambert scores twice as Thunderbirds knot WHL final
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It was eight seconds to forget for the Winnipeg Ice.
And while the top-ranked Western Hockey League club left in high spirits, their efforts in Game 2 of the WHL championships series were stamped by controversy and mishaps in its biggest moment.
With the contest knotted at one apiece early in the final frame, an uncalled penalty and a defensive blunder that led to a go-ahead goal proved to be the undoing of the Ice in a 4-2 defeat to the visiting Seattle Thunderbirds in front of 5,691 at Canada Life Centre on Saturday.
The best-of-seven championship series is tied 1-1 as the series shifts to Seattle for Games 3, 4 and 5.
Coming off the heels of a Game 1 on Friday that lived up to its billing with an at-the-wire finish, Game 2 featured chaos with the third period barely five minutes old.
After Ice forward Easton Armstrong was tugged to the surface by a Thunderbirds defenceman, in what looked to be a penalty but went uncalled by officials, the visitors raced up the ice with favourable numbers before a mishap in the hosts’ defensive zone led the puck to the stick of none other than Brad Lambert.
Lambert, who had been under the watchful eye of Winnipeg Jets fans in the first two games as the franchise’s first-round pick in 2022, curled the puck and rifled a hard shot by Daniel Hauser’s ear to notch his fourth goal of the postseason.
The chorus of boos from fans only worsened eight seconds later when the visitors dumped a heap of salt on the Ice’s fresh wound. Another misplay from the Ice behind their net left Edmonton Oilers prospect Reid Schaefer all alone in front of the crease, from where he beat Hauser, the T-Birds stunning the hosts with a pair of quick goals.
“I thought tonight, our puck management hurt us,” said head coach James Patrick. “It wasn’t our defending, it wasn’t our D-zone coverage — it was strictly puck management. Gave them some opportunities that they capitalized on.
“I saw it like everyone else, as the play was going on,” the bench boss said of the no-call. “Not a great look, I just saw what I thought was a clothesline, then we lost the puck, they came the other way. I haven’t watched the video. I know we still had the puck after, though. So I can’t fault the refs.”
Nor can he fault his goaltender, who staged an admirable performance for a second consecutive night, stopping 35 of the 39 shots he faced. The undersized Hauser —standing 5-11 and 156 pounds — has stymied 62 of 68 shots through two games. Both teams were held without a power-play goal, the Ice going 0-for-5 and the T-Birds 0-for-3.
This one sure took a quick turn from what was another fast start from the Ice.
The Ice had dominant stretches out of the gate, despite being outshot 16-12, and struck first for a second-straight game thanks to Zach Benson, who spurred many of the chances for the hosts in the opening frame.
Benson, one of the top prospects in this summer’s NHL Draft, introduced himself to the series after taking a drop pass from a crashing Graham Sward, then using the blue-liner as a screen before rifling a low-flying wrister under Thomas Milic’s glove for his fifth goal of the playoffs.
Benson would add another goal just past the halfway mark of the third period after a bouncing pass from Matthew Savoie eventually found his stick in tight, from where he roofed the puck to draw the Ice within one goal and begin a late push from the hosts.
“It’s a big goal at the time,” said Benson, who has three points in the series. “Great play by (Savoie) to get me. We got within one and that’s what we wanted.
“At the end of the day, we lost the game, though. It wasn’t enough.”
Just as they did in the third period of Game 1, however, the Western Conference champs bounced back after both Ice goals and imposed their will offensively. The Thunderbirds needed 84 seconds in the second frame to strike back, as Schaefer teed up defenceman Jeremy Hanzel at the point for what looked like was going to be a routine save for Hauser, but beat him to knot the game.
The game-sealing marker was Lambert’s second of the game with a little under three minutes remaining. The crafty Finnish-born forward scooped up an alley-oop pass from Dylan Guenther in the neutral zone and sped by the Ice defence before roofing the puck on Hauser to leave another lasting mark on the Manitoba capital.
“It’s obviously special to be playing in the WHL championship,” said Lambert. “Not many guys get the opportunity, so we’re just trying to make the most of it, and for it to be in Winnipeg, obviously, it adds a little more to it.”
The now best-of-five series will begin in Game 3 on Tuesday in Seattle.
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.