The University Manitoba Bisons got their first taste of playoff hockey in 2017-18 and it had a distinctly bitter taste Friday night.
Third-place Manitoba, hosting the sixth-place Mount Royal Cougars in the opening game of a best-of-three Canada West men’s quarter-final, tied the game 2-2 with less than five minutes remaining but surrendered the winning goal with 43 ticks left on the clock en route to a 3-2 loss at Wayne Fleming Arena.
Mount Royal’s Mitchell Lipon fed the puck to teammate Jamie King cruising in front of Manitoba goaltender Byron Spriggs and King ripped the winner home.
"I didn’t know that guy was wide open back door," said Spriggs. "I kinda had my eyes set on the puck, and I guess he got open in the soft spot and the puck found it’s way to the back of the net."
"That’s how you score on him — it’s just a misdirection play," Mount Royal head coach Bert Gilling said. "We had somebody standing on the back door, and it’s a heckuva play by our guy to get it to Kinger on the backside."
Manitoba’s Zach Franko and Mount Royal’s Kord Pankewicz exchanged first-period goals. After a scoreless middle frame, Jamal Watson gave the visitors their first lead at 10:20 of the third, only to have Liam Bilton level the score at 2-2 at 15:44, setting the stage for King’s heroics. Game 2 is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight.
"We’re confident in our room that we can bounce back and play better tomorrow," said Spriggs, who finished the game with 33 saves, and was Manitoba’s best player. "We were right there. One mistake. Hockey’s a game of inches."
Cameron Lanigan had 24 stops in the Cougars’ net, but Spriggs was busier and better.
The Bisons will need to find a way to get more production out of their top line of Franko, Kamerin Nault and Michael St. Croix, which got plenty of extra attention from the scrappy Mount Royal squad.
But Spriggs is convinced a turnaround is imminent.
"I think at times we kinda got away from our game plan a little bit," said Spriggs. "Maybe too fancy with some plays in the neutral zone. We like to identify ourselves as a hard-working team, physical, simple team. Tomorrow, we have to hone in our strengths, and I think we’ll get a better result."
Manitoba head coach Mike Sirant was unruffled by the result, but he expects a cleaner effort in Game 2.
"It’s a best-of-three series, and you have to win two games," said Sirant. "We’re far from being out of this yet. We’ll be better today. There’s a few areas we need to correct — (like) our puck management tonight. But I’m confident in our team that we’ll bounce back and find a way to win tomorrow."
The Royals had more of the better scoring chances, but went 0-for-3 on the power play. Manitoba was 0-for-1.
"I thought the first 10 minutes of the third period was our best segment of the game," said Gilling. "We had a lot of quality chances, some good looks. Their goalie played well, but we missed the net on a few of them. I was happy. We’ve got a young, inexperienced team right now, and this is all kind of a learning curve for this group."
Today’s rematch should have plenty of pushback from the Bisons, who will be on the brink of elimination.
"It’s physical warfare, and mental warfare, too," said Gilling. "I think it’s the old cliché, the first 10 minutes tomorrow are going to be very important. There’s going to be a major push by them, and it’s up to us. Can we create a bit of doubt for them?"
ON TAP: Game 3, if necessary, will be played Sunday at 6 p.m. All games are on the U of M campus. Should the Bisons advance, they would play the second-place Saskatchwan Huskies in a best-of-three conference semifinal next week.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.