(NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ON) – The Windsor Clippers were poised to take their best-of-five OJBLL Western Conference semi-final in four games. In fact, they were within in a period of that feat against the Niagara Thunderhawks on Sunday, but just could not keep it going.
The Clippers were up 2-1 in the series, up 4-3 after two in a low scoring affair, and seemingly carrying the momentum. But, it was not to be.
“Our offense just never got on track,” said coach Jerry Kavanaugh after the 8-4 loss in Game 4. “We allowed Niagara to dictate what we did offensively, instead of us running the offense the way we wanted.”
The Thunderhawks came out flying. After losing two straight in the series, including an embarrassing Game 2 blowout, Niagara came to play.
They snapped up three goals on 21 shots in the opening frame, as Windsor goalie Brayden Bell was inundated with wave after wave of flying rubber. Scoring for the Hawks was Hunter Lemieux with a pair and an unassisted blast from St Catharines pick-up Kyle Pedwell.
Liam Leclair answered for the Clippers.
The middle frame was all Windsor, as they stormed the net with little resistance, blasting Niagara’s David Herkimer with 25 shots of their own. The Clips capitalized three times, finding offense from Patrick Kaschalk, Logan Holmes, and Ryan Marchand. Bell backstopped his way to a shutout period.
Despite temporarily gaining the momentum, the roof came down in the third for Windsor.
Niagara picked up steam and the chances started pouring in. Lemieux, Everett Milberry, Isaac Vanderzalm, Connor Overstrom, and Ben Austin all lit the lamp to close out the night. Herkimer stopped 39 of 43 shots in the victory.
Bell, who has faced a lot of rubber this series, made 45 saves in the loss.
There were positives to take away from the defeat, as coach Kavanaugh highlighted the efficiency of his defense and goaltending, but added, “We can’t win games with four goals.”
The season is on the line on tonight, but Kavanaugh is not worried about his boys.
“We’ve rebounded well throughout the year when we’ve had an off-game,” he said. “Teams work all year to get home floor advantage, so we have an opportunity to come home and use that advantage to get a win and move on. The game will be decided by our offense, we’ve kept the [goals against] in the series to a consistent 7 or 8, we know we need to get to 10 to win; no reason we can’t.”
Kavanaugh is confident in his team’s resolve.
“I expect the guys to have a really good game and to be playing Orangeville next week,” Kavanaugh said.
The Thursday before, the Clippers hosted the Thunderhawks in front a large, partisan crowd and came from behind to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
Early in the opening frame, Overstrom got the game rolling for Niagara. Not long after, Marchand and the Hawks’ Zach Luis traded goals.
Late in the period, the Clippers opened up a small run as Chase Kavanaugh popped two and Kaschalk netted a single to give Windsor a two-goal lead into the break.
In the second, the Thunderhawks’ shooting gallery began. Bell was put in the line of fire many times, facing a variety of high percentage shots. The Niagara offense was highlighted by three quick goals from Mario Caito, Chris Robertson, and Chris Weier.
Things seemed to slow down for a while, before Lemieux bent the mesh on a late marker to extend the Hawks’ lead to two.
Down a pair going into the final stanza, most fans probably feared a rehash of the Game 1 festivities where the Clippers could not rebound. Instead, the hometown faithful were treated to an all out Clippers onslaught and a shutout period for Bell.
Windsor’s Andrew Garant started things up, taking a surprise superman-shot while shorthanded and fooling an unprepared Herkimer. A minute later, Craig Marentette blasted a laser of his own to knot the game at six.
Dylan Riley would be the hero for Windsor, hammering home both the go ahead and insurance markers to put this one in the books. The Clippers outshot Niagara 44-40 to confirm the win.
Bell acted as the anchor for his team and kept the ship right, when things looked like they could easily go askew.
“We started out pretty hard, but in the second period we had a lapse,” said Bell after the win. “We came to the room and got a pretty good yelling at [from coach Kavanaugh] and came out pretty fired up for the third period.”
Bell’s saves on multiple breakaway and odd-man rushes were a big part of his team’s win.
“It’s all about rising to the occasion,” said the Clippers’ tender. “I shut the door in the third period. That was what the guys needed and that’s what I did for them.”
It has already been a long playoff for Bell, who has been relied upon more and more as the team has progressed. He has been forced to double down his focus.
“Just being physically and mentally ready every minute of the game,” he stated. “Every time they come down and every possession. They say fifty percent of the game is mental, so you gotta come mentally prepared. You gotta get your sleep. You gotta eat properly. You gotta feel good for the game. That’s the key to playing well and getting better every game.”
Kavanaugh was pleased with the extra effort.
“That’s probably the greatest response to a horrible period that I have seen in this game in a long time. Hats off to the boys,” said the coach after the victory.
Kavanaugh said he was happy his team survived the second period, as his boys came out flat.
“For stretches, I thought it was the first time the offense had seen each other,” he said. “The defense was solid, but we lost some loose ball battles, we threw some balls away, we forced some stuff on offense. There was no sync. We had a little chat in between the second and third. The third period was obviously lights out.”
The pep talk must have done wonders, as the team that ran onto the floor for the third was not the same that walked off after the second. He credited his team’s transitional scoring as a major factor in the turnaround, making special note of Marentette’s rebound snipe, assisted by Phil Ristoski.
“So far, in this series, when we get some transition goals, it’s a little bit of a spark for the offense and we seem to get rolling right after,” Kavanaugh observed.
It all comes down to intestinal fortitude tonight. The Clippers will play host as the two teams will clash for a final time, at 8:00pm, at the Glade.
The winner will move on to the Western Conference final against the Orangeville Northmen, who just finished off the Six Nations Rebels in four games.