(WINDSOR, ON) – The tension was palpable Sunday night at Forest Glade Arena. After two nights off from Thursday’s 8-7 loss to the Orangeville Northmen, in the OJBLL western finals, the Windsor Clippers bounced back in a surreal display which gave the crowd a bit of everything.
Nail biting back-and-forth drama, an ambulance taking away a star goaltender, and an unlikely buzzer-beating goal from centre highlight a night to remember for the local lacrosse community.
It has been the home team’s series, as all losses have befallen the club on the road.
Thursday evening the Clippers sailed to the Alder Street Rec Centre, northwest of the GTA, home of the Jr B Northmen. Windsor went out to a slow start in Orangeville, falling prey to early scoring from Zack Deaken, Shane Hillis, and Just Brack.
Dylan Riley would answer to get the road warriors on the board, but Mike McCannell added one more to bring the Northmen’s tally to 4-1 by the end of the frame.
The Clippers battled hard to get themselves into the game in the middle stanza. Chase Kavanaugh brought the game within two, only three minutes in, but was replied to by Orangeville’s Mike Sutton and Hillis, again, just minutes later.
Windsor found strength before the period was out when Kavanaugh lit the lamp again, followed by a blast from Patrick Kaschalk. Between goals, things got messy on the floor.
Captain Logan Holmes got a little extracurricular with the home team’s Cameron Spencer. Both had just gotten out of the box minutes before, due to a previous altercation. Off the next draw, Windsor’s Austin Thompson had a tilt with Ty Mikulik, causing their ejections.
Early in the third, things began looking bleak for the road crew when Riley Thompson snapped home another goal for a three-goal Northmen lead. But, the Kaschalk-Kavanaugh show was not done yet.
Kaschalk ripped the mesh for his third just after the five minute mark, followed by a Kavanaugh laser, only 29 seconds later, to bring the game back to within one. Kaschalk was not done, cracking the twine three minutes on, to draw this game even.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, the offense sputtered and they were not able to get another shot behind Rylan Hartley. Late in the game, Hillis blasted one more goal to end the match in Orangeville’s favour.
Brayden Bell took the loss for Windsor, stopping 27 shots, while Hartley blocked 20 for the win.
“I think it was a slow start,” said coach Jerry Kavanaugh. “Down 4-1 after the first, I do think we had a solid second and third, but [that was] a big hole to dig out of and we ran out of gas a little late. It cost us in the long run. We had some turnovers, forced some plays on offense that ended up being some odd-mans the other way. Something we definitely need to clean up.”
Down 2-1 in the best-of-five series, Windsor needed to respond post-haste.
This past Sunday, they gave the Clippers-faithful something to remember.
There was another lengthy feeling out period to start Game 4. Windsor’s Andrew Garant opened the scoring at the midway point of the first period, but was answered with a pair of blasts from Thompson to give the Northmen a brief lead.
Noah Bushnell and Kaschalk replied late in the frame to shore up a lead into the break.
Much to the shock of the crowd, Orangeville’s Daniel Tanner stepped between the pipes for the start of the second instead of Hartley. This was no ploy or strategy, as an ambulance soon whisked Hartley away after training staff from both teams assessed him in the Northmen locker room.
Early reports indicated that Hartley may have suffered a mild heat stroke or exhaustion and passed out in front of his teammates during the break. The status of Orangeville’s star goalie for Game 5 is uncertain.
Garant made his presence known early in the second, bending the mesh just four minutes into the new period. The rhythm of the game seemed to be askew after the departure of Hartley, like the Clippers did not know what to make of Tanner, a goalie who had not seen a minute thus far this series.
The Northmen, too, looked stunned to be without their starter, leaving most of the opening thirteen minutes of the frame as back and forth and no team finding a foothold.
With just under seven to go, Orangeville’s diggers found pay dirt.
First, Malcolm Young brought the road team back to black, drawing his boys back to within one. He was followed by a pair from Ryan Waters and a single to Sutton, before cap’n Holmes slowed the bleeding with a minute to go, and getting the Clippers back in range for a third period volley.
Windsor built momentum early in the third, and soon were rewarded with blasts from Kavanaugh and Holmes to retake the lead.
Holmes’ goal was quite remarkable due to its unlikelihood. The Clippers had their foe nailed down in the defensive zone and were locking into place for a set play like, the teeth of a sprocket, when their plan fell apart. An errant pass slipped out of the Orangeville zone and seemingly into oblivion.
Not to be deterred, Holmes backtracked to the ball and, with less than four seconds left on the shot clock, rifled the ball on net from the centre face-off circle. The ball whistled through the air, seeming to not even ark despite the distance.
Tanner threw his elbow at the ball as its trajectory aligned with top right corner of the net, and found himself eluded as the orb belted the twine behind him. The large, partisan crowd released an audible gasp of disbelief before erupting into a cacophonous detonation of celebration and cat-calling.
Despite this, the Northmen would not go quietly into the night. Just minutes later, Waters found his mark again, knotting the game with a snipe from the slot past Bell.
The defenses of both teams continued to pound on each other as the minutes rolled off the clock. Both teams worked the offensive zones, but found it near impossible to get past the defense, let alone the tenders.
With just over three minutes remaining, Holmes fed the ball to Bushnell on the inside, who briefly went airborne just off the crease, and bounced a blast past Tanner to take the lead.
Orangeville fought for all their worth in the final minutes, but their efforts were in vain. The Clippers were on watch and were vigilant, almost nothing could get through. What did was swatted down by Bell until the final buzzer sounded.
Bell was peppered with 56 shots in the victory, in what was one of his busier nights in a Clippers uniform. Tanner took the loss in net, stopping 19 of 24, while Hartley made four saves before his episode.
Bushnell’s second goal cemented the win and secured one more chance at the finals.
“[Bushnell]’s an emotional player,” said Kavanaugh after the game. “He’s got that skill level. Just sometimes lets the little things under his skin. He’s obviously a big piece of the puzzle for us.”
“We run our systems. That’s what brings us to being the good team we are,” said Bushnell. “We pride ourselves on defense, but our offense really had a really good game today. We had some great opportunities today. It’s the hard work that makes the difference.”
Windsor’s tough guy netted two in the game and has been a big part of the offense in this series.
“My captain, Logan Holmes, told me to get inside and see if I can get some screen passes,” he explained. “So I just punched straight down on the crease, boxed out my man, got tied up real good, took a high stick. [Logan] threw the ball anyway, we were tight on time and knew we had to get that goal sooner than later. He threw it to me and I was in a tough situation. I could have thrown it backhand, which I am not comfortable with, to extend with that big of a moment on the line. I just used the strength and size that I have, barreled around, and shot low.”
Although most Clippers fans know that Bushnell can score when he wants to, he tends to use his hands more for pugilism when needed. It is a role he seems to relish, but is not limited to just that. In the playoffs, the coaches demand more offense out of the OHL veteran.
“My role doesn’t change too much,” says Bushnell. “My discipline definitely increases a lot. In the regular season we are a lot more chippy. We have no problem fighting. We had a few line brawls. We are real tough. We take a lot of penalties in the regular season. But, when it comes to playoffs, we take the physicality to a different kind of strategy. We use it a lot for the boxing out of picks, [we are] hard on loose balls, we’re a great on-ball team. Great for our rag. We love to take hits and we can do it. We keep each other held accountable. That transition to a playoff player from a regular season player, it’s seen throughout, it’s not just me. It’s mostly strategy, good coaching, and commitment to your team.”
“Tonight was insane,” declared the coach. “We had a great start, but the second period started to get away from us a little. A team like that, they aren’t going anywhere. There’s a lot of heart and a lot of talent and great coaches on that side.”
Kavanaugh explained that it was a game of runs; each team taking turns with momentum and racking up goals. Unlike hockey, where teams generally trade off goals, it is not abnormal for lacrosse teams to put up runs of three to six goals, just to be answered by the same from their opponent.
“We are comfortable being down one or being tied into the third,” said Kavanaugh. “We clamp down on defense and come up with some timely goals in the third period. The message going into the third was 20 hard miles, go get it done. How bad do you want it?”
The loss of Hartley after the first made a noticeable difference in the tempo of the game, for both teams, as each club was forced to make adjustments.
“I just heard from the guys down the hall that he passed out. I guess [he] turned white from heat exhaustion,” Kavanaugh related. “That’s unfortunate. You want to beat teams at their best and he is obviously that. But, you take advantage of what you can. [Daniel Tanner] came in [and] we didn’t get the chances we wanted to in the second, but that kid’s been in the league for a while too and he’s a good tender. We didn’t take him lightly.”
Game 5 will take place In Orangeville on Tuesday night at 8:00pm. The winner moves on to the OJBLL final against the Clarington Green Gaels, who just took the Oakville Buzz in the fifth game of their rather unpredictable series.
“The start is going to be the key,” said the coach on the final game. “If we can keep it tight in the first period, and not turn the ball over, make mistakes there, I like our chances deep into the game. We can start to chip away and tire them out. I am sure they feel pretty comfortable going into their barn, that is why you work so hard for that home floor advantage all year. It’s do-or-die for everyone in the building. Now, go get it done.”