Kris Bennett (24) scored to tie the game at 4-goals apiece with just under 4 minutes left in regulation to force overtime, which led to a Saginaw Spirit 5-4 shootout victory over the Flint Firebirds at the Dort Federal Event Center Wed. night.
Despite the Spirit win, the Firebirds' 1-point was enough to give the second-year franchise its first ever Ontario Hockey League playoff berth and its second straight I-75 Divide Cup with a 5-3 season advantage over the Spirit.
Spirit goal tender Evan Cormier (New Jersey Devils' fourth round 2016 NHL draft) turned away 37 shots in a titanic performance during some crucial moments; which included a 5 on 3 man-advantage PK early in the third period and a 4 on 3 man-advantage PK in overtime, as well as stopping 3 of the 4 Flint shooters in the shootout.
“He was great,” Spirit head coach Spencer Carbery said of Cormier. “We had to kill off that 4 on 3 (in OT) we had a couple of penalties early in the third period that we had to kill off and he was real solid, (he) made some really big saves in overtime, as well as the shootout to keep us alive.”
Carbery took a bit of an unconventional approach during overtime and into the shootout, relying on defensemen Filip Hronek (Detroit Red Wings second round 2016 NHL draft) and Marcus Crawford on the ice paired with a forward throughout stretches of the 3 on 3 overtime session, then using both defensemen in the shootout.
His approach would pay huge dividends when Crawford buried the puck in the top right corner of the net, beating Flint goal tender Connor Hicks for the final Spirit shootout goal.
“We've used him a couple of times,” Carbery said of Crawford. “We haven't had a lot of luck with our forwards in overtime or in shootout. So, we go with two D (defensemen) in overtime, which is a little bit unorthodox and then we also used Hronek and Crawford early in the shootout.”
The Spirit took an early 1-0 lead when Matthew Kreis (11) scored his eleventh goal of the season from Hayden Davis at 7:40 of the first period.
Bennett then scored the first of his game-high two goals early in the second period with assists coming from his two line-mate's (Kreis and Hayden Hodgson) for a 2-0 lead at 4:43 of the second period. The trio was responsible for all of the Saginaw offense tonight.
“That line, usually, they drive our success,” Carbery said. “When Bennett, Kreis, and Hodgson are going, it usually gives us a chance, and they've been playing well as of late. We attribute a lot of our recent success to those guys.”
Flint battled to get to within a goal of the Spirit when Everett Clark (14) scored his fourteenth of the season to make it a 2-1 game at 7:16 of the second period.
Crawford (6) extended the Spirit lead to 3-1 with his sixth of the season on a blast from just inside the right point (a power play goal) from Hronek and Bennett at 12:15 of the second period.
The Firebirds' scored three unanswered goals to take a 4-3 lead, starting with back to back goals in the second period (one of which, was a power play goal) followed by another goal midway through the third period at the 14:28 mark; which led to Bennett's game-tying goal (his second of the night to force OT) one minute and 39-seconds later at 16:07 of the third.
Crawford and Hronek each added assists on Bennett's second goal.
With the victory (coupled with a 6-3 Sarnia loss to the Soo Greyhounds) the Spirit managed to gain 2-points in the OHL standings and now trail the Sting by six points for the final western conference playoff spot with 5 games to play.
In order to make the playoffs, the Spirit would have to win at least 3 of its 5 remaining (Guelph, Owen Sound, Soo, Soo, Windsor) games; while Sarnia would have to lose 3 of its 4 remaining (Windsor, Owen Sound, Windsor, Guelph) games.
Carbery realizes there is just a slight glimmer of hope to make the playoffs, however, he is content to have even the slightest glimmer of hope, and vows his team will keep fighting to the very end.
“We've got a glimmer of hope, we've got a glimmer of hope and we'll keep playing,” Carbery said. “Our group is just going to keep fighting. We're gonna do everything we can to win hockey games and we'll just see where the chips fall.”