The Saginaw Spirit (4-8-2-0) scored three goals in the third period to erase a 2-goal deficit and skate to a 5-3 victory over the Flint Firebirds (6-8-1-0) in the first meeting of the I-75 Divide Cup Series in front of 3,171 at the Dow Event Center tonight.
Spirit head coach Troy Smith admitted his team had come out a bit flat in the first two periods, but was thankful for the play of his veteran goal tender Evan Cormier, who kept his team in the game (like he's done his entire career, particularly this year) holding Flint to a 2-goal lead (3-1) after two periods to keep the door open for a huge third period comeback.
“I would say, (throughout) the first forty minutes Flint carried the play, but we were lucky to have Evan play so well,” Smith said. “We came out in the third though and really performed, which is good to see. You know, we didn't quit on him, we stuck to the plan and finished.”
Flint jumped out to an early lead when Cormier left the net in a race to the puck and rather than clearing into the corner, he sent it straight ahead and onto the waiting stick of Firebirds RW Jake Durham (3) who had been trailing the play into the zone, as he buried his third goal of the season into an open net for 1-0 Flint lead at 3:58 of the first period.
The Spirit answered early in the second period when Max Grondin intercepted a neutral zone pass, quickly hitting line mate Kyle Bollers (2) who pulled the puck back to his forehand with a nifty toe-drag to elude a diving defenseman then fired a shot, beating Flint goal tender Garrett Forrest top shelf on the short-side to tie the game at 1-goal apiece at the 1:30 mark of the second period.
Twenty seconds after Saginaw managed to kill off the first penalty of a Firebirds' 5 on 3 man-advantage, Flint pulled ahead with a power play goal when Nicholas Caamano (6) scored his sixth of the season for a 2-1 lead at 6:51 of the second period.
Flint extended its lead (3-1) with just 48-seconds to play in the middle frame on a late goal from LW Maurizio Colella (8) who scored his eighth of the season at 19:12 of the second period.
Individually, D.J. Busdeker (ultimate grinder), Blade Jenkins (playmaker), and Damien Giroux (sniper) each bring a unique quality to the chemistry of a line, which Smith put together when juggling lines a few weeks ago. Collectively, the trio became unstoppable, accounting for all 4 of Saginaw's third period goals tonight. Smith knew it was just a matter of time before their chemistry and combined hard work would pay off.
“They've had a ton of chances in the last few games, just haven't really gotten any breaks, but tonight they did, and that's a matter of their work ethic” Smith said of the Giroux, Busdeker, Jenkins line. “You look at Giroux and Busdeker and they're arguably the two hardest working guys on our hockey club, so it was nice to see them finally have some success.”
Jenkins (3) kicked off the third period scoring for the young Spirit line, chipping away at the Flint lead (3-2) with his third goal of the season with assists from Busdeker and Cormier at 1:44 of the third period. After a slow start, the Jackson, MI native is happy to see the teams hard work paying off.
“I think we played pretty well at the beginning of the season, but obviously we weren't producing, and I think over these last five or six games we've really played hard and focused on doing the simple things and that goes a long way,” Jenkins said. “Coach Smith tells us if we continue to work hard, do the simple things, and don't cheat the game that success will come.”
Midway through the final period, it was Busdeker (1) who knotted the game at 3-goals apiece for the Spirit with his first goal of the season with assists from Jenkins and Giroux at 7:48 of the third period.
Giroux then won a face off in the Flint zone, getting the puck back to defenseman Keaton Middleton (2) at the point, who fired a low wrist shot through traffic, beating Forrest for the eventual game-winning goal and a 4-3 Spirit lead at 12:14 of the third period.
Giroux (7) added an insurance goal, his seventh of the season from Caleb Everett at 18:01 of the third period to give the Spirit a 5-3 lead to wrap up the scoring. Giroux knew that once he and his new line mates got a feel for skating together, things would start to click.
“I think it just comes down to chemistry,” Giroux said of playing with Jenkins and Busdeker. “Practicing together for the last few weeks, I think we were just starting to sort out the style that we wanted to play, and you could see it in that third period. I think we finally clicked and it was the big difference in the outcome of the game.”
Cormier continues to be the difference for this team, turning away 24 of the 27 shots he faced while in net for the Spirit tonight, also adding his first point of the season with an assist on the Jenkins goal.
For Smith, having one of the top goal tender's (under the age of 20) in the world is invaluable for this Spirit team, which happens to also be the youngest team in the OHL this year.
“He just provides confidence with this young group and that's really what we need,” Smith said of Cormier. “He's a good kid, he's a professional, you know, he's an elite goal tender in this league and I think he's going to make a really good pro.”
The Spirit will hit the road this weekend to take on the London Knights at Budweiser Gardens in London, ON at 7:30 pm Friday night, before returning home to host the North Bay Battalion for a 7:05 pm face off at the Dow Event Center Saturday night.