The Erie Otters proved why they've consistently been the top team -in the 60 team Canadian Hockey League- this season as they completed the four game sweep of the Saginaw Spirit in front of 3,342 fans at the Dow Event Center tonight.
The Spirit did not go quietly as they battled back from a 4 goal deficit to make it a 5-4 game when Mitchell Stephens (a second round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, 33 overall in the 2015 NHL entry draft) scored his 2nd goal of the playoffs from Brady Gilmour and Marcus Crawford at 16:03 of the third period.
However, an empty-net goal by Erie forward Dylan Strome at 19:58 of the third period would ultimately end the Spirit season with a 6-4 loss.
“You always feel disappointment when you get swept, but you have to keep things in perspective; that (Erie Otters) team is the number one team in Canada, not just the Ontario Hockey League, but the whole Canadian Hockey League,” Spirit interim coach Moe Mantha said.
Erie would chase Spirit starter Evan Cormier after giving up 3-goals on a whopping 22 first period shots on goal. Backup Cam Zanussi gave up a goal just 37 seconds into the second period and also allowed a power play goal later in the second, but settled in to stop 18 Erie shots in his two periods of work between the pipes for the Spirit.
Rookie Kirll Maksimov finally got the Spirit on the board with his first career OHL playoff goal from Jesse Barwell and Crawford at 3:05 of the second. Spirit captain Connor Brown capped a brilliant OHL career as he put the team on his shoulders, scoring twice in the second period to lead a Saginaw comeback.
“I was proud of the way they kept competing tonight, we were down 4-0 and they came back,” Mantha said of his young team. “You think of what you learned from this -as I mentioned to the boys in the (dressing) room- It's a sour taste in your mouth, but apply it to your training and take what you learned from playing a team like this. Sometimes you have to lose to appreciate how you have to win.”
Brown's first goal came on the power play after Erie defenceman Travis Dermott was whistled for hooking at 8:32 of the second period. Stephens had taken a pass from Matthew Kreis in the corner and found Brown in the high slot where he buried the power play goal at the 9:49 mark.
Brown would then add his second goal of the night, a snipe-beauty from the top of the left face off circle that beat Erie goalie Jake Lawr over his gloveside shoulder and went bar-down in the top right corner of the net. It was Brown's 4th goal of the playoffs from Kreis and Hayden Hodgson at 17:54 of the second period.
“I'm happy with the way we battled tonight,” Brown said. “Little bit of a slow start may have hurt us, but I'm proud of our guys and the way we rallied back. We gave ourselves a chance and that's all we can ask. For me, that's all I could ask too, just a great effort from everybody.”
Overage defenceman Will Petschenig joined Brown capping a great OHL career. Petschenig came to the Spirit this summer after winning the 2015 memorial cup with the Oshawa Generals. He will continue his hockey career when he joins the Swiss pro league next year. Petschenig is a true leader who will be missed both on and off the ice in Saginaw.
“The guys in this room, we are all a very close team, probably the closest team I've ever been on,” Petschenig said. “We came back from a 4-0 deficit to tightened up the game. The boys just showed their character, it was unbelievable and if they can do that next year and take away what they learned from this years playoffs and what they learned going through adversity this season then this team is going to be a tough team to play against next year.”
The Spirit will have a talented young group returning next year, a team that featured six rookies and many more second and third year players who contributed, earning valuable ice time this season.
“It's a bright future,” Mantha said. “We have some young players in this organization, as I told them in the first week working with these guys; I don't believe they know how much talent they have, how much skill they have, but hopefully they'll learn from this experience, playing against a good (Erie) team with players like (Dylan) Strome. We have the capability of having our young players come back with this sour taste and apply it to their summer training and when we come back in September they are ready to take on the next challenge.”