Playoff loss stuns Merchants
Fort Saskatchewan Hawks defeat St. Albert Merchants in deciding game in Founders Cup final in front of a full house at Akinsdale Arena
Wednesday, Apr 02, 2014 06:00 am
The Fort Saskatchewan Hawks rained on the Money Men's victory parade in the Founders Cup showdown Sunday.
A rocking Akinsdale Arena was packed to the rafters in anticipation of a championship celebration after the St. Albert Merchants forced a fifth and deciding game in Friday's double overtime thriller in the Fort but the Hawks spoiled the party in dramatic fashion on Nick Veenstra’s series winner with 6:47 left in regulation time.
“It’s a tough one,” said an emotional Stefan Meunier, the OT hero in game four, after the 4-3 heartbreaker. “Throughout the playoffs our whole team has been really strong. We’ve been battling every game doing our best and when you don’t get the result you want like tonight it’s very tough.”
The Merchants bombarded Hawks’ netminder Tyler Berger with 47 shots. The player of the game bent but didn’t break as the Merchants rallied from a three-goal deficit to tie it on Josh Jewell’s second of the night with 13:26 to play on the team’s 41st shot.
“We outshot them and outplayed them a lot. Throughout the whole game we had the pressure in their end. Their goalie was strong all game and got a couple of lucky bounces and there was nothing you could do. We just couldn’t break through,” said Meunier, who was stopped on a breakaway by Berger early in the game.
Shots were 16-8 in the first, 18-8 in the second and 13-5 in the third.
“It was a good game. We battled hard. We outshot them by quite a bit and they capitalized on their chances,” said Scott Rodda, head coach of the first-place Merchants. “Give that goalie credit; he was in the right place at the right time. He made some big saves when he had to and at the same time we didn’t bury some chances when we had to. They had some bounces go their way too but that’s hockey. You get bounces sometimes and you don’t other times.”
In the first frame, after Meunier’s deke attempt on a breakaway was thwarted by Berger, who lost his glove in the process as play continued for a good minute and the Merchants in control of the puck in the Fort end, Ryan Harrison tipped a shot wide of the net.
At 7:48 the Hawks opened the scoring as Josh Sinatynski slipped the puck through Justin Pawlenchuk from a difficult angle with players in front of the Merchants’ netminder.
Jewell almost knotted the score twice in a span of about 20 seconds near the end of a power play and right before the horn sounded to end the period.
At 1:42 of the second, and the Hawks on the power play, Joey Morin poked the puck past Pawlenchuk after it slithered across the crease to the wide-open Hawk.
During a rash of penalties, an iffy goaltender interference call gave the Hawks a four-on-three man advantage and Mike Green’s shot eluded Pawlenchuk at 12:04 for the Hawks’ third goal on their 14th shot.
After the goal Rodda called a time out to settle his team down. It seemed to work as the Merchants dominated the rest of the period with a flurry of chances.
During a delayed penalty call, Brent McGugan roared down the wing and just missed filling the far top corner behind Berger.
A minute after the power play expired, Jewell finished off fierce pressure around the Fort net to put the Merchants on the board with 2:38 left in the second. Dan Rombough and Mitch McNamara drew assists on the goal as the Merchants’ fans serenaded Berger by chanting his name.
At 1:42 of the third Harrison scored unassisted off a faceoff on the team’s 38th shot.
Less than a minute later, a goal was waved off as Meunier crashed the net on a shoot-in to stuff the puck home. A loud contingent of Fort fans cheered in delight over the call.
As the pace intensified, Jewell was robbed by Berger and at the other end of the ice Rombough made a great sliding defensive play in front of Pawlenchuk to take away a glorious opportunity from the Hawks.
Jewell’s team-leading 10th goal and 21st point in the playoffs, a harmless shot that Berger couldn’t squeeze with his glove hand, whipped the home crowd into a frenzy. Blair Johnson and Harrison assisted on the tying marker.
After the goal, as the Merchants’ supporters chanted Berger’s name in mockery, Fort head coach Tylor Valin called a time out, which allowed the public address announcer to call out the winning 50/50 ticket worth a crisp $610.
“I just told the boys to relax. We knew what was on the line going into the third and we came out pretty anxious so I just told them to settle down and go back to what was working for us,” Valin said.
The Hawks took Valin’s words to heart and got rolling offensively with a couple of glorious opportunities before Veenstra unleashed a low slapper off a rebound that squirted through Pawlenchuk’s pads. The Fort faithful raised the roof over the dagger that killed the Merchants’ comeback hopes.
As time wound down the desperate Merchants were unable to pull even against the plucky Hawks and the unflappable Berger (10-6, 3.43 GAA in playoffs).
“It was a big roller coaster all game. When they were up 3-0 we were outplaying them and then we started the comeback and everyone started feeling it on the bench. The wheels are turning and everyone is getting excited but we just couldn’t keep it going,” Meunier said.
Rodda was proud of how his team performed in the face of adversity.
“I’m disappointed with the outcome obviously because these guys deserve more but they showed character and class. They never quit and never gave up so I’m happy about that,” said the first-year Merchants’ bench boss.
The Merchants were the team to beat in the playoffs based on their stellar 34-3-1 season record.
“We were first overall for a reason. We were No. 1 in most categories – PP, PK, goals for, goals against – and wins/losses we were the best so you have to think we were the favourites but they’re a good club too. They only had 10 losses and they finished first in their division. They got to the final for a reason,” Rodda said. “It was two good teams that went head to head. It was a good series.”
The Hawks finished 10-7 in the playoffs after going 27-10-1 in league play, including a split with the Merchants with both teams winning at home.
“They were probably the heavy favourites but we only played them twice so we didn’t know too much about them but both games were fairly good games so we did like our chances coming into the series,” Valin said.
The Hawks persevered in the deciding game in all three series played – including a game seven OT decision in the semifinal against the North Edmonton Red Wings.
But after losing game four 3-2 in double OT to the Merchants – the Hawks blew a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes – the Fort rose to the challenge in St. Albert’s barn to win its first Capital Junior B Hockey League championship in team history.
“Anytime you lose late in the playoffs, especially in overtime, it’s very heartbreaking but we just wanted to move on. Ultimately there is nothing we can do about the past, we just want to move forward and start focusing on the next game,” Valin said.
With the Hawks poised to hoist the cup on home ice the Merchants dug deep to prolong the final. Johnson’s first playoff goal tied it at one in the first and Jewell’s unassisted effort with 2:11 to go forced sudden death. Meunier’s seventh goal, set-up by Blair Macuch’s nifty move around a sprawled-out defenceman, at 7:11 in the second OT period sealed the deal. Shots were 36-35 for the Hawks and Pawlenchuk was in net.
“We were all kind of on pins and needles trying to get that goal because everybody really wanted to extend the series. We had a good turnover and I got a good pass from Blair and he gave me the opportunity to put it away,” said Meunier, a 21-year-old left winger.
Regardless of Sunday’s outcome the Merchants and Hawks were guaranteed provincial berths after winning their respective semifinal series.
“You play all year for this moment and you want to win the league, just as much as you want to win provincials, so you just have to prepare for the fact that there is something after (the final), win or lose, but you still want to win that prize,” Valin said. “And right now it’s pretty special after you work all year to have this opportunity to win it.”
The eight-team provincials start Thursday in Grande Prairie. The Merchants play the Okotoks Bisons at 5 p.m. in pool A and the Hawks face off against the Blackfalds Wranglers at 8 p.m. in pool A.
Visit www.hockeyalberta.ca for the schedule and results.
“We’re going to provincials and try and win something else,” Rodda said. “The guys have worked hard all season and they got close (to winning the team’s first Founders Cup since 2005). They didn’t get the reward so they’re pretty disappointed and heartbroken but they’re going to rally themselves as a team.”
Meunier expects the Merchants will quickly shift their focus to provincials after the devastating playoff loss. Up for grabs is a trip to the April 17 to 20 Western Canadian Keystone Cup, hosted by the Abbotsford Pilots.
“Losing this game is a big motivator to come back and win something because we really felt we earned to win this series. We felt we put everything out on the ice and after not winning you want to come back and show everybody in the province that we’re one of the elite teams,” said Meunier, who played in the last home game of his junior B career on Sunday as an overage player, along with Harrison, Pawlenchuk (9-5, 1.85 GAA and league-high five playoff shutouts) and the injured Kurtis Watts, the team captain.