Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tigers Win Thriller in Edmonton

Saturday night's meeting between Medicine Hat and Edmonton may have been the best game I've seen all year. On the surface, a Tigers victory for many might have been a foregone conclusion - Medicine Hat has owned the Oil Kings since the local club first returned to the league four Septembers ago. However, the 6-5 shootout had everything you could have hoped to see in a game and will go down as one of the most entertaining nights at Rexall Place in 2010-11.

From the opening puck drop the Tigers showed why they are one of the top teams in the WHL and a club no one should overlook when predicting the playoffs. We haven't seen the U.S. Division in Edmonton this season and Saskatoon's first appearance is in a few days, but the Tigers were easily the most impressive opponent to come to town so far.

The Tigers have speed and play with a tenacity that reflects their name. No matter who is on the ice, they finish every check and hit anything that moves. With five players who have more than 40 points, clearly this is a team with some offensive prowess. Speed + skill + aggressiveness = a winning team. (Photo: Medicine Hat Tigers)

Medicine Hat took it to Edmonton early on but surprise surprise, the Oil Kings were trying to give every bit as good as they were getting. Without leading scorer Michael St. Croix in the line up (minor concussion, missed 4 games) and Josh Lazowski (out for season), the team has shuffled lines and made do with what they have.

The tempo of the game was set very high right from the opening shift and as both teams looked to gain the advantage through physical play, it was Edmonton that hit the score sheet first. Deadline acquisition Mark Reners banged home the night's first goal less than three minutes in and got the local club off to the races.

When Colton Stephenson scored four minutes later it looked like it might be one of those nights where the underdog catches the favourite off guard. The fact that Reners added another before the end of the 1st period only further added to that notion.

Despite the big lead, I didn't get the sense that there was a load of confidence from the Oil Kings - they'd been on the losing end of many Tigers outbursts before. They needed to buckle down and stay focused to make sure the visitors didn't get an ounce of opportunity to claw their way back into the contest. That lasted until 3:24 of the 2nd when former captain Rhett Rachinski took a selfish, retaliation holding call after he was hit from behind with no penalty given to the Tigers.

"Here's your TSN turning point," I said to the scout sitting next to me.

Sure enough, with their 5-forward power play on the ice, Medicine Hat's Wacey Hamilton buried a slap shot to get his club back into the game. Less than two minutes later, Hunter Shinkaruk (remember that name for the 2013 Draft) scored to close the gap some more.

Then it was time for some action of a different kind, TEAM 1260's Corey Graham and Kent Simpson with the call:

Local product Thomas Carr, a 6', 202 lbs defenceman who used to play in the AJHL, took on the much bigger Cam Abney (EDM). Both players landed some solid shots and I give Carr a lot of credit for not just showing up but for doing pretty well. It was Abney's first fight since November 9th as he's been letting a knuckle infection heal as much as possible.

As expected, the fight got the good sized crowd (5884) into it even more and they'd been far from bored in this one already.

Linden Vey (LA) would tie things up just past the midway point, it was his third point of the period. In the first of two big blooper reel moment of the night, someone triggered the goal horn for the visiting team's goal which raised a lot of eyebrows and probably the blood pressure of Edmonton GM Bob Green.

Edmonton was desperate to regain the momentum and the lead before the end of the period and did so thanks to an unlikely source. Ryan "Big" Dech (new, unofficial nickname) scored a huge goal when he hammered one through Travis Ewanyk's well positioned screen and beat Tyler Bunz (EDM) to make it 4-3. It was Dech's second marker of the season.

The stage was set for an exciting final frame; could Edmonton hang on to steal the win and thus claim 6th place in the conference or would Medicine Hat eventually overpower them?

The latter seemed inevitable when Cole Grbavac scored just 1:32 into the period. However, both teams traded scoring opportunities with Edmonton netminder Jon Groenheyde making some enormous saves on odd-man rushes.

Keegan Lowe made an absolutely brilliant long-bomb pass from his own zone to a streaking Reners who went in unimpeded but couldn't beat Bunz. It was a stellar pass that had some (OK, me at least) asking those around me, "Was that... Lowe?".

Then with time winding down, Dylan Wruck redirected a Griffin Reinhart point shot and put Edmonton ahead and it was near bedlam at Rexall Place. In what felt very much like a playoff game, Edmonton appeared to have struck the killing blow. Unfortunately for them, the Tigers weren't done.

Tyler Pitlick (EDM) had been a physical force all night with his speed and hitting. His shot was too hot for Groenheyde to hold onto and the rebound sprung out to a streaking Kellan Tochkin (VAN) who fired it home for his 18th on the year.

Overtime was a high tempo affair but proved to be fruitless although the Oil Kings nearly capitalized on an opportunity in the dying seconds.

After 65 minutes of pulse pounding action, hitting, fighting, ten goals and a number of huge saves, the resultant shootout provided enough drama on its own to make the game worth the price of admission.

Edmonton sent out "The Wrucking Ball" who, I found out after the game, played despite fatigue and illness. Bunz stopped him.

The Tigers countered with Shinkaruk (above) and the 16-year-old rookie drew "ooohs!" and "ahhhs!" with his version of the one-handed Forsberg '92 move. It's surprisingly not on the highlight video from the game but I'm sure you'll see that one on the WHL's Plays of the Week. We told you about him months ago and I have a feeling we'll be talking about him a long time from now too. (Photo: Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oil Kings)

T.J. Foster failed to beat Bunz as well so Groenheyde had to stop Vey's attempt... and did.

Then it was score or go home time for Kristians Pelss (EDM) and the Oilers prospect snapped the puck between the legs of Bunz, a fellow Oilers prospect.

With the shootout score knotted at 1-1, Wacey Hamilton had the win in his hands. He broke in with speed then tried to execute a spin-o-rama at the top of the crease only to lose control of the puck.

Back to Edmonton shooting and Jordan Hickmott who started well wide then swung from the right side to the left and beat Bunz with a beautiful shot. Furious with allowing the goal, the goaltender immediately sprung to his feet and bolted from the ice out the open Zamboni gate. Unbeknownst to Bunz, the game was not over as Medicine Hat still had a chance to shoot and when Pitlick beat Groenheyde 5-hole, the embarrassed goalie had to make his way back out to face a 5th Edmonton shooter.

Line of the night goes to Taylor Medak sitting next to me who said it was like Bunz had pulled "a reverse Maciocia" referencing the former Edmonton Eskimos head coach and his premature Grey Cup celebration.

Mark Reners had scored twice during regulation time but couldn't pull the trigger cleanly in the shootout giving the Tigers the opportunity to win. Tochkin, the visitor's deadline acquisition, made no mistake as he pulled off a version of Linus Omark's delay-then-flip goal over a sprawling Groenheyde.

The Tigers left with the 6-5 shootout victory, the Oil Kings earned a point and moved into a tie with Swift Current for 6th place and the near 6000 fans left having witnessed one of the most entertaining WHL games in the last 4 seasons. Here is a summary video of the game with looks at many of the goals and saves, but it does miss a few of the notable moments. Here is a better video recap of the game with looks at all the goals including every shot in the shootout (click on the Tigers/Oil Kings game).

Afterward I chatted with Bunz about the way he bolted from the game thinking his team had lost.

"In the end your team won so everything is OK but... were the guys really giving it to you in the room?" I asked.

"Oh man... was that ever embarrassing," he smiled.

He went on to tell me that after he'd left the ice in such frustration he'd launched his stick. Off ice staff were trying to get it through to him, "It's not over yet, there's still another shot!"

Someone had to retrieve his stick for him (well off the rubber mats laid out for the players to walk on from the dressing room to the rink) and he sprinted back to the Zamboni entrance just in time to get out and face the final Edmonton shooter.

Definitely a night those in attendance won't soon forget.

- The Oil Kings welcome Saskatoon to Rexall Place on Wednesday. It's the first visit this year for the Blades who feature a number of notable players. Oilers 2nd round pick Curtis Hamilton, his team Canada teammate and WJC MVP Brayden Schenn (LA), 2011 eligible Duncan Siemens and Brent Benson, leading scorer Josh Nicholls (TOR), defenceman Stefan Elliot (COL) are all a part of the #1 team in the WHL, currently ranked #3 in the CHL. (Photo: Saskatoon Blades)

- The Prince Albert Raiders visit Edmonton on Friday the 29th and are led by 2011 notables Mark McNeil and goalie Eric Williams. Hopefully Williams gets the start this time and he played the back up role when P.A. last rolled through town. Also on the Raider's roster is less heralded forward Brandon Herrod who, in my opinion, deserves a free agent invite from some NHL team.

- I'm told that Michael St. Croix "should" be back in the line up on Wednesday.

- People have been asking me how Tyler Pitlick looked to me in the Saturday game. He ended the night with 2 assists and a shootout goal but it wasn't his production that stood out. In reality, his two assists arguably inflate his night. The first was a second assist on Hamilton's power play goal but he did nothing more on that play than move the puck to the pointman who was the actual catalyst in setting up the goal. He did take the initial shot that created the rebound for Medicine Hat's 5th and tying goal but one couldn't argue that he'd meant it to work out that way. (Photo: Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oil Kings)

No, where Pitlick impressed was with his skating and hitting. Off the ice, he's not an imposing figure at all; strong but not bulging with muscles by any means. You can tell though that when he hits people, they feel it. He's extremely strong on his feet and his skating stride is a reflection of that too. Pitlick was flying at times and will skate through an opponent to get the puck yet opponents bounce of him when he's the one protecting it.

I was impressed with him on Saturday for sure.

- Tyler Bunz didn't have the greatest outing and he was the first to admit to that after the game. Reners scored from the boards behind the net by banking it in off of Bunz as he tried to scramble back into the crease. He failed to corral loose pucks and twice they ended up behind him. That said, he also made some strong saves and looked pretty imposing in the shootout. Good on the night but far from his best performance.

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