Play like girls. That was the mantra sweeping social media after the Canadian women’s hard-fought gold medal comeback win last week and on Saturday night at the Civic Centre, the Steelheads did just that, gritting out a late comeback win in the first game of the CIHL finals.
Both looked calm in the early going, showing none the jitters that most teams go through during the opening minutes of a finals series.
Neither team deserved a lead in an evenly played first frame, but the Stamps broke the early deadlock when Jassi Sangha gained the zone and snapped a deflected knuckler that beat Tyler Perreault glove side.
The Steelheads kept their shifts short and their intensity up in the first period, but they couldn’t beat Stampeders’ goaltender Justin Foote.
In the second the Steelheads came out like a different team.
They dominated from start to finish, outshooting the Stamps 27-7 in the process.
But their edge in play didn’t translate to goals on the scoreboard.
Foote continued to hold his team in it.
“He’s been really good against us for the last three or four years,” head coach Tom DeVries said.
“He was excellent in the first two periods.”
Halfway through the second Sangha, who was a thorn in the side of the Steelheads all night, gained the zone, drove wide and shot the puck on net. It took a strange bounce over to a wide open Nathan Zurak on the other side. He buried it to give the Stamps a 2-0 lead.
Things could have gotten a lot worse. Minutes later, the Steelheads gave away the puck at their own blueline while on the powerplay. Zurak drove to the net with a Steelheads’ defenceman draped on him. He made a quick deke and got a shot off that was earmarked for the top corner, but Perreault stretched his blocker out and tapped the puck over the net to preserve the two-goal deficit.
Cue the comeback.
The Steelheads continued to carry the play in the offensive zone and were finally rewarded at the end of the second.
With just over five minutes left in the middle frame, Darryl Young went wide around the net, skating with the puck for a good 15 seconds. Tired, he went off on a change with the Steelheads still in possession in the offensive zone. Matt Arnold almost had the puck stripped by a Stamps’ defender, but he managed to keep hold, as his brother Mark streaked on to the ice for Young. Mark grabbed the puck, went wide, drove around the net and beat Foote short-side to pull the Steelheads within one.
The Steelheads went into the final frame down one, but they probably deserved to be up a couple.
The third period was the most evenly contested of the three.
Though they desperately needed the tying goal, the Steelheads couldn’t muster the same intensity from the second period.
Of the Steelheads’ forwards, Young had the most jump in his step, and though he beat a number of Stampeders’ defenceman on rushes up the ice, he couldn’t buy a goal.
Fifteen minutes in and they were still searching for the equalizer.
But everything changed in a hurry.
Randall Groot, who has been a force during the entire Steelheads’ playoff run, scored on a rebound off a jumble in front of the net.
Then, just 15 seconds later, the Steelheads gained the zone again. Mark Arnold won the draw back to Ian Smith at the point, who put a seeing-eye wrist shot through a screen to put the Steelheads up 3-2.
“That was all Mark,” Smith said. “He got me the puck and I just tried to get the puck up and on the net.”
In the late going, the Stampeders made a push to tie. They pulled Foote for the extra attacker and held the puck in the Steelheads’ zone.
With just over a minute left it looked like they had the equalizer on a mad scramble in front of Perreault, but somehow the puck stayed out.
That was their final chance. The Steelheads held on for the crucial game one win, knowing full well that it would be next to impossible to travel to Williams Lake and win two straight next weekend.
“That was a very big win for us at home,” DeVries said.
“Going there with a short bench on that big ice surface is going to be a lot tougher.”
“That was a full team effort,” Smith said.
“Everyone played their role. We blocked shots, forechecked hard and got the puck in deep.”
Games two and three (if necessary) take place Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 1:00 in Williams Lake.