Johnson: Plucky Hitmen dig deep to manufacture a comeback few thought they had in them
Down 3-1 and facing elimination with just a period left, Calgary refused to go away quietly in 4-3 win
The man most responsible for the festivities had the furthest to travel to join in on the fun.
“You’ve got,” raved overtime goal hero Brooks Macek, “to be pretty speechless about that guy.”
Gobsmacked, even. The man, quite simply, is a closet kleptomaniac. A regular cat burglar. Chris Driedger should be wearing a balaclava, not a mask. Toting a bag marked Swag in his blocker hand, not a goal stick. Riding a getaway car, not the Calgary Hitmen’s official playoff train.
Talk about light fingers.
“When it was 3-1 we could’ve shut it down and kinda given up, but Driegs just wouldn’t let us,” praised Hitmen defenceman Jaynen Rissling. “He made that one big — no, great — save on the empty net where he got his paddle across, then was solid the rest of the way. He gave us hope. Gave us a chance to get back into it.
“Then our power play stepped up, some of our older guys stepped up and it paid off. But Driedgs made it possible.”
With those 36 saves on the night, including six in overtime.
Oil Kings defenceman Ashton Sautner, creeping in from the left point to cannonade a short Henrik Samuelsson shot off Driedger’s chest. A snappy blocker save at the expense of David Musil. Saving Spencer Humphries blushes by thwarting Travis Ewanuk. Flicking his left pad at Samuelsson’s chance to end the series.
So when Brooks Macek fired a poison blow-dart over the catching glove of Edmonton Oil Kings’ goalie Laurent Brossoit 6:59 into overtime Sunday to extend the WHL Eastern Conference final, Driedger launched himself up the ice to where his teammates had begun celebrating a 4-3, season-saving piece of theatrics.
Meaning this series, which had seemed at junctures to have slithered just beyond the Hitmen’s reach, goes the distance, with the onus suddenly shifting to the heavily-favoured Oil Kings, on home ice, at Rexall Place.
“Not very good,” muttered Calgary GM Kelly Kisio, when asked how he was holding up under the late-dramatics strain.
“I’m getting too old for this, uh ...” He groped to find a word suitable for a family newspaper. “... expletive.
“But obviously we’re very proud of what they’ve accomplished so far, They’re playing against a team that’s very highly skilled, capable of burning you quickly, and they’re scrapping and fighting, finding a way to get it done.”
Staring down extinction. Trailing 2-0 and 3-1 to arguably the league’s classiest team after being lit up for 12 goals in the past two starts. The fainter of heart would’ve simply curled up in a fetal position and sobbed silently, thrown up their hands in exasperation, or joined hands and cried “Uncle!” in unison.
What the Hitmen showed Sunday isn’t quantifiable. Goes beyond statistics and trends. It’s found within, can’t be taught or fudged. And, despite the odds still being firmly against of pulling this thing out of the fire, puts them in good stead for Tuesday’s decider.
“We’re no strangers to OT in these playoffs,” reminded Driedger. “It was just like another overtime game. I just had to play big. Play strong. Macey made a perfect shot.
“Unbelievable character win by the guys. It would’ve been really easy to pack it in. But obviously no one on this team wants to go home. We’re all about hockey. We’ve got a great group of guys in there. Our 20s, it could’ve been their last game of hockey. No one wanted that. We showed a lot of heart tonight.”
That size of ticker is what pulled them back from the abyss in a defining third period. A light-as-a-soap bubble backhand saucer pass from captain Cody Sylvester put the puck right in Brady Brassart’s wheelhouse and the Hitmen were, in the time it takes to draw breath, back in business at 3-2, holding a man advantage, a mere seven ticks in. Thirty-three seconds into another power play — Ewanyk caught cross-checking — they drew level at 7:56, Macek’s wrister spotting a hole through traffic only seconds after Brossoit had absolutely stoned Brassart on a close-in deflection.
Then it was the PK’s turn to shine, in the final six minutes of regulation, completely muffling Edmonton’s lethal PP, after Calgary’s Elliott Peterson was incarcerated for boarding, on the slightest wisp of a touch, Curtis Lazar of the Oil Kings plowing into the boards noisily.
Overtime belonged to Driedger and, for that decisive split second, Macek.
“We knew going into the third that it was going to be a challenge,” said Rissling. “But there was no way we were going to give up. We knew they had a lot of guys hurting and some guys not in the lineup so we knew if we moved our feet, got in quick and crashed some bodies they’d probably ease up a bit.”
There’s no easing up, no holding back, nothing to keep anything in reserve for now.
“We’ll go in there, play our asses off, and see what happens,” said Kisio.
“(Driedger)’s been fantastic all playoffs. There might be one game where he didn’t feel he was up to snuff but other than that he’s raised the calibre of his game to playoff level.
“And you can’t win any series without great goaltending.”
Great goaltending being what they’ve become accustomed to around here.
“Can’t say I’ve ever been a part of a Game 7 in the WHL,” admitted Dreidger, grinning, “so I’m really looking forward to it.”
He shrugged disinterestedly at the notion that the Oil Kings were still big favourites to end the dream.
“I don’t know if EVERYONE’s expecting them to win,” parried Driedger lightly. “I know we aren’t. We’ve won in Edmonton before, many times. Three times in the regular season. We won Game 1 there.
“We’re just going to go there with a good mentality, be confident and play our game.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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