Last season, Mario Dalesandro scored the game-winning goal 7:08 in overtime by banking a shot off a defender to power No. 8 Canon McMillan past No. 1 Shaler in the Penguins Cup semifinals.
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The details have varied slightly this year, as the two teams met in the quarterfinals instead of the semifinals this time around, with Canon McMillan holding the No. 2 seed while Shaler ranked No. 9.
But the story itself didn’t change much.
Canon McMillan’s Steven Ward scored the game-winning goal 7:17 into the extra session to give the Big Macs a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Titans on Wednesday at the Iceoplex at Southpointe, advancing them to the Penguins Cup semifinals and one step closer to defending their Class AAA title.
Ward was in the corner behind the goal line when he sent a shot to the front of the net that took a funny bounce off a Shaler defender and found the back of the net behind goalie Steve Defibaugh.
It was a bit of déjà vu for Canon McMillan coach Yuri Krivokhija.
“It’s a funny story,” Krivokhija said. “Before overtime, I just tell them, ‘You guys remember Mario Dalesandro’s goal in the Penguins Cup? Sometimes you have to shoot from behind the net and then deflect the goal, deflect the stick, whatever, because there’s traffic in front of the net.’ ... So anything can happen right there if you send the puck in front of the net. That’s exactly what happened.”
Ward certainly took his coach’s words to heart.
“Coach told us to get shots on net,” he said. “You never know what happens unless you get the shot. One hundred percent of the shots you don’t take, you miss. Just go for it all. That gives you the win.”
Ward’s tally capped an impressive rally by the Big Macs, who entered the third period staring down a 3-1 deficit thanks to a stellar all-around effort by Shaler.
The Titans got a five-on-three power play opportunity 2:05 into the opening frame, and it took them all of 11 seconds to capitalize with the two-man advantage when Brian Stein’s shot from the point whistled past Big Macs goalie Ryan Palonis.
Shaler continued to surge, with Dillon Burkharth sniping the top right corner of the cage with 2:22 remaining in the opening frame to give the Titans a 2-0 lead and a 9-1 advantage in shots entering the second period.
After Canon McMillan’s Brett Oldaker stuffed home a rebound just 1:34 into the middle frame, Dalton Shirring answered back just two minutes later by quickly one-touching a perfect pass from Conor Burke into the net to give Shaler a 3-1 lead entering the final 20 minutes of play.
But the third period is where Canon McMillan really began to shake off the nerves and get to their game. As their track record has proven, the Big Macs thrive in the late stages of a game, as their last three postseason contests in the 2010 playoffs stretched beyond regulation.
“They come down, they did start playing like a team,” Krivokhija said. “And then even on the bench, in the first two periods, the kids were nervous. They were looking at each other like, ‘What exactly happened?’ So I just tell them on every shift, you’ve just got to come down, because it’s all nerves. In my opinion, the first two periods were nerves. I know we’re a better team.”
The comeback started 48 seconds into the period, when Anthony Tomkovich found himself alone on the boards and decided to unleash a quick slapshot at Defibaugh that took the goalie by surprise.
And with 6:12 remaining in regulation, Canon McMillan evened the score 3-3 on another rebound goal. After Defibaugh made a series of impressive saves, the puck squirted loose to Nicholas Harrison, who buried it home and opened the door for Ward’s overtime heroics.
While the Big Macs were relieved to come out of yet another overtime match unscathed, it was a disappointing way for the Titans to see their season come to an end – especially with the way they performed.
“They played their hearts out,” Shaler coach Curt Hetz said of his players.
Hetz’s son Joshua is the Titans’ captain, and was the heart and soul of his team on the ice on Thursday. He spearheaded an outstanding defensive effort that saw Shaler go a perfect five-for-five on the penalty kill, sacrifice their bodies to block shots and backcheck hard to strip Canon McMillan players of pucks.
While this loss will sting for a while, the younger Hetz is proud of what his team accomplished this season.
“I’m very proud of every single kid in there,” he said. “A lot of people said we weren’t even going to win a game this year, and we did this. I couldn’t ask for more.”
The Big Macs are now preparing for their opportunity to defend their Penguins Cup title, and will enter the semifinals riding a wave of confidence after their come-from-behind victory.
“The confidence level in the locker room is just unbelievable,” Oldacker said. “To come back and win a game down 3-1 going into the third, and coming out and winning it like that is a huge confidence booster for us.”
And this time, they hope to avoid what's becoming their trademark overtime nailbiter.
“We don’t really want to go into overtime,” Oldacker said with a smile. “But last year I think we’ve had the experience, most of the team’s been here last year, so we know what it takes to win that overtime game, and you see how it helps us out there.”