DETROIT – The atmosphere and fanfare of playing in a special event like the Ontario Hockey League doubleheader at Comerica Park had coach Mike Vellucci a little concerned for some members of his Plymouth team.
“Only for the young guys, because some of the guys might be too jacked up or a little too excited,” Vellucci said. “But I didn’t have to get them up, obviously there were excited to play here.”
The Whalers managed to hang with the No. 4 ranked junior team in the Canadian Hockey League, due in part to the splendid performance of their young goalie.
Alex Nedeljkovic made 44 saves through overtime and stopped three of four London shooters in the skills competition to lift Plymouth to a 2-1 shootout victory over the Knights Sunday night. Forwards Zach Lorentz and Francesco Vilardi scored shootout goals for the Whalers.
“He made a lot of huge saves,” Vellucci said of his goalie. “We had two tough penalty kills at the end and the overtime one and I thought we killed it off pretty good and you’re only as good as your goalie on your penalty kill.”
Desperate for a win, the Whalers entered Sunday’s game with a 1-6-0-3 (W-L-T-OTL) record in their last 10 games prior to the OHL’s Christmas break.
“We won before the break and we won here,” Vellucci said. “We had a tough stretch there for a couple of games where I think we lost four or five shootouts so we’ve won our last two shootouts and that’s very helpful.”
Defenseman Mathieu Henderson put the Whalers up 1-0 early in the third period, firing a rising slap shot through traffic from the right point. The puck appeared to strike the blade of Danny Vanderwiel’s stick and change direction on London goalie Jake Patterson. But Henderson was later awarded his fifth goal of the season, assisted by right winger Brook Hiddink at 1:38 of the third period.
“I thought I got a bit of it, but our goalie coach Stan (Matwijiw) said that I wasn’t even close to it,” Vanderwiel said. “Not to worry about that though, just glad we got the dub today.”
The Knights dominated most of the puck-possession in the game but couldn’t get anything past Nedeljkovic, who was nearly flawless throughout the night. That is until Plymouth took a bad penalty late when defenseman Mitch Jones was whistled for interference against Chris Tierney in front of the Whalers’ net with 2:48 left in regulation.
London used its timeout at that point and pulled their goalie for an extra attacker on the power play. The move worked for the Knights who applied immediate pressure in the offensive zone where Tierney – the San Jose Sharks’ second-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft – fired a rocket from the high slot that went off of Nedeljkovic’s blocker and into the net with 2:14 left in the third.
“It was an off-speed shot, I think he whiffed on it,” Nedeljkovic said. “I don’t know if he meant to do that or not but it hit my blocker and I don’t know where it went from there.
“This is a great feeling to beat the Knights. It’s been a tough season so far, yeah, but every win we want to cherish as if we won our first game.”
The Knights’ offense clearly struggled without several key components that are in Sweden this week competing in the World Junior Championships for Team Canada.
The obvious absences for the Knights, who boast the OHL’s third-ranked scoring offense, were two of their top four goal-scorers: center Bo Horvat and right wing Josh Anderson, who have 16 goals each this season.
Still, London’s top scorers – Tierney and Phoenix prospect Max Domi – had their chances early against Nedeljkovic. But the Parma, Ohio, native, who is in his second season with the Whalers, made several huge saves in the second period to keep the game scoreless after 40 minutes. Midway through the period, Domi, the son of former Toronto Maple Leafs’ pugilist, had a stellar chance to give the Knights a lead, but Nedeljkovic cut down the angle to make a big stop.
“We got out-shot, I don’t know what the shots were, but Alex stood on his head out there,” Vanderwiel said. “Obviously, they have quite a few guys over in Europe right now, but still it’s the London Knights, one of the top teams, so it was a great accomplishment. It was great for us.”
Nedeljkovic made another huge save when with 1:49 left in the middle frame London left winger Matt Rupert took a centering pass from Tierney, who threaded the puck through a Plymouth defenseman in the low slot. Standing in front of the crease, Rupert pulled the puck to his backhand and tried to lift it over Nedeljkovic, but the Whalers’ 17-year-old goalie made a nice kick save with his left pad.
Plymouth was out-shot, 45-26, through regulation and the five-minute overtime period.
“It’s become a common theme: getting a lot of shots,” Nedeljkovic said. “We’re a young team and we’re playing guys who are a lot older than us and more experienced. Yeah, we give up a lot of shots but most of them are from the outside so it’s not really a big deal when they’re from the boards or right inside the blue line. We did a good job of keeping everything out of the middle tonight.”
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