ERIE, Pa. – It was by accident, but not sure I could have had a better experience for my first ever OHL playoff game.
Not only was it a wild, high-scoring 7-5 win for the Erie Otters over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds at Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pa. -- nothing like a good old-fashioned shootout, right? -- but Buffalo Sabres prospects excelled. And let’s be honest, the presence of three Sabres prospects in the game was why I made the trip in the first place.
Sabres prospect Nick Baptiste was dominant on the ice, with strong two-way play, versatility on display, and he played his part in successfully killing penalties. Positionally, he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. These aspects of his game are worth noting, but it was his offensive outburst that brought the crowd to its feet the most.
I had barely gotten to my seat when Sabres prospect Jean Dupuy opened the scoring for Soo 38 seconds into the game. Another Sabres prospect, Williamsville native Justin Bailey, picked up the assist. As exciting as it was to see that goal out of the gate from a Sabres point-of-view, it shocked the Erie crowd. But then, it began.
One. Baptiste fired a shot past goaltender Brandon Halverson to tie it up 1-1 less than 2 minutes later. Energy in the building was restored and amplified with one shot.
Two. With Erie trailing yet again, 3-2 in the 2nd period, Baptiste found the equalizer on a pass from Dylan Strome that found its way through the crease to #14’s stick. The crowd was buzzing.
Three. Erie was grasping to a 5-4 lead with less than 7 minutes to play and the way the game had gone, you knew the Soo were not going down quietly. Cue more heroics from Baptiste, who extended the Erie lead to 6-4, unassisted. If you’re thinking that might hold up as the game winner, you would be right.
Four. Why stop at a hat trick? Baptiste dazzled the crowd again with an empty netter with 38 seconds left. It was really something to watch the fans around me look at each other and say probably rhetorically out of delight, “Baptiste again, right?” It was indeed Baptiste again.
With the series 2-1 in Erie’s favor, it was a pivotal Game #4. If the Greyhounds had won, it would have gone back to Sault Ste. Marie all even. But Baptiste and the Otters, who went into the series as underdogs, triumphed for the third consecutive game, marking the first time the Soo have lost three straight all year.
It had been a while since I attended a hockey game as a “fan.” To be a witness to the electricity in that building, the excitement, the roar of the crowd, and to know that a Sabres connection had made it so, that was a good feeling.
There are a lot of good feelings ahead, Sabres fans. There is a lot to look forward to.
Full highlights from the game: