SHAWINIGAN, Que. — The Edmonton Oil Kings missed a golden opportunity to gain the driver’s seat for the bye to Sunday’s MasterCard Memorial Cup final after losing 5-2 to the Saint John Sea Dogs.
Now the four teams each boast a 1-1 record — the first such time this has happened in the era of the four-team tournament, which was introduced in 1983 — and the bye to the final is very much open for the taking.
"I guess the only positive about tonight, it didn’t go into overtime so we can get back to the hotel, we can rest, relax and try to reenergize for tomorrow night," Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal said.
The defending MasterCard Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs finally got an effort that looked reminiscent of the style they played in winning their second-straight Quebec Major Junior Hockey League title.
Saint John opened the scoring with a strange goal. Zack Phillips quickly fired the puck from the corner boards, hoping to create an opportunity, but instead beat Oil Kings goaltender Laurent Brossoit to the near post.
"I usually try to do that early in a game," he said. "Just throw pucks to the net, the least that happens usually would be a rebound out front or something like that. He wasn’t really looking, I guess, I didn’t really see what happened, but just saw it go in the net and I’ll take it."
The Oil Kings made good use of their first power play of the game. Captain Mark Pysyk’s wrist shot from the point was deflected downwards by Kristians Pelss and immediately called a goal by the ref standing behind the net. The goal stood following a booth review and the game remained tied at one after the opening frame.
It was far from the type of period Sea Dogs head coach Gerard Gallant needed from his team. He saved the fire and brimstone speech for another time.
"I didn’t say much, but the kids knew I was pretty disappointed," he said. "You don’t work hard like we did all season long to come here and play hockey the way we played the first four periods (of the tournament)."
The turning point, Gallant believes, came early in the second period when six-foot, 166-pound Ryan Tesink was creamed along the wall by the 6-foot-4, 202-pound Griffin Reinhart.
"I think the guys said, you know what, if that guy’s going to pay a price like that and compete the way he is — 175 pounds — I think the guys followed from there," Gallant said.
Saint John regained the lead early in the second period on a breakaway goal by Huberdeau, who was sprung by Charlie Coyle. Huberdeau cut behind Griffin Reinhart then faked Brossoit to the right before putting it in the empty side.
The Sea Dogs took a two-goal lead late in the second period on another strange goal. Coyle fired from the left side half-wall and it somehow found a way through traffic, with the goal credited to Danick Gauthier.
Edmonton cut the deficit to 3-2 barely a minute later, but it was as close as they would come. The Sea Dogs got a late goal from Phillips in the third and an empty-netter by Tesink.
"I had a couple chances earlier too, so it definitely felt good to get that one," Phillips said. "To go up by two, with a minute and a half left pretty much sealed the deal."
"We’re a team that has to have 20 players going every night," Laxdal said. "We had some passengers tonight and tomorrow night we need these guys to step up and respond."
The Oil Kings will face the London Knights on Tuesday. London won its first game against Saint John on Saturday, then lost to Shawinigan on Sunday.
"They’re rested and we played tonight in some hot circumstances and again, it was humid again in the rooms, but both teams have to play through that," Laxdal said.
"All year we’ve been living by the 10-minute rule," Edmonton defenceman Keegan Lowe said. "You kind of think about it for 10 minutes, win or loss, and especially if there’s a game the next day. Get ready for it, start focusing tonight in the hotel room, get to bed and I think it should be good."
The Sea Dogs will now still have an opportunity to gain the bye to the final, as they did following the round robin in last year’s tournament.
"It really paid dividends for us last year getting a few days off with guys bumped and bruised a bit," Sea Dogs forward Stephen MacAuley said.
Saint John’s next game is against the host Cataractes in the final round robin game on Wednesday. If they win this game it guarantees two teams, which are still to be determined, will be playing in Thursday’s tiebreaker.