WINDSOR — Chase Stewart is from tiny Marathon, Ont., and when he came to camp for the Saint John Sea Dogs late in the pre-season, he was 25 pounds heavier than he is now and he was looking for a second shot at his CHL career.
Well, he earned that shot.
And on Tuesday, Stewart — the 20-year-old who’d tallied four goals in 141 games in major junior hockey, the kid who came to the Sea Dogs after he’d been waived by his OHL team — scored the pivotal second goal in a 7-0 drubbing of the WHL champions from Seattle, helping his team advance to Friday’s Mastercard Memorial Cup semifinal.
“I just tried to hit the net,” Stewart said, with a grin. “It felt pretty good. I don’t score many, so I’ll take any I can get.”
As head coach Danny Flynn put it: “He saves his goals for the big games.”
Stewart’s goal wasn’t the winner — no, that came from forward Joe Veleno, who had two on Tuesday night — but it did kickstart an offensive onslaught from the QMJHL champions, who scored five goals in three minutes and nine seconds in the second period here, starting with Stewart’s marker.
Thunderbirds coach Steve Konowalchuk put it best: “The wheels fell off in a hurry when they scored that second goal.”
They did. And it was quite the reverse of last night, when the Sea Dogs got shelled by the OHL champions from Erie. And while the Sea Dogs did score five goals Monday night they were meaningless because the Otters scored a ridiculous 12, an outcome Stewart called “embarrassing.”
The Sea Dogs did bounce back, earning their first win here in a must-win situation that will see them next face the loser of Wednesday’s matchup between Windsor and Erie.
Seattle’s season, meanwhile, is over. The team scored just three goals in three games. They outshot Saint John 31-28 on Tuesday and at times out-played them, but couldn’t get anything past Sea Dogs goalie Callum Booth, who rebounded with a shutout a night after Erie chased him from his net.
“It’s fun to get a win, to be honest,” said Booth. “Yesterday was a really hard game personally and as a team, and for us to bounce back like that shows a lot of character.”
Veleno had two goals and an assist, Tampa Bay prospect Bokondji Imama had three points, captain Spencer Smallman and Matthew Highmore each had a pair of points, and Julien Gauthier recorded a point in his third straight game here.
Early in this one, which was preceded by a moment of silence for those affected by the attack on Monday night in Manchester, it looked like it would be a low-scoring affair. The game was scoreless through the first period, and both teams had limited chances.
Saint John’s best came on their first shift, when smooth-skating defenceman Thomas Chabot, a Senators prospect, cruised through a pair of defenders and sent a shot off the cross bar.
Later in the period, Thunderbirds centreman Scott Eansor — who was his team’s spark early in this game — relentlessly chased down Veleno and stripped the puck off him to generate Seattle’s best chance, though Booth got a piece of his five-hole attempt, and the puck trickled just wide.
Despite Seattle having the edge in shots in the first, and controlling the first half of the second period, it was Saint John who struck first.
At the 1:14 mark of the second, the Sea Dogs capitalized on a failed breakout attempt and Veleno sent a weak wrist shot at the net from the top of the circle, allowing the puck to sneak under goalie Carl Stankowski’s glove.
The rookie goaltender immediately looked down and shook his head, then shifted his green and blue helmet up and went for a skate toward the boards. He wanted that one back, no doubt.
The Montreal-born Veleno, who turned 17 in January, was the first player in QMJHL history to be granted exceptional status, and allowed to play as a 15-year-old. This was his first goal here at the Memorial Cup — his biggest of the season — and he whooped his hands up to get the crowd going.
Asked if he thought that one was going in, and Veleno said: “I don’t think so.”
Seattle had some good chances in the second, including a couple from their leading scorer Matthew Barzal, but Booth shut the door.
And then, with about six minutes to go in the second, it was like a flip switched. After being out-played most of the period, Saint John scored twice in 15 seconds, and the floodgates opened.
First, Stewart hammered one home on a play that saw both the puck and Seattle winger Nolan Volcan in the net, after jumping up into the play on a delayed penalty call on the Thunderbirds.
“He read there was an opportunity there and knew he could jump up and popped her in,” Flynn said.
Fifteen seconds later, Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Mathieu Joseph sent one over Stankowski’s blocker. In his pre-game interview, Sportsnet commentator Rob Faulds asked Joseph if he was ready, and Joseph said: “Oh, I’m ready,” and grinned. It was his second of the tournament.
Just like that, the Sea Dogs were up by three — the same number of goals Seattle had scored in the entire tournament.
And they were just getting started. Smallman made it 4-0 on a backhand, a rebound off a shot from Gauthier, and that marked the end of Stankowski’s night, with veteran Rylan Toth taking over between the pipes.
Cole Reginato got his first of the tournament when he scored, wide open on the doorstep, after getting a cross-ice pass from defenceman and Montreal Canadiens prospect Simon Bourque.
Seattle called a timeout after that, but the bleeding didn’t stop.
Imama made it 6-0 just 44 seconds later on another failed Seattle breakout attempt, rifling one past Toth while falling to the ice. Easner’s face after that goal — hard breathing, no expression, staring ahead — told the story of Seattle’s night.
Just over six minutes into the third, Highmore had a near-goal on a breakaway, then Veleno scored his second on the rebound to give Saint John an extra-comfortable seven-goal lead.
At the end of the game, Booth lifted his mask and jumped, and the Sea Dogs joined him in celebration on the ice.
Stewart says the celebration in the locker room afterwards was pretty muted, that we haven’t seen the best of the Sea Dogs yet. Of the offensive push in the second period, the defender said there’s a pretty simple reason for that.
“We had our back against the wall,” Stewart said, with a shrug. “It was do or die. We thought we might as well go all out.
“So far in the tournament, we’ve been struggling. I think things just started to click. Guys felt more confident, and we were able to get a few quick ones.”
Perhaps none bigger than his own. Konowalchuk said his Thunderbirds have come back from 0-2 deficits in games plenty of times this season, but they didn’t have it on Tuesday night. “Just nothing left mentally,” the coach said.
Flynn laughed when he heard Stewart said he was just trying to hit the net on that goal, the biggest of his career.
“He doesn’t score too many,” Flynn said. “Not a better time to get one.”