Patrick Saini was the overtime hero as the Haliburton County Huskies rallied to a huge, come-from-behind 4-3 victory over the Toronto Patriots on home ice March 12, taking a 2-1 lead in the first-round OJHL playoff series.
A sold-out crowd of 651 rambunctious fans piled into S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena for game three Sunday afternoon, cheering on the hometown team.
After falling to a 3-1 defeat on the road in Toronto during game two on Saturday, the Huskies came out hard in the early goings. Captain Christian Stevens drew loud cheers from the crowd while delivering a big hit along the boards seconds after puck drop – a sign of things to come, with the Huskies leaning on their big bodies to push their physical game.
Saini came close to giving the team the perfect start around 40 seconds in, putting a loose puck wide of the net from a tight angle with Patriots goalie Christopher Quizi scrambling.
The home team’s enthusiasm came back to bite them as the first period progressed, with some players getting into some penalty trouble. Lucas Stevenson was given two minutes for slashing at 3:27, with Luca Rea punished for tripping at 7:35. The Huskies penalty-kill unit stood up to the task, limiting the Patriots’ opportunities.
The two sides went in scoreless at the first intermission.
There was a flashpoint five minutes into the second period after the Patriots’ Jack Piper was handed a five-minute major and game misconduct for kneeing Saini off the puck. There was concern in the stands as the Huskies’ number 75 struggled to his feet and was helped off ice by team trainer, Owen Flood.
The home side struggled on the extended man advantage, registering only four shots on goal. Sensing a need to drive their team forward, the crowd came to life midway through the period – chants of ‘Go Huskies Go’ reverberating around the rink. That seemed to spur the team on, and within seconds they found themselves ahead – Nick Dowling slamming a loose puck home after a drive from Josh Sordo and saved attempt from Marco Iozzo.
Any excitement was short lived, with the Patriots tying the game at 13:21 – blueliner Nolan Ling beating Aidan Spooner with a snipe from the point. The visiting side repeated the trick at 18:18, Jake Mallory tipping a deep drive from Luca Fasciano past a helpless Spooner. Needing a lift, the team got one when Saini re-emerged from the dressing room for the final minute of the period, to loud ovation from the home crowd.
That seemed to shift the mood, and the momentum. Knowing a second straight would leave them in a less than ideal spot, a reinvigorated Huskies upped the pressure at the beginning of the final frame. After winning the draw, the team zipped the puck around the ice, eventually finding Saini in the slot. His shot was well saved by Quizi, but Lucas Stevenson was well placed to flick the puck home on the rebound.
The ice tilted from there – Stevens, Josh Currie and Ty Collins all went close to re-establishing a Huskies lead, but when the goal did finally come it was from something of an unexpected source. Picking up the puck at centre ice, Iozzo held off two Patriots defencemen on his way into the zone before ripping a beauty shot high over Quizi’s glove into the top corner of the net at 8:01, sparking mass celebration on the ice and in the stands.
With the minutes ticking down, the Huskies tried to keep things tight but offered the Patriots a way back into the game after Alex Cunningham was handed a harsh roughing penalty at 12:20. Visiting captain Zach Ophoven took full advantage, scoring a powerplay marker at 14:11 to tie the game and send us to overtime.
It was one-way traffic during the extra frame. The game-winner came after a brave foray forward from Isaac Sooklal, who carried the puck along the boards and to the front of the net, with the puck fortuitously finding its way onto Saini’s stick, who made no mistake with his finish.
Saini was named first star of the game, which he celebrated passionately at centre ice. Sooklal received second star honours after assisting the game-winning play, with Iozzo’s two-point effort good enough for third star.
The Huskies travel to Toronto March 14 for game four, with game five coming back to Minden March 16. Check this week’s Highlander for more playoff coverage.