Bisons stun men’s hockey ‘Birds in OT to force game three

You might say the last goal was a fluke, but the three blown UBC leads that preceded it certainly weren’t. The Thunderbirds were ahead by scores of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, and each time, the University of Manitoba Bisons were able to claw themselves back into the game. Head coach Tyler Kuntz bemoaned his team’s lack of killer instinct.

“We’ve got to keep the lead…. It’s pretty simple. If we have the lead, we [have to] play like we’re down by six, instead of up by two.

“We’ve got our Achilles heel here -- three great shifts, two bad shifts. Puck management for four shifts in a row, then six turnovers. It’s like Jekyll and Hyde at times. These guys need to just stick to the program for 60 minutes,” he said.

Unfortunately for UBC, it took 60:44 to decide the game. Just under a minute into the extra period, Bison and former Vancouver Giant Darren Bestland floated a wrister in from the blue line, which knuckled and hit Thunderbird netminder Eric Williams high on the shoulder, popped up in the air, and in fantastically slow motion, trickled over the line despite Neil Manning’s best diving attempts to swat it out.

It’s hard to fault Williams for being handcuffed by a weird shot, especially since he’d played so well up until that point. While Manitoba elected to start backup Byron Spriggs for the second game of the back-to-back, Kuntz stuck with Williams, who is beginning to emerge as the go-to guy after splitting the season with Matt Hewitt almost 50/50. Apart from a slightly shaky 1-1 Manitoba goal this game, it’s been impossible to find fault with his play. He’s been the reason the UBC penalty kill has worked, and he’s given his team a chance to win in every game he’s played.

And his team needed him tonight. From the opening faceoff the Bisons looked like they had woken up from Friday’s poor showing. They played with a sense of purpose and threw their weight around in their own zone, forcing turnovers and shots from the outside. T-Bird Luke Lockhart was able to find a seam six minutes in, though, and put UBC up 1-0 with a rare opportunity in the Manitoba slot.

The second period is where things got chippy again. It was as if the two teams suddenly remembered the bad blood from last night and decided that they missed post-whistle scrums and roughing calls. The home team got the better deal powerplay-wise early in the second as Channing Bresciani was called for cross-checking and Bestland went off for charging. Both times the powerplay failed to convert, which has been a serious problem as of late. The ‘Birds are now 1-10 in the series and 3-28 in the six games they’ve played against Manitoba this year for a troubling 10 per cent conversion rate.

“They move the puck fast, they move it hard one time, then the next time they’re out there laissez-faire,” said Kuntz. “It’s casual Fridays, everyone’s got their Hawaiian tee shirts on. They’ve got to want it, they’ve got to be hungry. They’ve got to work hard. Pretty simple.”

Things didn’t die down after the T-Birds’ failed powerplay opportunities. Greg Fraser took it upon himself to lay a huge open-ice hit on a Manitoba player and was called for interference, then on the ensuing powerplay, Bison Aaron Lewadniuk ran Williams and got a few good shots to the back of his head while face down on the ice for his troubles.

Manitoba finally tied it up at 13:49 with the aforementioned soft-ish goal on Williams. It was a shot from the side boards from Shaquille Merasty that found its way through the UBC goaltender, and things were squared up for a moment, until Cole Wilson snuck away from a defender after a favourable neutral zone turnover, and was fed a juicy pass from Manraj Hayer that gave him all the time in the world to snipe one past Spriggs.

The Bisons then took advantage of their third powerplay of the game when Bardaro was taken out of a scrum for roughing at 18:37. Williams made a spectacular sliding pad stop, but couldn’t get in front of the rebound, which Brett Dudar swatted deftly out of midair to tie things up again.

Manraj Hayer gave UBC the lead again with a garbage goal at 4:45 of the final frame, but again Manitoba refused to let them off the hook. Josh Elmes flung a blue line wrister at the net that was deflected at least once through a massive screen and found its way past Williams. From that point, both teams employed the “throw-everything-at-the-net” technique, to no avail. When the puck didn’t hit one of the five collapsing bodies, each netminder had the pad down to safely direct the puck to the corner.

Overtime came, and overtime went. The ‘Birds skated off the ice rightfully dejected, and left the crowd wondering which team would show up the next night -- the squad that demolished the visitors 5-1 in the previous game, or the Jekyll and Hyde that blew three separate leads and lost in extra time.

“Simplicity, I think,” said Kuntz on what his team needs to focus on for next game. “We’ve got to use our speed, we’ve got to get pucks behind their defencemen, we’ve got to get inside their defencemen, we’ve got to finish our checks, we’ve got to stay above their middle driver. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to do that we do most of the time, we just don’t do it all the time. That’s why we are where we are.

“Consistency, right?”