Winter Classic heartbreaker: Huskies score four unanswered, blow past ‘Birds in 2OT

The hype was established far before the game day. The AMS Events team had done its marketing with help from The Calendar, and the students responded in kind to UBC’s first ever Winter Classic game. Over three thousand students showed up, hockey veteran and novice alike, to experience Canadiana in its truest form -- a hockey game in your hometown.

The atmosphere was electric before the game even started. Something felt like it was on the line in this game -- more of a Canucks playoff match than a university regular season one. The beer-soaked and record-breaking crowd cheered at every opportunity, giving the T-Birds the energy to rack up a seemingly unsurpassable three goal lead late in the game. But momentum works in an exaggerated way in this league; when a rookie-filled Saskatchewan team notched their first goal of the evening at 8:46 of the third, something clicked. From that point on, the home team could only watch their dominant game unravel.

3,049 was the exact number of people packed into the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre, and it sounded like it from the moment the puck dropped. The ‘Birds took notice, and wasted no time in throwing their weight around, causing a serious headache for the visitors in their own end and in the neutral zone. Within the first minute, Luke Lockhart had hit the crossbar, amping up the crowd even more. UBC net-minder Eric Williams traded long-distance blows with Saskatchewan’s Ryan Holfeld to keep the game scoreless through 19:59 of the first period.

It was that last second in which Nick Buonassisi blew past the Huskie defender and caught Holfeld moving the wrong way to open the scoring with a buzzer-beater -- exactly what the crowd needed to ramp up the excitement from a deadlocked period.

“The other team actually had a wide open net,” recalled Buonassisi. “It was fortunate that he missed it, and I was able to pick up the puck, and I saw their D-man kind of stutter-step and it was kind of an instant play. I saw the goalie go left so I tried to go right, and lucky enough it went in for me.”

The Thunderbirds came into the second period confident. They had most of the chances during the first, and were justly rewarded at the tail end. The thousands in the stands were no less energetic. David Robinson felt he needed to establish a tone early on, and gave Holfeld a bit of a snow shower, which drew some Huskies behind the net for a bout of face-washing and headlocks.

The second looked better than the first for the ‘Birds -- the only time the puck crossed their defensive blueline was when it was iced. Bardaro took the puck right off a defender’s stick and very nearly put it in from the slot. Fleming caught a rebound from a wraparound attempt and fired it so convincingly that the red light flashed to signal a goal. The man with the best view in the house and the red stripe on his arm, however, disagreed.

Not to be stonewalled for the period, the ‘Birds would add another. Jessi Hilton and Luke Lockhart sprung up on a 2-on-1 opportunity and made no mistake with their textbook finish. 2-0 ‘Birds. From there, Saskatchewan turned up the heat a little bit, but Williams stood on his head when he needed to.

So it went to what everyone in the stands hoped would be the final frame. At 6:51, Robinson buried a huge rebound top shelf to put the home team up by three, and if you asked the person next to you whether there was any chance of a comeback, you might’ve gotten a funny look. It just wasn’t plausible.

But it happened. It started with a bad penalty. Ben Schmidt took a roughing call to put the visitors on the powerplay, they crashed the crease and banged one in over Williams’ shoulder. They’d climb within one just 33 seconds later, as Jesse Ross fired home a wrist shot that beat Williams blocker side.

“I think we let our nerves get the best of us in the third period,” said Buonassisi. “We took a couple penalties we shouldn’t have. We were playing on the edge, letting our emotions get the best of us.”

The mood had changed from casually optimistic to frightened in less than a minute. The crowd’s fears would be realized five minutes later when Huskie Connor Cox beat the UBC defence from almost the same spot Ross had. The intoxicated gentleman behind me summed up everyone’s feelings: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Perhaps Saskatchewan head coach Dave Adolph articulated the point more eloquently: “I think what really happened is UBC let us off the hook,” he said. “If anything, the end of the second period allowed us to get back in the game … that’s how momentum works in our sport.”

With the win, Adolph becomes the winningest coach in CIS history, surpassing former Thunderbird Clare Drake who had 377 under his belt. These 378 of Adolph’s come in another CIS record for most games coached: 722.

"There's only one Clare Drake," he said. "In my mind, he's responsible for the success of CIS hockey, both male and female. I didn’t really break his record, I just happened to have coached a long time."

“The wins are all I care about.”

And that’s what his team gave him. A nail-biting four-on-four overtime period solved nothing, so the game turned to three-on-three for the next five minute, sudden-death period. That’s when things really opened up. The amount of clear ice was almost comical; every rush was odd-man. Williams kept the ‘Birds in it with a few solid saves, but in the end even he couldn’t stifle the close-range backhander from Craig McCallum.

The audience left quickly, perhaps reasonably unwilling to sit any longer in the stadium that quickly dashed what, for many of them, were such newly-formed hopes. Still, the Thunderbirds can take away a point, as well as the knowledge that with the right push, there are thousands of students that will come out to support their athletes.

Despite the loss, Buonassisi agreed that the arena’s population on Friday night was inspiring. “It was a really good feeling out there, I was surprised how many people came out. It was really nice to see. Obviously we don’t get that many fans to every game, so that was really cool.”

Now, the focus shifts to Saturday’s game. “We’re still real positive looking forward,” said Buonassisi. “We’re really aiming for home ice [during the] first round in the playoffs, and it’s definitely within our reach. We have to hold onto leads and get two points from here on in.”

The ‘Birds bounced back Saturday night to take a 5-0 victory over the Huskies, earning Matt Hewitt his first CIS shutout and clinching a playoff spot in the Canada West conference.