Leaning on Laidlaw: Bisons clinch quarterfinal birth

The Foothills CFR Chemicals Bisons clinched Pool 5 on the strength of the right pad of Ben Laidlaw.

The Bisons (3-0) faced their toughest competition of the Mac’s AAA Midget Hockey Tournament so far, but held down the fort to escape with a 3-2 victory over the Greater Vancouver Canadians Dec. 29 at Father David Bauer Arena.

“We got outplayed for a lot of the game. That’s the beauty of having a hot goaltender, you win games like that with guys like him,” said Bisons head coach Sandy Henry.

Laidlaw turned in a performance worthy of Martin Brodeur’s approval, earning player of the game.

The Bisons finally met a team that could skate as well, or even better than them. The Canadians (2-1) dominated the second and third periods, but couldn’t solve the Cochrane product.

“We play in a pretty good league, but we don’t face teams that can match us in ability like that each night. We have a lot of games where me and Hunter (Young) face 20 shots or less,” said Laidlaw.

The pressure was palpable in the stands from the first period on. Potentially adding to Laidlaw’s nerves was having the Laidlaw clan in attendance.

“For a lot of guys on this team not from Strathmore, our family can’t make it out to every game. The Mac’s provides a chance for all of our family members to come out. I probably had over 20 members in the crowd tonight,” said Laidlaw.

The Canadians were relentless, like an angry beehive doused in pepper spray, swarming the Bisons, pressuring them shift after shift, and somehow finding another gear in the remaining minutes.

“He was amazing today. It was pretty fun to watch,” said Bisons assistant coach Paden Grant.

With the weight of the entire Pool hanging on every shot, Laidlaw stood his ground. Point shots, deflections, plays in tight — it didn’t matter. Laidlaw was always there, shutting the door 36 times.

“I read an article about (Miikka) Kiprusoff when I was younger. He mentioned that he developed a post-goal routine of going for a skate and drinking water. When you spit out the water, you spit out the negative energy and get focused again,” said Laidlaw.

The Canadians trailed by one with 1:11 on the clock. Bisons head coach Sandy Henry just called a timeout in an attempt to alleviate some of the stress. It didn’t do much.

With the goalie pulled, the ensuing faceoff was critical. An upper-body injury to centre Blake Wells forced him to leave the game in the second, so winger Zach Huber found himself taking the most important draw of the game.

Wells was driven into the boards and was helped off the ice. His condition is up in the air while the training staff further evaluates him.

“100 per cent chance Blake will not play against Moose Jaw. That’s why we have affiliated players,” said Henry, who was no worse for wear after taking a deflected clearing attempt off the noggin.

While Wells recovers with an upper-body injury, look for Tucker Zdunich (Foothills Bisons midget AA) or Mark Zachary (AC Avalanche minor midget AAA) to fill in.

Filling in for the injured faceoff man, Huber got locked up on the dot on the drop of the puck during the final possession. Fighting for every inch, he tried his best to keep his body overtop the puck. Eventually, the Canadians were able to wiggle it free and then the all out blitz ensued.

But in the end, the puck was cleared to safety with three seconds left to waste, as the Bisons bench erupted.

The Bisons two prior wins came in more laughable fashion, but the Canadians game was no laughing matter. Before the game, the stakes were pretty obvious; win and they win the division, lose, and tomorrow becomes a calculator’s nightmare.

The game started at a blistering pace. It was clear from puck drop that the Canadians had no problem skating with the Bisons.

Leading 7-6 in shots after the first, the Bisons headed to the dressing room with a 0-0 tie.

In the second period, a puck was chipped up to centre from the Bisons end for Huber, on what looked like an impossible errand.

Canadians defensemen Hunter Donohoe and Sam Pouliot had position on Huber and were both converging on the puck. Like a starving cat jumping through walls for some Temptations, Huber blasted through the pair of defenders, leaving them lying helplessly on the ice.

“He’s a beast. That’s the type of goal that power forwards score and Zach is one of the strongest and one of the best,” said Henry.

“I wanted a holding penalty called on him,” joked Grant.

Barely with enough time before he reached the net, he quickly collected the puck, and with one move, deked forehand, roofing it over Lukas Shaw. Peyton Krebs picked up his fourth assist on the marker at the 2:43 mark.

Nearly 13 minutes later in the second, the Canadians struck when Scott Atkinson was sent in alone on a stretch pass by Nathan Kelly. With nobody between him and Laidlaw, Atkinson sniped top corner glove side, knotting it 1-1.

The second period was filled with penalties. The Bisons spent a good chunk of it in the box, with four infractions. Gifted with the open ice via the powerplay or four-on-four, the Canadians kept pushing and coming at the Bisons, but Laidlaw never faltered.

Whenever the Bisons managed to get a shift of five-on-five, they clicked.

In Game 2, Boaz Bassen was the recipient of a friendly bounce off the boards. This time, it was Tarun Fizer at the side of the net when a Krebs point shot went wide, ricocheting out front for Fizer to tuck in five-hole for his second Mac’s goal.

Finding their groove again, the Bisons stayed away from the sin bin in the third.

Cayde Augustine picked up an assist on the Fizer tally, but also set up the Canadians with an even sweeter feed.

Alternate captain Kaden Hanas was loud and clear when instructing Augustine that he had plenty of time when he was digging the puck from his own end. Augustine turned, fired and hit Danny Pearson right on the tape. Pearson gave it up to the tourney’s leading scorer Sasha Mutala. Laidlaw didn’t stand a chance.

“That’s the thing about Ben, he stays so calm. Bad goals, guys coughing up pucks, he just doesn’t get frustrated. He just puts his head down and goes to work. He so mature, staying composed and playing big for us,” said Grant.

But that’s the Mac’s. Every game is a challenge and teams are out for blood.

Luckily, the Bisons continued on, chipping away in the final half of the third period.

Huber was everywhere this game as he continues he strong tournament play. He was the first man in deep on a dump in, driving his man into the boards and freeing the puck to Tyler Petrie. Petrie spotted Cowboy Cole Clayton on the blue line.

“Cole surprises me every game. He makes plays most d man don’t even dream about. I’m not surprised he was the clutch guy at the end for us. You breathe a little bit easier when the puck is on his stick,” said Grant.

Normally the one setting up goals with his Brian Leetch-like vision, this time, Clayton went on a dangle spree. Toe-dragging around one man, side-stepping another and wheeling around a third defender, he snapped a wrister on net that bet Shaw low glove side.

“I just wanted to make something happen. I stepped to the middle, buried my head and shot it. I looked up and saw the crowd stand up, I knew it was in — such a great feeling,” said Clayton.

The Bisons win avoided a day of nervous scoreboard-watching and bracket-busting. It’s easy now, sort of. The Bisons are through and will take on the third wildcard team Dec. 31 (12 p.m.) at Father David Bauer Arena.

Good luck figuring out that third wildcard team.

In the meantime, the Bisons wrap up round robin play 11:45 a.m. Dec. 30 at Max Bell Centre #1 against the Moose Jaw Generals (1-2). It’s an important game for the Generals, who need a whole whack of help to advance.

Other Pool 5, Day 4 action saw the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs (2-1) shaved the winless Alaska Oilers 6-3.

The Chiefs are still alive, but barely. They need a win against the Canadians tomorrow to stay in the hunt for wildcard contention.

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