One goalie had it working, and the other didn’t.
You didn’t have to look on the Alberta Midget Hockey League website to see that the Calgary Flames’ backs were up against a wall, trailing 2-0 in the best-of-five Chrysler division semifinals. All you had to do was watch the performance of Ben Howard in net during Game 3, Mar. 5 at the Strathmore Family Centre.
The Bisons came out firing, but it was clear early they didn’t have the best player on the ice that afternoon.
“I thought he was good in the first two games and he certainly had an outstanding afternoon today, especially in the first period,” said Flames head coach Jeremy Blumes. “I thought the Bisons created some excellent opportunities and he answered the bell for us.”
Howard, who finished the season 14-10-1 with a .913 save percentage, set the tone by robbing Bisons alternate captain Kaden Hanas on the doorstep twice.
Hanas worked his way into a soft spot in the Flames defence when the puck found him below the right faceoff circle. Aiming low, Howard slid over and kicked out the initial shot. The rebound fired out back to Hanas, who wound up again, aiming higher, but Howard remained in great position for the follow up save.
“Those saves got me into a good mindset for the rest of the game,” said Howard, who gave up 11 goals in the first two games. “It was all about resetting. I had to clear my mindset and go back to the basics; things that I do well and have some fun.”
On the flip side, nearly 200 feet in the other direction, Hunter Young was making his playoff debut between the pipes for the Bisons.
Prior to the series, Bisons head coach Sandy Henry mentioned that Ben Laidlaw would start the opener, and be evaluated as the series moves along, with the thought of working Young into the series at some point.
Laidlaw surrendered nine goals in the first two games. Sitting comfortably up 2-0 in the series, it made complete sense to stick Young in net, who finished the season with the best save percentage in the league (.929).
It wasn’t the debut he was dreaming of, as Young allowed the first shot he faced to sneak past him from Ben Sanderson at the 1:43 mark of the first.
It didn’t get better from there. He appeared to lose track of an Eric Martin rebound, as Hunter Nelson rifled his first of the series past Young.
Sensing his goaltender needed a break; Henry quickly replaced Young with Laidlaw. Only temporary, as Young skated back out a minute later to resume the first
“We tried to take a little pressure off him and let him regroup. We tried to buy him some time,” said Henry. “We watched the film of the first period during the intermission and decided he wasn’t as sharp today as he has been.”
Shorthanded, Chris Monden sniped on a two-on-one rush; all but ending Young’s night with 30 seconds remaining in the period. He finished with five saves and was replaced by Laidlaw to start the second.
Still a great teammate, Young was the first one slamming the boards Laidlaw’s first big save in the second period and continued supporting his teammate throughout the game.
The goalie switch seemed to spark the Bisons.
Jackson Salt was on the receiving end of another brilliant Peyton Krebs saucer pass on a two-on-one, scoring 28 seconds into the second period.
Laidlaw came in, did his job, stopping all 20 Flames shots.
“He did everything we asked him to. For us to have a chance, we needed him to slam the door and that’s exactly what he did,” said Henry.
Howard, who is an affiliated player with the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, regrouped from the early Bisons marker, turning away the next 17 shots, to finish with 34 saves.
“He’s one of our hardest workers and it shows in games. He’s had an unbelievable season for us and it’s no surprise on why. The results follow the work he has put in,” said Blumes.
The Bisons were buzzing in the second, coming close on a pair of power play opportunities, but couldn’t crack Howard.
Howard also received a little bit of puck luck. Boaz Bassen rang one off the iron and Landon Melzer fired a shot off the end boards and it looked like it was going to bounce off Howard’s backside and in, but he evaded the ricochet at the last second.
Still trailing 3-1, the Bisons put themselves behind the eight ball even further as they started the third period with 32 seconds of a five-on-three penalty kill and a four-minute penalty assessed to Liam Belcourt.
Third periods have seen multi-goal defictis erased in the opening two games. The two teams have combined for five third-period goals, and the Bisons were looking to add to that number.
Zach Huber was positioned perfectly to annihilate a sweet feed from Cole Clayton, but struck the crossbar.
Aiden Mucenski took a slashing penalty with 1:51 to go in the third. The Bisons lifted Laidlaw in one drastic effort to tie the game. The closest they came was Krebs sailing a one-timer two inches too high over the glove and the net.
The way the schedule broke down this year, the only time the Bisons played the same team twice within a two-week window, was when they took on the Calgary Royals in the Mac’s Midget AAA Hockey Tournament and faced them again in their first regular season game of the New Year.
Moving forward, Henry has noticed that the Flames defensive core has been doing a solid job of breaking up the Bisons play on the half wall and on their zone entries.
“We just need to get the puck in deep, retrieve it and set something up. We need to make their dee work hard, especially our big 17-year-old line,” said Henry.
The Bisons will look to impose their will on the end walls against the Flames in Game 4 Monday night (5:45 p.m.) at Father David Bauer Arena.
The Calgary Buffaloes punched their ticket to the Chrysler division finals, as they swept the Calgary Northstars.