Go ahead and call them the Heart Attack Bisons or the Better Late Than Never Bisons, but make sure you at least call them the three-timing reigning Chrysler division champion Bisons.
Fitting, on a day south of the border where March Madness reigns supreme, that a buzzer beater propelled the Foothills CFR Chemicals Bisons into overtime, on their way to a 3-2 win Thursday night at the Strathmore Family Centre, advancing to the Alberta Midget Hockey League finals.
The Calgary Buffaloes took a 2-1 lead over the span of 51 seconds in the second period and looked to send this series back to Calgary for Game 5 with 24.6 seconds left in regulation.
After a timeout and with the Bisons net empty, the faceoff came to the left of Buffs goalie Taylor Gauthier.
“The play was to win the faceoff, move the puck around the wall and get something on net,” said Strathmore product Cole Clayton. “(Jackson) Salt and (Zach) Huber made a great plays on the boards and the puck came to me and I made the same play that I’ve been making since bantam.
“It’s called the Cole Clayton.”
Eerily reminiscent to fellow d-man and Game 3 overtime hero Tyson Terretta’s shot, Clayton hesitated along the blue line with less than 10 seconds remaining, as a shot blocker slid along the ice helplessly. Finally firing, Salt connected with the puck on its way to the net, deflecting it past Gauthier with 5.5 seconds remaining.
The Family Centre, which was at standing room only, exploded.
“You could feel waves of sound at that point. It was crazy in there tonight,” said Bisons head coach Sandy Henry.
The end-to-end action was breath taking, and it didn’t let up in the extra frame.
Scoreless after the first overtime, the two teams buckled up for their second-straight double overtime.
“We were getting out played in overtime, the coaches talked to us during the intermission and we realized we needed a better effort. (Brett) Trentham spoke up and told us to calm down, and reminded us that we needed to take care of the defensive zone first and the rest would take care of itself,” said the Medicine Hat Tigers prospect Clayton.
Just over nine minutes into the second overtime, the Buffs were looking to breakout of their zone. That’s when Clayton pinched and kept the puck in.
Finding himself on a 2-on-1 with quarterfinals Game 2 overtime hero, Brandon Machado, he drove to the net.
“I was standing on the bench, yelling at Machado to back up; I thought he was too close for Cole to get the puck over to him,” said Henry.
Skating in as tight as he could, Clayton feathered the puck underneath the stick of the kneeling defenseman over to Machado.
“Their guy wasn’t laying down, so there was a tiny triangle underneath the stick that I could fit the puck through. I think the goalie was getting ready for me to shoot because I was in so tight. That’s probably why he couldn’t slide over in time,” said Clayton.
“You can’t teach that stuff, its something they’re wired with,” said Henry, about Clayton’s play-making ability in the clutch.
He hit Machado, who delivered his second tap-in overtime-winner of the playoffs, as the Family Centre went into bedlam.
“He’s a great player and has great patience. He made a great pass, after that, everything turned into a blur,” said Machado.
The players stormed the ice as parents and fans smacked the glass, some even climbing the glass, hanging over top in celebration.
It was an unbelievable ending to an unbelievable series. The South final was everything it was cracked up to be; fast, talented, tightly played and dramatic.
Goaltender Ben Laidlaw was the best player by far for the Bisons all series. Once again, he found a way to come up with huge saves against the league’s top offence at the crucial moments. He finished the series with a 1.50 goals against average and a .961 save percentage, recorded 146 saves (36.5 saves per game) and out-dueled one of the top young goaltending prospects in Western Canada.
“If you put too much pressure on yourself, you’re probably going to lose. I just needed to focus on stopping the next one, then the next one and then the next one. It also helps when you’re on a team like this. I’m pretty confident in this group and that they are going to come out on top, even when we are down with five seconds left,” said Laidlaw.
He was the main reason that the Buffs went 0-for-15 on the power play in the series, including 50 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play in the second period.
“The guy is so composed. I’ve never seen that in a guy. There’s no rattle, but big battle. It’s tough to find guys that have both like that. He’s a special, special kid,” said Henry.
Tyson Scott got the crowd going early when he popped in his own rebound for his third goal of the playoffs at the 4:42 mark of the first period.
“That was some of the best hockey I’ve ever been a part of. It was nerve racking and frustrating at times, but it was one hell of a series and it was fun to be a part of,” said Trentham.
After the dust settled and divisional championship hats were doled out, the Bisons were presented with the Chrysler division trophy for the third consecutive year. After posing for a group photo, the Bisons treated the hardware as if it had the Zika virus, leaving it sitting at centre ice as they headed into the dressing room.
All season long — during their 19-game point streak and their run to the semifinals of the Mac’s AAA Midget Hockey Tournament — the message has been the same: “Our goal is to make it to the Telus Cup.”
Now, three wins away from a provincial championship, the end goal hasn’t varied.
Standing in the Bisons path is the Leduc Chrysler Oil Kings, who are hotter than a pistol, having knocked out the No. 2 ranked St. Albert Tire Warehouse Raiders in five games during the quarters and swept the top-ranked Sherwood Park J. Ennis Kings in the Dodge final.
The Bisons reached the AMHL final last season, but were blitzed by the heavily favoured Lloydminster Bandit Pipeline Bobcats.
“Our worst enemy is going to be thinking that this series is a step down from the one we just played. I think our boys will find a way, but it’s definitely a danger,” said Henry. “Last year was different, we were an underdog all the way and nobody gave us a hope in hell going in a against Lloyd. Now, we are playing from the other side and we have to take this team seriously, they have beaten some good teams lately.”
The Oil Kings ended the season winning four of their final five games, before sweeping the MLAC Beverly Optimists in the opening round.
“We can’t take them lightly. They have knocked off some good teams and have proved why they are where they are,” said Trentham. “This year, with this team, we have a lot of resiliency and find a way to push through. The Gods seem to smile on us a bit at times, and if we take it one game at a time and approach it like we did this series, we will play some good hockey and hopefully be on the better end of it.”
The Oil Kings finished the season third in the Dodge division with a 14-15-5 record. The Bisons swept the season series from them, winning 5-1 and 3-2, but that was all the way back in October.
The teams will reacquaint themselves with a provincial title and a trip to the Pacific Regional Finals on the line, when the puck drops Sunday night (7:30 p.m.) at the Strathmore Family Centre.
Be sure to pick up this week’s Strathmore Times for coverage on the first three games, and next week’s paper for the series wrap and the first two games of the AMHL final.
(AMFL final game time subject to change.)