Knights skate with speed and physicality but can’t solve Mitens in series opener
The atmosphere was a lively one inside the Aston IceWorks for game one of the division semi-finals for round one of the Robertson Cup Playoffs. Facing a familiar and formidable foe in the Rebels, the Knights got off to a fast start in the first period.
With Aston’s focus in the first ten minutes on setting a physical tone with numerous open-ice hits, the Knights countered with fast skating and efficient passing. The result was an aggressive, yet flustered Aston attack and a buzzing Knights forecheck off the rush. Curtis Carlson generated a pair of strong chances, while Joe Schuler, Joey Kubachka and Reed Robinson all came within a few inches of each putting a goal on the board. Mareks Mitens anchored Aston’s defense from between the pipes and turned each away with a series of strong saves.
Around the 11:30 of the first period, the Rebels finally found their footing in the Knights zone. They began setting up and winning board battles directly behind the net and sending pucks to traffic in front. Their physical play began to bog down the Knights who had skated well and in quick for much of the period.
Still, Grant Valentine was sharp when pucks made their way to his net, and his sharpest save came as the first period was winding down. Rebels captain Dom Garcia found his way behind the Knights last line of defense and was floated puck to set up a breakaway. His rocket of a wrist shot was answered by an even faster snap of Valentine’s glove, as the netminder made a highlight reel save to rob Garcia of the game’s first score.
Not long after, the Knights were sent to the box for the game’s first penalty. Though Wilkes-Barre/Scranton stymied the Rebels first few attempts to gain the offensive zone-this included a timely clear by captain Tim Gelatt as a puck spun dangerously close to partially open net- the Rebels finally broke through when Drew Blackmun walked a puck through the right circle and placed it just under Valentine’s glove. At the horn, the Rebels took a 1-0 advantage into the dressing room, riding a strong finish to the period.
The Rebels parlayed their building offensive momentum into a fast start in the second, pressuring heavily in the Knights zone. Where Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had been sharp in sharp exit passes in the first, the Rebels were sharper in forcing turnovers in the offensive end to start the second. Still, odd bounces and a few more timely saves from Valentine kept Aston off the board.
One such bounce quickly turned the tempo of the period on its head. As Matt Kidney flipped a puck ahead from the middle of his own zone, it ricocheted off a Rebel forechecker and on to the stick of Curtis Carlson. Carlson, who had already generated a few scoring chances, exploded through neutral ice, and let go a snipe that beat Mitens over the shoulder, tying the game at 7:17.
With the goal came new life in the Knights legs. They flipped the ice and began to again generate chances off the rush as they did in the first. The speed of their attack began to force the Rebels to take penalties. The Knights would go to the power play three times in the period, but Aston’s top-ranked unit lived up to their reputation, allowing only a handful of shots on Mitens in 6:00 minutes of shorthanded play.
The Rebels offense came back to bite the Knights between the second and third penalty. At 14:10, Jensen Zerban maneuvered his way to the low left circle and fired a puck past a screened Valentine to re-establish a 2-1 lead. The Knights would finish the frame with a flurry of chances on Mitens, but the Latvian netminder was up to the task, stopping each of the heavy shots from Mike Morrissey, Reed Robinson, Dorian Dawson, and Tim Gelatt.
The effect of 40 minutes of fast, physical hockey took its toll to begin the third as both teams struggled to execute with their earlier efficiency. The Knights were given a fourth chance on the power play, and though Aston was again quick to clear the puck, Mitens stopped another chance from Curtis Carlson and fought through a screen to stick a puck wide.
Fresh off the kill, the Rebels created a few major chances of their own, having two shots shave the crossbar and another ring a post. The Knights weren’t short on opportunities either: Paul Maust drove hard behind the defense straight to the net, Vince Marino set up Joey Kubachka on a 2-on-1, and Jim Elser muscled his way through Aston’s last defenseman to get in alone, but all were stopped continued steady play from Mitens.
Grant Valentine was valiant in his efforts to go save-for-save, and the Knights, while allowing a few solid chances on their net, didn’t allow Aston to take control of the offensive zone. As time wound down, the Knights bench began to signal Valentine over to the bench, but twice as the netminder began to leave the crease, the Rebels collapsed on the puck in neutral ice and forced him back to the pipes. With 1:02 remaining on the clock, the Knights again tried to pull their goalie, but again were turned around, this time by Jensen Zerban. The Manitoba-native barreled through the defense and dragged a shot under Valentine’s pads as he crashed into the net.
The goal didn’t stop the Knights from finally pulling Valentine for the extra attacker in the game’s final minute, but the Rebels held Wilkes-Barre/Scranton out of the offensive zone to close out the remaining time.
With game one behind them the Knights head into a crucial game two tonight in Aston. The team skated with the Rebels for much of last night’s contest but will need to take greater advantage of power play and scoring opportunities. Faceoff is set for 7 pm. Tune in at hockeytv.com or follow @wbsknights on Twitter for live updates.