To win in the playoffs, you must dig deep at key moments.
And that’s just what happened Sunday night at Budweiser Gardens in London, as Robert Thomas set up Mitchell Stephens for the game winner at 9:44 of overtime as the London Knights forced Game 7 with a 2-1 victory.
As Thomas carried the puck up the ice in OT, he was at the end of a shift. Having played in Erie the night before and having logged all kinds of hard minutes against the Otters in both games, there is a good chance his legs were burning and he was breathing hard.
Reaching the red line, Thomas had a choice. No one would have blamed him if he had dumped the puck into the Erie end and turned towards the bench for a breather. It would have been the safe play, and no one ever knocks safe plays in overtime.
Thomas rushed the puck across the blue line and made a quick move on veteran Darren Raddysh that opened up a passing lane to Mitchell Stephens, who was also late into a shift. Thomas heard Stephens calling for the puck, and that changed his strategy in a split-second.
Stephens had just one thing on his mind as he headed to the net: “I’m thinking, please get the puck over the defenceman’s stick.”
And Thomas did.
“He made an unbelievable pass,” Stephens said. “It hit my stick and sort of jumped away from me, and I kind of sand-wedged it into the net.”
Stephens must be pretty handy on the golf course with that sand wedge, because the puck rocketed up and under the crossbar, getting the Knights out of a 3-2 series trap and onto the stage of a final and deciding game on Tuesday in Erie.
From the start, the game was about survival for the Knights. They were playing for their playoff lives for the fourth time in 2017, having come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Windsor Spitfires, the Memorial Cup hosts.
London was outshot in every period, held to three shots in the third and six in overtime.
In all, Erie put 45 pucks at Tyler Parsons and only managed to get one by. It came 47 seconds into the game off the stick of Jordan Sambrook, who walked in from the left point and wristed a shot over Parsons’ shoulder.
Parsons was under fire throughout the game, keeping out flurries of chances around him. He calmly and coolly knocked away and sucked in everything that followed in the first minute.
“I just tried to do my job. They are a really good team and because of that they are going to get good chances, so I just threw my body around and did everything I could to stop the puck, and it worked out,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest save of the night came off 65-goal man Alex DeBrincat, who got a chance on a pass to the right of the Knights net, only to have Parsons bat it out of the air and down into the crease. Thomas reached in and pulled the puck to safety.
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A flurry of chances highlighted the start of the second period, and while the Otters were denied, they were given a grand opportunity after Janne Kuokkanen’s stick struck T.J. Fergus’ face.
That brought a Knights penalty kill in which they were hemmed in their own end for a full two minutes. Cliff Pu, Victor Mete, Olli Juolevi and Max Jones stayed with the puck as the Otters moved it around the zone. They blocked shots, deflected passes and clogged lanes until they were beyond exhausted.
Even as the penalty to Kuokkanen ended, Erie kept the puck in London territory and kept applying pressure. Eventually he carried the puck into centre ice and got it into Otters’ end, giving those four an opportunity to change.
Two shifts later, Erie was called for too many men on the ice and the Knights went to work in search of their first power-play goal of the series — and got it.
Kuokkanen went down to a knee and wired a cross-ice feed from countrymate Olli Juolevi and tied the game 1-1.
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The Otters owned the majority of the chances in the third period, outshooting London 11-3, but Parsons and the defence held and forced overtime.
That’s when chances both ways from two tired teams, and eventually Thomas and Stephens’ push through fatigue, led to an explosion of cheers from the Easter Sunday fans in attendance.
Game 7 will begin at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night. AM 980’s coverage gets underway with the pre-game show at 6:30 p.m.