The Whitehorse Huskies had to win by two. With less than a minute left in their final Coy Cup round-robin game and up by one, they pulled their goalie and went on the attack.
The extra man wasn’t enough and Kelowna Sparta’s Shawn Mueller scored an empty-netter with six seconds remaining to force a 5-5 tie.
With that result, the Sparta (2-0-1) get a bye into Saturday night’s Coy Cup final while the Huskies (1-1-1) will fight for their lives in a semifinal tonight against the Terrace River Kings (2-1-0).
“Tonight it was a few lucky bounces and I guess the hard work paid off and we got the bye, which is huge,” said Kelowna Sparta forward and defenceman Kelly Loudoun.
“Our goal at the start of the year was to make it here and now that we made it here, our goal is to win it. I think even though this year has been a success already, we’ve still got a bit more work to do. I don’t think we’ll be happy going home without the win.”
Kelowna, which won it’s first two games with a short bench, welcomed the arrival of eight more players before their game against Whitehorse.
“Our guys that came in today were fresh and really excited,” said coach Kim Barnstable. “The team had kind of gained some chemistry in the two games before and then when we got everybody together I think we gelled in the third period; we started to get it together.”
Their previous skate as a team was at home last week.
The Sparta welcome the day’s rest before the final Saturday.
“We’ve got some bumps and some bruises and we want to make sure we use our time off in the right way,” said Barnstable. “I think the guys have all bought into that so we’ll take tomorrow off, rest up and watch the game and be ready for Saturday.”
Whitehorse, meanwhile, will have to fight for their lives against Terrace, which has won their previous two Coy Cup battles. In 2016, Terrace beat Whitehorse 6-3 in the round-robin and on Wednesday night they prevailed 7-6, holding off a late Huskies surge.
“We owe them one now; well we owe them two,” said Huskies goalie JJ Gainsforth after last night’s tie. “Tomorrow night we just have to pay them back.”
Gainsforth has been strong in net for the Huskies, starting since Jon Olthuis was injured early in the second period of their first game. He is listed as day-to-day and coach Michael Tuton said he’s “doubtful for tonight.”
“It was a little bit of a surprise, to be honest that he goes down like that in the first game. He’s a great goaltender and that’s why we brought him in,” said Gainsforth last night. “But it’s nothing new for me either, like I’ve started for the Huskies before and so once you wrap your head around it that you’re going to be in it for the weekend, then it’s pretty easy to compete.”
Gainsforth stayed composed through the game, even during a more than 20-second stretch in the third period when he was without a stick.
“It was just competitive in front of the net and you just get tangled up in stuff and I mean every once in a while you lose your stick or you get run into, or whatever,” he said. “The big thing is you can’t lose your composure too much. You have to stay in the game.”
The Huskies were up 5-3 with just over six minutes left in the game. But Charles Dagostin was called for boarding and given a game misconduct after he and Kelowna’s Kevin Walrod went awkwardly into the boards behind the Whitehorse net.
The Huskies nearly killed the ensuing five-minute penalty, which was served by Ted Stephens, but Shawn Mueller got a shot past Gainsforth on the power play to bring Kelowna within one with 1:57 left in the game.
The Huskies pulled Gainsforth for the extra attacker in a last-ditch effort to secure the bye into the final, but Mueller got another into the empty net to tie the game 5-5.
“That was a first for me,” said Gainsforth of being pulled while the team was up in the game, “but you gotta do what you gotta do for the team.”
Gainsforth said that following the game, the talk in the locker room was all about tonight’s game against Terrace.
“It feels like a win, even though it was a tie game, heading towards tomorrow, it’s just important to bring the same thing,” he said. “That was the best game we played all tournament. We just have to do the same thing tomorrow. We’ll be in the finals.”
Tuton said today will be business as usual for the Huskies and he’s hoping they can build on the momentum from their games this week when they face the River Kings tonight at 7 p.m.
NOTES: The Huskies led the round-robin in goals scored. They found the back of the net 17 times. The North Island Capitals were eliminated from the Coy Cup following their loss to the Terrace River Kings 3-2 last night.
-Marissa Tiel, Whitehorse Daily Star