Southern Tier had a great opportunity to close the gap to the fourth-and-final playoff spot in the North American Tier III Hockey League’s East Division on Sunday afternoon.
But Wooster scored twice in the third period to break a 2-2 tie and keep the Xpress from sweeping the three-game weekend series at Northwest Arena.
The Oilers now have a nine-point lead over Southern Tier for fourth place in the division. Wooster has eight games remaining, with just one against first-place Metro and two against second-place Pittsburgh.
“We just had to take care of today. We couldn’t control what happened on Friday and Saturday,”Wooster coach Aaron Hernandez said. ”We built momentum from a bad Friday to a decent Saturday to a good Sunday.”
The Xpress, on the other hand, do have a game in hand with nine games left, but three are against the first-place Jets and one is against the second-place Vengeance.
“It definitely hurts,” Southern Tier coach Lou Santini said. “It’s something that we are still in striking range.”
In short, time is running out.
Bobby Frieson’s seventh goal of the season with 8:02 remaining turned into the game-winner for Wooster on Sunday. Zach Zwierecki found Grant Dickinson for an open shot in the slot, and the rebound off Xpress goaltender Ryan Pascarella’s pads found the stick of Frieson, who shoveled the puck into the net.
“They’ve been playing some good hockey,” Hernandez said. “Coming down to this one, it was going to be who had more left in the tank.”
Less than three minutes later, the Oilers added an insurance goal as Dickinson streaked down the left wing before the puck eventually found Cole Barney behind the goal line. Barney circled out to the front of the net to Pascarella’s left and Zwierecki jammed home his 12th goal of the season for a 4-2 lead.
“I thought he played pretty well (Saturday) and he said he had a lot of energy left,” Santini said about starting Pascarella for a third straight day. “All the goals, unfortunately there were a lot of scrambles in front. I don’t think he saw three out of the four goals so that was tough.”
Southern Tier eventually upped its pressure in the final five minutes, but a shot off the crossbar and the play of Wooster goaltender Michael Hubbard kept the Xpress at bay.
“We felt 5-on-5 that we could do a lot of good things against them. I felt like in the third period we just couldn’t get the puck out cleanly,” Santini said. ” … They were taking the neutral zone away from us and then throwing the pucks back into our end. That ultimately led to the breakdowns and the goals.”
Hubbard was pressed into action at the end of the first period when starter Justyn Gillis was forced to leave after taking an elbow to the head. Gillis stopped 11 of 12 first-period shots, but Hubbard was forced to make just 13 saves over the final two periods for the victory.
“For Hubbard to come in and save us like that … he played an incredible game after Justyn went out hurt,” Hernandez said. “Hat’s off to both goaltenders today.”
The Xpress got on the board first with 8:34 remaining in the opening period as Christopher Crowley caught an errant puck out of midair to the right of the net, set it down on the ice, waited for a shooting lane to open up and then blasted the puck past Gillis short side for a 1-0 lead.
The Oilers got going one shift later with the help of a pair of Southern Tier penalties. First Austen Zimmerman went to the box with 8:10 remaining on a trip and Brian Grant followed 29 seconds later for elbowing.
With 1:31 of 5-on-3 time, Wooster took advantage. Twenty-three seconds later, Barney accepted a pass from Justin King and beat a screened Pascarella with his 11th goal of the season to tie the game at 1. Still with a man-advantage, Hunter Hillebrecht beat Pascarella high over his blocker 42 seconds later to give the Oilers a 2-1 lead.
“If we didn’t get in it during the first, it was going to be a tough battle,” Hernandez said of his team’s quick start. “… I think we have the most goals on our power play in the division. We were sleeping Friday and Saturday, but today the power play was on point.”
The Xpress eventually tied the game with 7:20 left in the second period when Tristan Mock took a pass up ice from Michael Lamison, curled to the center of the offensive zone and used the Wooster defenseman as a screen to beat Hubbard low to his glove side.
But an 0-for-5 showing on the power play hurt the Xpress as it has often this season. They have now converted just 18-of-154 opportunities (11.7) percent) with the advantage, which is last in the East Division.
“It was disappointing,” Santini said. “We struggled with our power-play breakout, getting the puck into the zone.”
It won’t get any easier for Southern Tier next weekend, with a game against Metro on Friday night at Northwest Arena before a date with the Vengeance in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon.
“If you want to get in the playoffs you have to beat the top teams,” Santini said.
NOTES: King had a second assist on Wooster’s second goal while Stuart Pearson had an assist on Mock’s goal for the Xpress. Pascarella made 35 saves for the Xpress.
Original article by Matt Speilman, The Post-Journal.