A late goal by Harry Payne to pull within striking distance and several late shots on net were not enough to carry the Southern Tier Xpress (2-1, 2-1) to victory on Friday evening at Northwest Arena, as the Pittsburgh Vengeance (3-2, 2-1) rode two third-period tallies to a 2-1 win in a North American Tier III Hockey League East Division tilt.
Despite outshooting the Vengeance, 33-26, two culprits sealed Southern Tier’s fate — its own breakout and the posts that surround goalkeeper Tyler Hawk.
On three separate occasions, Hawk was bailed out by shots that clanged off the red iron while the Xpress struggled to keep their offense running at full speed due to struggles in the defensive zone.
“I was disappointed with our puck movement. We couldn’t break the puck out of the zone,” said Xpress coach Lou Santini, who has put a premium on breakouts. “Partially, I think it was also due to them on the forecheck, partially it was us. Just poor decisions, making plays with the puck where we just couldn’t execute. It really hurt our tempo, we couldn’t get any rush going, couldn’t get any speed going through the neutral zone. … I think that was the biggest thing. You have to execute to get the puck out of your zone and we didn’t.”
The Xpress had hoped to jump-start their offense with high chips off the defensive-zone glass, over the heads of Vengeance defenders, but all too often those clearing shots were either batted back inside the zone or found their way onto Pittsburgh sticks in neutral ice.
In spite of the breakout troubles, the hosts began the night with consistent offensive pressure, thanks to a point shot by Jacob Zweig to start the first period and another drive in the slot by Nate Paar that was kicked away by Hawk.
The opening five minutes of the game saw Southern Tier find offense courtesy of the speed of center Tristan Mock and his winger, Mickenzie Restle, with the former firing a shot into the crest of Hawk off a give-and-go and then earning another scoring opportunity on a breakaway chance where he took a slash before being able to get a shot away.
Nearing the midway point of the opener, Pittsburgh started to pile on the chances as Omar Al-Ani caught a rebound in the slot that was tipped just wide. That was followed by chances from Lucas Kirk in close and Jacob Friedman, who could not convert on a cross-ice pass.
Responding for the Xpress was defenseman Ty Rickabaugh, who faked a dump-in at the blue line before dragging around a defender for a wrist shot at the circle. Rickabaugh followed up that chance with a drive off a one-timer that found the left post, foretelling the fate of two more good shots by the Xpress.
After a scoreless first frame, the Vengeance came out on fire in the second, peppering Ryan Pascarella with shots while attempting to take advantage of their second power play of the night, this one coming off a kneeing penalty to Zweig.
All told Pascarella would stop 24 shots, including a laser by Justin Shepherd that was ripped from the slot uncontested with 6:30 remaining in the second.
“We tried to make sure he saw as many of the pucks as he could tonight because once he sees it he gets a pretty good lane and covers up the rebound. So he’ll do a good job with that,” Santini said of his goaltender.
With five minutes remaining in the second period, Southern Tier once again got its offensive tempo up, as Rickabaugh fired a wrist shot wide right moments before Nic Allen put another shot off the right post and then stung another one-timer on Hawk that was covered up.
It was Dominick Glavach who was finally able to break open the scoring in the first minute of the final period, as he broke into the zone on the left side with a pass by Jacob Friedman and snapped a shot toward the glove of Pascarella that was just able to trickle in for the 1-0 lead.
Glavach then almost made it a two-goal game on the ensuing possession when he took a big cut at a rebound of the backboards, but Pascarella was able to slide across for the deflection.
It looked like Mock would be the one to even things up, after roaring up the left side of the ice, sending two Vengeance defenders to the ice and cutting to his right before Hawk was able to make the save in close.
Thomas Polster ended up giving Pittsburgh the two-goal cushion with 9:57 remaining, as he took a pass from Nick Erker behind the net and caught Pascarella looking to his right before burying the wrap-around finish.
A strong shift of forechecking is what got the Xpress back into the mix with Nate Paar finding Payne down low in the slot, where he found his third goal of the season with a top-shelf finish on a loose puck.
With the goal energizing the crowd and the Southern Tier bench, Allen tried to take things into his own hands by going coast-to-coast on the following play and letting his wrister go into the glove of Hawk, who has able to cut down the poor-angle chance. A pair of shots by Nick Wilcox provided the final chances for the Xpress, who were able to produce some momentum in the later minutes when they needed it most.
“That’s very important when you are down by a goal, and we had some momentum. I thought the last probably seven minutes of the third period we did have some good momentum going through there, and we did get the goal,” mentioned Santini.
One bright spot that the Xpress’ coach will carry forward was his team’s shorthanded play.
The Xpress penalty-killing unit dispatched with all four Vengeance advantages, and did well to block shots and give Pascarella clear views of those that did make it all the way to the goal.
“Your penalty kill has to go out there and you’ve got to outwork the power-play groups and I think that’s exactly what our guys have been doing. “(I’ve) been very pleased with the forwards. I think the defensemen are doing a better job, they are picking things up over there. So I think we just have to keep executing that and be hungry and be aggressive down low there,” said Santini.
The Xpress will now travel to Alice Noble Ice Arena to take on the Wooster Oilers at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
Original article by Jay Young, The Post-Journal.