The AJHL North Division Final has not disappointed, in terms of drama, emotion, and quality.
The Bonnyville Pontiacs backs are against the wall.
It was a valiant effort in Game 4 on Wednesday night, but the Yaks comeback fell just short, losing 3-2.
Bonnyville performed well in front of the home fans on Tuesday night, dictating most of the play and winning 4-1.
The series, now 3-1 in favour of the Saints, shifts back to Spruce Grove on Friday night.
“Pontiacs hockey” on full display
Game 3 showed the Saints what Pontiacs hockey exemplified all season – scoring the first goal, outwilling and outbattling the opponent, and receiving the timely goaltending when needed.
Jack Budd scored two goals, including the empty-netter, Cole Hipkin re-inserted into the lineup banged home the first of the game, Ludo Tardif scored his sixth of the post-season, and Bodee Weiss made 30 saves en route to the victory.
Matteo Giampa, battling a vicious flu, earned two helpers as well as the Yaks got their footing in the series.
Coach Mario Pouliot made a couple of changes to the lineup heading into the home set.
Mike Cataldo was forced out for both due to a suspension – an escalation of kneeing penalties, including one that dates back from the preseason – which allowed opportunities for local Brent Hoshowski and Braydon Vandenbilche to play their first playoff games.
Hipkin also was back in after missing Game 2.
“I really like the additions of the young kids to the lineup. They bring a lot of positive energy and Bilchy, he made a lot of good plays, Hoshow had a good scoring chance when they were on the ice,” said Pouliot.
“At some point in the playoffs when you’re involved in a long run, you need at some point in the middle of the playoffs, sometimes you just need another spark.”
So, so close
Encouraged by the great showing 24 hours before, nearly 1200 fans poured into the RJ Lalonde Arena on Wednesday night for Game 4.
However, the Yaks got off on the wrong foot, with mistakes that ultimately put them in a chasing position all night long.
“I thought we played a really good game to be honest. I think that our mistakes were really costly and they’re going to put them in the back of the net,” said assistant coach Connor Cadaret.
Liam Watkins showed off his pro-level shot, capitalizing on a d-zone turnover, while Ethan Kronewitt, back in the lineup himself after being shelved following Game 1, had a re-direction goal to make it 2-0 after twenty minutes.
Spruce started 16-year-old Spencer Michnik, an affiliate with the Seattle Thunderbirds, their third goaltender to play this series after Zac Onyskiw got injured in Game 1 overtime.
The Yaks as the game wore along were able to test the netminder playing in his first AJHL game.
An expert theft by Matteo Giampa in the offensive zone set up a one-timer goal for Max Seguin, who now leads all rookies in playoff scoring with 14 points.
Then the push and pull of a rush: Jack Budd missed just over the crossbar on an odd-man opportunity, then the Saints went 3-on-2 and found a way with Kronewitt sneaking one by Weiss to re-establish a two-goal lead.
Bonnyville’s pressure came alive in the third, though.
Quinton Gove made a terrific diving stab at the puck on a rush that gave the Yaks life with almost a full 16 minutes to tie the game.
The Yaks had two powerplay opportunities and a flurry of activity, but the equalizer did not arrive.
Despite limiting the Saints to a total of 21 shots, and for the first time in the series outshooting their opponent, it was not enough to overcome some of the prior errors.
“We’re not happy with the result. It’s a tough loss. But those guys just kept pushing. Everyone’s banged up at this time of the year. We got guys playing through some pretty big injuries and illnesses and you wouldn’t be able to tell,” said Cadaret.
“We’re happy with the character we have in that room. I don’t think there’s any doubt that if we push like that, right from the drop of the puck on Friday, we will be able to extend the series.”
The path ahead
What lies ahead is the biggest game of the season, a redundant phrase at this time of the year, an ever-increasingly important games.
Game 5, the Yaks look to do something only they’ve done all AJHL season — beat Spruce Grove in their building. That would force Game 6 back at the RJ Lalonde on Sunday.
And the team must stay encouraged for how close they came again in Game 1, where they never trailed, and took a long point shot through a screen to beat them in overtime.
Mike Cataldo will be eligible to return on Friday.
The Yaks have won twice in five total trips to the Grant Fuhr Arena this season.
Meanwhile, the Brooks Bandits are South Division champions and await the winner of this series.
Puckdrop is 7:00pm for Game 5.
If the Yaks win, Game 6 puckdrop is 5:00pm.
You can listen to Michael Menzies every game, all season on lakelandconnect.thedev.ca/pontiacs.