A quick start and a masterful performance in goal from Matthew Villalta was almost for nothing for the Soo Greyhounds.
Jumping out to a 3-0 lead before action was seven minutes old and a strong performance from the veteran netminder, the Greyhounds held on late to beat the Niagara IceDogs 7-6 in Ontario Hockey League action at the GFL Memorial Gardens on Saturday night.
The Greyhounds scored on three of their first four shots to take control early on but the IceDogs battled back with two goals of their own late in the period to make things close through 20 minutes.
“We want to get off to good starts and when the first two shots go in, you have to feel good about yourself,” Dean said. “I don’t know if we deserved the lead that we had.”
“When three of the first four shots go in, that’s not how you want to do it. but the guys did a great job to battle back and make it 3-2,” said Niagara Coach Billy Burke, calling the slow start “too big a hill to climb.”
The Greyhounds proceeded to tack on three more goals and take a 6-2 lead heading into the final 20 minutes and led 7-2 after a goal early in the third period, but the IceDogs flexed their muscle and scored four times in the final 10 minutes of regulation time to make the game close.
“That’s a good hockey team over there but it’s no excuse,” Dean said. “Clearly we changed our style of play. We were coughing up pucks, we weren’t hard on pucks. They competed right until the final whistle and quite honestly, I don’t think we did.”
Burke called the third period more indicative of IceDogs hockey.
Both coaches called Villalta, who made 39 saves in the game, the difference.
“Matt Villalta was incredible tonight and we hung him out to dry in the third period and it’s disappointing,” Dean said.
“He was fantastic,” Dean also said. “If not for Matt Villalta, we lose that game. 100 per cent. He was fantastic, especially in the first and second period. In the third period, we hung him out to dry.”
Dean’s counterpart agreed, calling Villalta “probably the best player on the ice tonight.”
“He made some incredible saves,” Burke added.
Morgan Frost paced the Greyhounds offensively with a goal and three assists while Keeghan Howdeshell had two goals and an assist. Cole MacKay also had a three-point night with a goal and two assists.
Barrett Hayton had a goal and an assist while Zack Trott and Jaromir Pytlik also scored for the Greyhounds.
Jack Studnicka and Jason Robertson paced Niagara with two goals and an assist each.
Veteran forward Ben Jones also had a pair of goals for Niagara while Kirill Maksimov assisted on three goals.
Akil Thomas added a pair of assists for the IceDogs.
Overage goaltender Stephen Dhillon got the start for Niagara but was pulled after giving up four goals on 15 shots. Jake McGrath entered the game and stopped 17 of 20 shots the rest of the way.
The Greyhounds return to action on Sunday, looking for a much better performance as the team wraps up a three-game homestand with a matinee game against the London Knights.
“If we play the way we did today, it’s going to be a tough day tomorrow,” Dean said. “We\ll put today behind us, even though it’s two points. We’ll bag the two points and we have to have a really solid, competitive effort tomorrow.”
With Jaden Peca remaining out of the lineup, Dean said that Roman Pucek will sit out Sunday’s game against London and didn’t expect any major shakeup of the lineup as the team concludes its three-game homestand with a 2:07 p.m. start against the Knights.
Meanwhile, the IceDogs played the game without veteran defenceman Jacob Paquette, veteran forward Ivan Lodnia, and sophomore defenceman Andrew Bruder due to injuries.
Burke said Paquette is likely to return to the lineup next week while Lodnia is “probably two or three weeks away” and Bruder “should be back in a couple of weeks.”
Saturday’s win took on added importance for the Greyhounds in the battle for top spot in the OHL’s West Division as the Saginaw Spirit, who trailed the Greyhounds by two points heading into action on Saturday, beat London 6-3.
The Greyhounds now sit in top spot with a record of 34-12-5-1 while Saginaw is second at 34-14-2-2.
Niagara, in top spot in the OHL’s Central Division, falls to 32-13-7-0.
In other action around the OHL on Saturday, in Saginaw, Owen Tippett and Damien Giroux had two goals each as Saginaw beat London 6-3. Saginaw goaltender Ivan Prosvetov stopped 55 shots, including 31 in the third period. Jordan Kooy made 43 saves for the Knights.
In Hamilton, Kody Clark’s goal at 13:48 of the third period was the game winner as the Ottawa 67’s beat the Hamilton Bulldogs 4-3. Cark finished the day with a goal and an assist.
In Erie, Emmett Sproule had the shootout winner as the Erie Otters beat the Windsor Spitfires 4-3. Daniel Murphy stopped 31 shots and seven of the nine shootout shooters he faced for the Otters.
In Sarnia, Liam Hawel had a pair of goals as the Guelph Storm beat the Sarnia Sting 4-1. Keegan Stevenson and Nate Schnarr had a pair of assists each for the Storm.
In Barrie, Emanuel Vella made 37 saves as the Flint Firebirds beat the Barrie Colts 4-3. Ethan Keppen and Jake Durham had a goal and an assist for the Firebirds.
In Owen Sound, Barret Kirwin, Maksim Sushko, and Brady Lyle had a goal and two assists each as the Owen Sound Attack beat the Kingston Frontenacs 6-4. Nick Wong and Tyler Burnie had two goals each for Kingston.