WATERLOO – Zach Springer was pulled in the Sutherland Cup opener.
He surrendered the Game 2 tying goal with 16.2 seconds left in regulation, then the winner 64 seconds into overtime.
“The first couple of games, I wasn’t where I had to be to beat this team,” the 20-year-old London goalie said. “I wasn’t quite at the top of my game. We were able to regroup and the last two to play the same way as the rest of the playoffs.”
The Kingston native put the exclamation point on his 34-save outing with a brilliant lunging pad save to deny Waterloo forward Curtis Rawn while the desperate Siskins were applying massive pressure with an extra attacker. London rookie forward George Diaco claimed he was rendered speechless by the highlight-reel effort.
“Zach’s been playing better every single game,” he said. “He’s the core of our team.”
And he needed to come clutch to keep Waterloo at bay.
“That post-to-post one was a late game-saver,” London GM/coach Pat Powers said. “They get it to 3-2, you never know what kind of chaos is going to happen with goalie out.”
No kicking away the lead this time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Springer and the Nats were a perfect 5-for-5 on the penalty kill. They managed to overcome the loss of their captain Kyle Dawson, kicked out after a second-period check from behind, and workhorse Cohen Kiteley, serving a one-game suspension along with Waterloo scorer Owen Lane for removing each other’s helmets during a fight Wednesday.
“The guys sucked it up and did a great job,” Powers said. “After a 9-4 loss in Game 1, it maybe looked like we didn’t deserve to kind of be in this series. We tightened up defensively and we’ve showed a couple of real gritty efforts coming back.”
MARATHON RUN: With Game 6 assured Sunday, the Nats and Siskins are in the middle of four games in five days. The team that handles the turnarounds the best will become the champions.
“Both teams are positioned for a lot of games in a short period of time,” Powers said. “Guys are starting to form a bit of a healthy hatred and it’s kind of fun. The refs are letting them play, for the most part.”
It’s become a battle of attrition.
London has won its first two without trusted scorer Riley MacRae, who is serving a four-game suspension for a head check on Sunday. The infraction didn’t warrant a major penalty from the officials.
Kiteley cancelled out Lane, but Waterloo was also missing Tyler Dam – son of former Knight Trevor Dam – for one game because of a violent high stick Wednesday.
Top Siskins gunner Alex Lycett, who suffered what appeared to be a knee tweak Sunday and sat out Game 3, returned to the lineup but didn’t appear as mobile as he did early in the series.
“I’m feeling a lot more confident,” he said about his health.
Were the missing bodies too much for Waterloo to handle?
“They add important value, but we’re a very deep team,” he said. “It’s not an excuse. It’s more we didn’t fill in where we needed to. We have to put this behind us. They came out with a great effort and we need to match that.”
CRASHING THE NET: All four goals were scored in the second period.
London created separation when Diaco and Wes Dobbin struck 2:11 apart to give Springer a cushion.
The Nationals did a better job of creating traffic in front of 16-year-old Waterloo goaltender Matt Onuska.
“When it’s a tight playoff series like this then get to the net and hope for the best,” Diaco said. “To be up heading into the third was huge for us.”
London scored a good chunk of its goals against Leamington and Listowel, who both employed strong veteran stoppers, in those so-called dirty areas.
“We try to make a concerted effort to get in front,” Powers said, “and it’s no different in those series. We have to fight for the goal-scoring real estate.”
It’s worth the effort.
Now they have an inspired Springer and home-ice advantage back.
Best-of-seven championship final tied 2-2
Nationals 3, Siskins 1
London goals: Christian Polillo, George Diaco, Wes Dobbin
Waterloo goal: Matt Prucha
Game 5: Saturday, 7 p.m. at Western Fair