Greyhounds gain traction in conference race

PETER RUICCI/Sault Star Soo Greyhounds winger Cole MacKay tries to screen London's Joseph Raaymakers on a Hounds power play on Sunday. MacKay wound up scoring three times in the Soo's 6-3 victory over the Knights in OHL action at GFL Memorial Gardens.

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Just like that, the OHL’s Western Conference race has suddenly grown very tight.

Two weekend wins for the Soo Greyhounds, coupled with two weekend losses for the London Knights has the Hounds within striking distance.

Cole MacKay registered his first career hat trick and Matt Villalta shone in goal on Sunday as the Greyhounds defeated the Knights 6-3 before 4,381 at GFL Memorial Gardens.

The victory moved the Soo (35-12-5-1), leaders of the OHL’s West Division, to within four points of the Knights (37-9-5-1), who hold top spot in the Midwest Division, in the conference standings.

London, which has now lost 11 straight to the Hounds – that’s right, 11 – also has a game in hand.

“Obviously, we’d love to finish first in the conference,” said MacKay, who spoke of the importance of home ice advantage, a prized perk that goes to the Western Conference’s top seed.

“First place in the conference would be huge,” added Hounds captain Barrett Hayton, a standout for the winners, who notched a goal and set up MacKay’s first two markers with slick feeds. “But there’s a big chunk of the season left in which to prove ourselves.”

The Soo has 15 regular season games remaining, including clashes in North Bay on Thursday and Sudbury on Friday.

Head coach John Dean spoke of how overtaking the Knights, and holding off Saginaw (34-14-2-2) to finish first in the conference is “in the back of our heads. But that’s not the focus in our room. We’re still process-focused and not end-game focused.”

And what does Dean think of the way his team is following the process?

“This was a big weekend for us,” said the coach, whose club opened a 7-2 lead on Saturday, before settling for a 7-6 victory over Niagara in front of 4,132 here. “I think we are a frustrating team to play against. We have 24 guys on this roster who work exceptionally hard. We played a really, really good structured game.”

And of the back-to-back victories, the coach talked about how “knowing you can beat the best teams consistently is a boost for our group.”

MacKay’s performance provided a major boost against the Knights, who were playing their third game in as many days, having lost 6-3 in Saginaw on Saturday night.

The second-year winger gave his team a 2-0 lead early in the second period when Hayton spun and found him at the side of the London goal.

Former Hounds netminder Joseph Raaymakers got a piece of the shot, but MacKay had his 20th goal of the season.

After the Knights trimmed their deficit to 2-1, MacKay scored twice in a span of 3:10 in the middle frame to give the home side a 4-1 lead.

The Sault native tapped in a Hayton feed at 9:36 before using a London defencemen as a screen to beat Raaymakers with a low shot.

“It’s exciting,” MacKay said of his three-goal day. “After Christmas I was determined to get more pucks on net. But it’s all about the team.”

On a day when his club was outshot 31-27, Villalta turned in his second weekend gem.

“Felt pretty solid again,” said the three-year veteran, who made key third period saves on Liam Foudy and Adam Boqvist.

Close friends with Raaymakers from their time together here, Villalta admitted their relationship “makes me want to beat him even more. It’s a friendly competition and I love it.”

Raaymakers called the Knights road trip “disappointing,” but spoke of how ups and downs are a part of the game.

“We weren’t great (Sunday),” he added. “We haven’t been playing our best. We need to find our stride again.”

Head coach Dale Hunter said the difference in the game was missed scoring chances.

“We had opportunities, but we didn’t score,” he added. “Villalta was solid, but we played well.”

Hunter also didn’t think his team’s schedule was a factor on Sunday.

Of playing three times in three days, he said: “Everybody goes through it.”

Morgan Frost had a goal and two assists for the winners while Jaromir Pytlik rounded out the scoring with his third goal in as many games. Mac Hollowell and Tye Kartye notched two assists each.

Boqvist finished with a goal and two assists for the Knights while Foudy and Kevin Hancock rounded out the scoring.

Meantime, against Niagara the Hounds scored three times in the first 6:20, but were forced to hang on after surrendering four goals in a span of 7:45 in the third period.

“I don’t like the way we played the last 10 minutes,” Dean said following Saturday’s contest. “We were nonchalant with the lead. We let a good team get back into the game.”

Dean also spoke of how the Hounds changed their style of play after opening a big lead.

“We weren’t hard on pucks and we were turning pucks over,” he said.

Despite surrendering six goals, were it not for the brilliant work of Villalta the outcome would have been different.

“He probably should have been the first star,” said Dean, whose team was outshot 20-4 in the third period and 45-35 over the game. “If not for him, we lose that game. He made some really big saves and we hung him out to dry in the third.”

Keeghan Howdeshell paced the Soo with a pair of goals and an assist, while Frost scored once and set up three others.

MacKay contributed a goal and two assists while Hayton scored once and assisted on another. Pytlik and Zack Trott rounded out the Hounds scoring, while Jordan Sambrook notched a pair of assists.

Jason Robertson and Jack Studnicka finished with two goals and an assist each for the IceDogs. Ben Jones also scored twice.