The Saginaw Spirit did more than just kill penalties on Sunday, they also killed off the Soo Greyhounds playoff hopes.
The Spirit was a perfect 6-for-6 on the penalty kill – including an impressive four-minute effort in the second period – en route to a 5-0 victory over the Hounds before 4,576 at GFL Memorial Gardens.
The win gave Saginaw the best-of-seven, Western Conference semifinal 4-2 and a berth in the conference final for the first time in franchise history.
Having joined the OHL in 2002, the Spirit will face either London or Guelph for the Western crown.
“We weren’t good enough on the power play. We couldn’t find the back of the net,” said Greyhounds centre Morgan Frost, whose team converted on just 2 of 23 power plays in the series.
Saginaw has surrendered just two power-play markers in 10 playoff games so far, turning aside 36 of 38 opportunities by their opposition.
Frost agreed that was one of the keys to the series.
“They had a really-solid PK and we didn’t get the momentum boost off of our power play,” added Hounds defenceman Jordan Sambrook.
That was particularly evident early in the second period on Sunday.
With his team leading 1-0, Saginaw’s D.J. Busdeker was assessed a double minor for high sticking. Not only did the Hounds fail to convert, they went the entire four minutes without a shot on goal.
“That was the game,” said Spirit head coach Chris Lazary, whose team is 42-10-2-2, playoffs included, since he replaced Troy Smith in November. “The penalty-killers did a phenomenal job all night.”
Smith credits assistant coach Darren Rumble, who oversees the PK.
“It was definitely a good opportunity for us,” Hounds defenceman Mac Hollowell said of skating a man up for four minutes. “But they blocked some good shots and it didn’t go our way. Penalty-killing is definitely one of the strong points of their game.”
With the Soo registering just a single shot on goal in the first 11:58 of the middle frame, Saginaw made it 2-0 late in the period.
Ryan McLeod skated in and beat Matt Villalta on the blocker side.
Damien Giroux all but wrapped things up, taking advantage of a turnover in front of the Soo goal to make it 3-0 with 8:32 to go in regulation.
Nick Porco, on a feed from Cam Baber, registered an all-Sault opening goal for the Spirit.
Bode Wilde, with an empty-netter, and Jake Goldowski had the other goals for the winners.
Ivan Prosvetov was a standout in goal, posting the shutout on a night when the Hounds held a 34-26 edge in shots.
“We missed some opportunities on special teams and 5-on-5, and unfortunately they didn’t,” said Hounds head coach John Dean. “Deep down, we were pretty sure we were going to Game 7. I’m really disappointed for the guys, especially the veterans.”
Dean spoke fondly of graduating players Frost, Hollowell, Sambrook, Villalta and Keeghan Howdeshell. There’s also a chance captain Barrett Hayton won’t return if he makes the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes next season.
“As a first-year head coach, those veterans helped bring me and my staff along,” Dean said. “Those six guys really made my job easy.”
In the aftermath, players sat quietly at their stalls within the Greyhounds dressing room, most – especially the graduating players – were in no hurry to take their uniforms off.
Some chatted in low tones, as others merely stared at the walls and ceiling.
Falling behind 3-0 in the series made a comeback difficult, Sambrook admitted.
“It’s a tough hole to be in, especially against a good team like that,” he said. “But I’m very proud of every guy in this room.”
Lazary credited the Soo with trimming its series deficit to 3-2. He said the Hounds had the Spirit questioning themselves and whether they were actually good enough to get to the conference finals.
But the team treated its travels to the Sault for Game 6 “as a business trip,” the Saginaw coach said. “That was probably one of the best games we’ve played away from the puck all year.”
After an outstanding first period effort, the Hounds seemed to lose some of their competitive edge in the second period.
Hollowell talked about how Saginaw took advantage of the strength it possesses up front.
“They got pucks in deep in the second period and they took advantage of their opportunities,” he said.
Frost spoke of how the experience of having to say goodbye to so many close friends is new to him.
It’s also not pleasant.
“I want to say thank you to all the fans, and my coaches and teammates for all they’ve done for me,” said Frost, presently second in the OHL in playoff scoring with 18 points in 11 games. “It was the best four years of my life.”
Being eliminated is certainly difficult to accept, Hollowell said.
He spoke of how the Greyhounds firmly believed they could win Game 6 and the series.
“It’s really tough. It hurts a lot,” he added.
“But our guys battled right to the end,” Dean said.
Notes: The Hounds played minus veteran winger Jaden Peca, who was suspended for two games by the OHL on Saturday.
That’s as a result of an ‘inappropriate gesture’ Peca directed toward a Saginaw fan during Game 5 on Friday at Dow Event Center.
Peca had been a playoff standout for the team with three goals and 10 assists in 10 games.
“Really good kid,” Dean said of Peca. “Emotions just got the better of him.”