It was a crucible for the Cru.
The Sherwood Park Crusaders underwent a severe test with their entire season on the line on Wednesday night as they faced elimination in their second round series against the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s North Division regular season champion Spruce Grove Saints.
The Crusaders were able to come away with a narrow 2-1 win in Spruce Grove to extend the series to Game 6 on Friday at home.
It looked like the seventh-place Crusaders (28-25-7) were very much on the ropes of late after taking a surprise 1-0 lead over the Saints (35-16-9) to start the best-of-seven series.
The Cru fell 3-1 in Game 2 and were nearly decimated in a 9-1 loss at home last Sunday.
The Sherwood squad had a chance to get back on equal footing on Monday at the Sherwood Park Arena, but lost a heartbreaker 6-5 in double overtime.
The Cru had managed to stake a 2-0 lead after the opening frame, but the Saints came marching back with four straight goals to take a 4-2 lead early in the third.
The Park players rallied back with three straight goals of their own before the Saints scored a power play marker with four minutes remaining to send the game to extra time, where Spruce Grove would come away with a goal five minutes into the second overtime session to take a 3-1 series lead.
“We had such a good start to that game,” said Crusaders head coach and GM Tim Fragle. “We got ourselves into some penalty troubles and they capitalized and the next thing you know we are down 4-2. Our guys came back, though. Then they got two power plays late in the third. We killed the first one, but couldn’t kill the second. In overtime we had multiple chances, especially in the first overtime. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the result we were looking for.”
Fragle admitted that the loss really put the pressure on with their season on the line for Wednesday night’s tilt.
“We win that game and it is a best-of-three series,” he said, prior to Game 5. “All we can do is draw on the experiences of some of the coaches and guys on the team that have been down 3-1 before in a series. There have been a couple of cases in our dressing room where guys have been on teams that have fought back and forced a Game 7 and even won it. All we can do is focus on wining the first one and bringing it back to Sherwood Park and going from there.”
After a scoreless first in Wednesday’s do-or-die Game 5, the Crusaders were able to get an unassisted goal from Arthur Gordon to lead 1-0 after 40 minutes.
The Saints got that goal back 12 minutes into the third, but the Crusaders managed to take the lead back for good with 4:30 remaining on a tally by Garth Wallin.
Fragle was impressed by how his team responded with everything on the line.
“It was a pretty desperate effort by our guys,” he said. “We had every reason to mail it in last night, but our attitude was to take it one game at a time and put the pressure on them.
“It was a really solid game. We didn’t give them a bunch of scoring chances, maybe five good ones. We did a good job taking away their offence.”
Particularly strong for the Crusaders was goalie and Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Matt Tomkins, making 32 stops for the win.
“He was just solid,” Fragle said. “His rebound control was good and they didn’t get a lot of second chances. He was just a calming influence for us back there. Especially in a must-win game for us.”
The Crusaders will now try to stretch the series to the limit on Friday, March 22, with Game 6 starting at 7 p.m. at the Arena.
“The toughest game to win is the last one in any series,” Fragle said. “We just have to keep putting the pressure on them instead of putting it on ourselves. We just need to be disciplined and play five-on-five hockey. That will give us the best chance to win.”
If the Cru can take the series to the limit, Game 7 will take place on Sunday at 7 p.m. in Spruce Grove.