It was a physical game between the Stettler Lightning and the Ponoka Stampeders on Friday, Jan. 30, one that left the Bolts battered, bruised, and defeated.
The final score of 10-6 doesn’t accurately reflect the type of game played by the Bolts, said General Manager Doug Smith. The home team battled their guests with cohesion and speed, but the very physical game offered by Ponoka threw off Stettler’s stride.
The Stampeders, who trail Stettler in the north division of the Heritage Junior Hockey League, burst onto the ice with drive in the first, quickly scoring three goals.
Team Captain and recent league player of the week Logan Davidson put Stettler on the board in the dying minutes of the first period, taking advantage of a powerplay, assisted by Matt Sylvester. With half a minute left in the period, Tanner Steinwand closed the gap to 3-2 off a shot from Sylvester.
Ponoka widened the gap again with two goals in the first six minutes of the second, before Houston narrowed it to 5-3 off a shot from Tyler Wagner on a powerplay. The period was half over before the score narrowed even more, courtesy of a shot from Ethan Rost, assisted by Quade Cassidy.
That was the last of the team’s goals in the second, though the Stamps brought in another two to strengthen their lead to 7-4.
Stettler hit the ice in the third period, resolved to play as bitterly physical a game as their competitors. Less than two minutes into the third, the strategy appeared to pay off as Cassidy scored, assisted by Kyle Ringdahl.
The scoring order was reversed a few minutes later, as Ringdahl scored off a pass from Cassidy, but that was the last of Stettler’s luck in the game.
Emboldened by their 8-6 lead, and taking advantage of Stettler’s increased time in the penalty box in the third period, the Stampeders managed to net themselves a powerplay goal.
Stettler’s decision to pull goalie Jordan McCallum in the last minutes of the game to put an extra man on the ice didn’t work out in the Bolts’ favour; instead, Ponoka scored an empty net goal, sealing the fate of the game, which ended 10-6.
Despite the loss, the Bolts lead Ponoka in the standings by nine points and only trail the fourth-place Blackfalds Wranglers by four points.
It’s a drastic change from the team’s fortunes at this time last year, which saw the Bolts trading places with Ponoka for last place.
“We’ve definitely rebuilt pretty quickly,” Head Coach Gavin Brandl said. “This is one of our best seasons … statistically. If we can keep it up, it will be one of our best seasons in 10 years.”
With the team beginning to gel and a powerful line in Houston and Sylvester, the Bolts are looking to displace Blackfalds and continue to climb in the standings.
“Our rookies as a group have contributed so much more than what rookies normally contribute,” Brandl said. “Even the guys playing smaller roles have far surpassed what I could ever hope for.”
The challenge of the nimble and fast rookie posse joining the team has forced the existing Bolts to work harder to hone their skills and keep up with the group, which graduated from minor hockey last year with an excellent, provincial record.
“From the bench, we’re seeing a lot of support for our boys in the stands,” Brandl said, confirming that the final game of 2016 brought in one of the largest crowds all season. “We have a lot of well-known, local kids, kids that behave well on and off the ice, an easy group of kids to get behind and support.”
The team is well aware of the support, which is what makes games like Friday’s home game so difficult.
“I think the boys feel bad, and feel like they let everyone down,” Brandl said. “We’re happy to forget the past two games and hit the reset button.”
The team has three away games before they return to home ice for the first of three final home games of the season. The bolts will take the ice at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 20 against the Okotoks Bisons, followed by a Tuesday, Jan. 24 8:15 p.m. game against the Ponoka Stampeders. The final regular season home game takes place on Friday, Feb. 3 against the last-place Mountainview Colts at 8 p.m.