A week before Christmas, the Stettler Lightning have bolted to the top of North Pole.
The Lightning (16-7) won four one-goal games in a six-day span to move into sole possession of first place in the Northern Division of the Heritage Junior Hockey League. Three of those victories came on the road and two of them were decided in shootouts, including Sunday afternoon’s 6-5 win over the league-leading Bisons at Okotoks.
Stettler, which trails Okotoks (16-6-1) by just one point in the overall standings, beat another reputable Southern Division opponent, the High River Flyers, 4-3 on Saturday night at Stettler Recreation Centre. The Lightning halted the Flyers’ eight-game winning streak and avenged a 4-2 loss at High River on Nov. 22 that had ended Stettler’s stampede at 11 straight victories.
The relentless Lightning also picked up road wins against two of their Northern Division mates — 3-2 over the Airdrie Thunder in a shootout marathon Friday and 4-3 over the Blackfalds Wranglers last Tuesday. The Wranglers (15-6) are just two points behind the Lightning and have played two less games than Stettler.
Triumph in the battle of Northern heavyweights set the tone for what truly ranks as a week to remember in the Lightning’s 20th-anniversary season.
“As a crew, top to bottom, from defence and goaltending to forwards, I thought through that whole series that there wasn’t any time when I didn’t fear putting out any group of guys against anybody that we played,” said Lightning coach and general manager Doug Smith.
“That gets to be a real treat when you’re a coach — that you don’t have to do a lot of juggling and everybody can stay in the hockey game.”
The Lightning showed their moxy in gutting out a midweek game at Blackfalds that doubled as the Dylan Houston Show. The 17-year-old Lightning forward made the most of double-shifted duty, scoring three goals and assisting on Dylan Muhlbach’s power-play marker.
“In the dressing room after the game on Tuesday, you just felt that, ‘This week is ours,’ ” Smith said. “We had stumbled a bit for three or four games (previously), but it wasn’t because we weren’t playing well, other than the Coaldale game. In the others, we had just lost our focus for a little bit.
“We realized what it takes to win, so hopefully we don’t have a hangover going into this weekend.”
The Lightning wrap up their pre-Christmas schedule with Friday’s home game against the rival Three Hills Thrashers (8-10-2) and a Saturday trip to Didsbury to face the Mountainview Colts (13-5-2).
Lightning 6 Bisons 5 (shootout)
A 1:15 p.m. start at Okotoks necessitated an 8 a.m. Lightning departure from Stettler the morning after their solid home win over High River.
The Bisons had worked overtime Saturday night in a 3-2 shootout win over the host Ponoka Stampeders (0-19-1).
“That travel maybe bought us a little time,” Smith said of Sunday’s matchup. “But we knew we had to whether the first 10 to 15 minutes, because (the Bisons) skate very well. Last year, they were probably a bit more physically strong, but this time we were able to skate right with them.
“Once we got our legs under us, we started pushing the pace of the game and they started dragging. It got down to will and desire in the end. The third period was played super tough inside the scoring box. I can’t remember a game where I’ve seen both teams so committed to not letting the other team score. It was tough slugging.”
Adam Ternes, with his second goal of the game, had given Stettler a 5-4 lead early in the third period, but Jeffrey Garland pulled Okotoks even with 4:21 left in regulation time.
After a scoreless overtime during which the Lightning killed a penalty and Simon Thieleman made a couple of big saves, Wyat Haustein opened the shootout with a goal that stood as the winner. Thieleman clinched the Stettler victory when he blocked Okotoks’ third and final shooter, 38-point man Kevan Mikkelsen, who had scored twice in that game. “Simon made a super stop on him,” Smith said.
Houston, Muhlbach and Landon Potter also scored for Stettler, which connected four times on the power play. Thieleman made 43 saves before departing on a Christmas vacation that makes him unavailable for this weekend’s action.
The Kid Line combined for eight points as Adam and Scott Ternes each recorded three points and Houston picked up two.
“I thought that group played very well in Okotoks,” Smith said. “They were, as they have been the last four or five games, earmarked. They know they’re a target and they know they’re not big, so everybody tries to play physical against them, and they were so good at sliding off checks in that hockey game. I know the opposition just got mad, because they couldn’t get a hold of them, so then the sticks came out.”
Bisons overage forward Phil Dillon, the league’s second-leading scorer, collected four points, including two goals, to give him 19 goals and 47 points after 23 games.
Lightning 4 Flyers 3
High River showed up in Stettler on Saturday riding an eight-game winning streak, but without the services of league scoring leader Alex Pronchuk, who suffered a groin injury on his first shift of Friday’s 5-1 home victory over the Cochrane Generals.
Pronchuk played through pain Friday and assisted on three goals to give him 51 points in 20 games.
At Stettler, the Flyers managed the first goal — from Josh White — but the Lightning responded with four straight, including a pair of goals from Derek Muhlbach.
Adam Ternes and Kyler O’Connor also scored for Stettler, and Jeff Skaley blocked 18 shots. The Lightning, who held the Flyers to just two shots in the first period, fired 38 at Tyler Fornwald.
High River’s other goals came from Kade Bleackley and Dane Sokol, who made it a one-goal game with 1:14 left on a long-distance shot through traffic.
After a timeout, the Flyers put Fornwald on the bench in favour of an extra skater for the final minute, and they gained a faceoff in the Stettler zone with 25 seconds left, but they couldn’t net the tying goal.
Skaley was well-schooled on the Flyers after facing them three weeks earlier at High River.
“Not knowing who would be in their lineup, we had it set up to watch Pronchuk’s line,” Smith said. “But you don’t change the game, just because he’s not there.
“They were running three lines, and we were running four, so the key to that game was whether all four of our lines could be effective — and they really were.
“The line of Jacob (Schwarzenberger), Connor (Doucette) and Logan (Davidson), although they don’t show up on the scoresheet, they were kind of our backbone through this whole weekend. … They gave us real solid minutes and they should have scored in every game we played — they worked that hard, but just didn’t cash in.”
Lightning 3 Thunder 2 (shootout)
Friday night at Airdrie, Stettler defenceman Mark Dietz — known for his shooting ability — lived up to that reputation with his goal in the 11th round of the Lightning’s first shootout this season.
“Their goalie played unreal,” Smith said of the Thunder’s Kade Taplin. “We had 51 shots on net and he probably made five show-stopper saves in that one.
“We outshot them 6-1 in overtime and he made another good save on us. And then we went round after round after round in the shootout.
“Simon (Thieleman) made two excellent stops in the shootout. He allowed one and we got goals from Wyat (Haustein) and Mark (Dietz), who we know is a shooter. Wyat was our third shooter — he scored to keep it going — and Mark brought up the rear.
“It was fun. That was our first shootout. Some teams have already been in three or four.”
In regulation time, Potter and Houston scored for the Lightning. Thieleman registered 32 stops — and 10 more in the shootout.
Lightning 4 Wranglers 3
On the road last Tuesday, Houston figured in all four Stettler goals. His hat-trick performance included the winning goal. Dylan Muhlbach also scored and twin Derek had two assists. Thieleman made 23 saves.
“Simon was very solid in that game — when we needed him in the second period, he made two or three great saves that kept them (the Wranglers) off-kilter,” Smith said.
“Again, it was a game where all four lines were skating very, very well. And that was going to be our key to this whole week — if we could keep all four lines actively involved in the game.”
With the vacationing Thieleman inactive this week, Josh McCallum — a Stettler native attending college in Red Deer — is practising with the Lightning and is slated to back up Skaley for Friday’s home game against Three Hills and Saturday’s Mountainview visit.