Aleko Sdrakas made perhaps the most important and touching play of the season for the Peninsula Panthers after they beat the Oceanside Generals 4-3 in overtime and won the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL) on Friday.
Skating nearly the full length of the ice at Panorama Recreation Centre at what looked like full speed, he raced into the team’s dressing room to grab the jersey of Grant Gilbertson, who had died Jan. 3 in a car collision on his way to practise from Sooke. He then re-joined the coil of teammates celebrating Logan Speirs’ winning goal, with countless hands soon passing the jersey into the middle to complete a season marked by the team’s first championship in more than a decade, forever darkened by the death of the 18-year-old Gilbertson.
Following his death, the Panthers dedicated the season to their teammate and raced out to a 3-0 lead in the finals against the Generals. But two straight victories by the Parksville-based team forced Friday’s Game 6.
What owner and general manager Pete Zubersky later called a storybook season for the team unfolded at a smaller level in Game 6.
“We were down 2-0 before the game was two minutes in but like the rest of our season, we continued to battle and eventually brought it home,” said Zubersky.
Some of the 521 fans who had come for the game had not yet found their seats when the Panthers surrendered an early 1-0 lead to the Generals, 30 seconds after the puck had dropped with Carter Johnson scoring his 15th goal of the playoffs. The Generals’ second shot of the game by Evan Dyce also found the back of the net more than a minute later as the visitors grabbed the early lead and the momentum thanks to their physical play along the boards. Surely some of the Generals already saw themselves hosting what would have been Game 7 Monday in Parksville.
But Sdrakas pulled one back for the Panthers with some nifty stick work in the attacking zone at 6:19 of the first period and Speirs roofed the tying goal more than two minutes later.
Fans saw no goals during the second period, but an increasingly stronger home team, as the Panthers had out-shot the Generals 22-11 heading into the third period. This dominance continued in the third period, but the Generals never stopped threatening the Panthers’ goal, forcing Brad Kelly into a series of sprawling, even spectacular saves after he had come into the game to replace Ashton Lukan.
But Trey Boylan’s goal off a bounce off the glass at 8:42 of the third period restored the Generals’ lead. With time winding down, the Panthers pushed for an equalizer. It came when Speirs scored his second goal of the game with less than two minutes left. Undeterred, the Panthers pressed for a winner in regulation and much of the audience expected a penalty call against the Generals during a Panthers’ attack only to see Speirs called for goalie interference at 19:23 of the third period.
In other words, the Generals had a glorious opportunity to win the game during the last 37 seconds of regulations or at the start of overtime. But the Panthers’ penalty-killing unit remained perfect for the game with the most important save coming from team captain Riley Braun, who dove in front of a shot from in close with Kelly down on the ice.
Speirs, stepping out of the penalty box no less, then initiated the play that saw him score the winning goal from in close following a pass from Ryan Grambart in the overtime period.
Speirs’ 18th goal of the playoff was also his last in front of a home crowd as he and Braun are among the fifth-year players aging out. But they along with the rest of the Panthers are not done yet, as they are heading to the Cyclone Taylor Cup to compete against the respective champions of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League (KIJHL) and Pacific Junior Hockey League (PJHL), as well as the host Delta Ice Hawks, starting April 7.
“We are so looking forward to competing for a provincial championship later this week,” said Zubersky. “The best teams in British Columbia will be there so it will be a real measuring stick for our club and we feel like we are certainly ready to compete.”
In short, the storybook season may have one more final chapter.
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