The third-seed Aberdeen Wings knew they were the underdog entering Round 2 of the Robertson Cup playoffs against top-seed St. Cloud Norsemen. And being on the road at the St. Cloud Municipal Athletic Complex was an added challenge.
But after winning four in a row — the final game of the season, then sweeping the Austin Bruins in Round 1 — the Wings rode that momentum, grabbing their fifth consecutive win by defeating the Norsemen 5-4 in overtime to take Game 1 of the Central Division Finals.
“It was a perfect feed by (Jackson) Yee to find me in front,” said Wings captain Kyle Gaffney, who recorded the game-winner. “It was a lot of hard work by him and (Ronan) Walsh in the corner and I was fortunate I was able to finish it.”
A tight battle for the entirety of the game, St. Cloud got on the board first when Blake Mesenburg scored at the 12:10 mark to put his team up 1-0. But just 49 seconds later, Patrick O’Connell got the puck at the center line and spun and fed to Hugo Allais, who was flying in to take a shot on goal when he was brought down by a Norsemen defender and allowed a penalty shot at the 12:59 mark. Allais worked his way wide and through the circle before skating back into the crease and firing the puck past St. Cloud netminder Tomas Bolo to tie the game at one apiece, grabbing his first postseason goal.
The Norsemen got back on top when Broten Sabo fired from near the blue line and through traffic to give his team the 2-1 lead at the 16:29 mark in the first period. The Norsemen outshot the Wings 11-9 in the opening stanza and skated into the locker room with the one-goal lead.
St. Cloud increased their lead to two when Ryan O’Neill fired from near the blue line once again at the 5:01 mark. And just when things looked like they were going the Norsemen’s way, Aberdeen responded.
At the 7:30 mark in the second, the Wings took their first penalty of the game and put their kill unit to the test. But less than a minute later, Owen DuBois stripped the puck in the Aberdeen zone and skated all the way down in front of the St. Cloud net, drawing a penalty and still managing to put the puck past Bolo for a shorthanded goal at the 8:23 mark. DuBois picked up his second postseason goal — both of which were shorthanded — while Allais grabbed his third postseason assist.
Just over three minutes later, coincidental penalties led to four-on-four hockey — and just over a minute after that, Gaffney won a board battle behind the St. Cloud net and fed it to the crease, where Landry Schmuck, fresh off the bench, was there to take a point-blank shot past Bolo to tie the game at three apiece at the 13:06 mark. Schmuck grabbed his second postseason goal, while Gaffney got his fourth postseason assist and Will Gilson notched his third.
But Aberdeen wasn’t done scoring in the middle period just yet. With less than a minute on the clock, Gilson fed the puck from the corner to Ronan Walsh, who fired from between the circles to give the Wings their first lead of the game at the 19:07 mark. Walsh got his third postseason goal, while Gilson got his fourth postseason assist, second in the game, and DuBois picked up his first postseason assist.
The Wings stretched their legs in the middle stanza, edging out St. Cloud in shots on goal 12-10. They also killed a penalty, got a shorthanded goal and added another while four-on-four.
Aberdeen piled on the defense in the third period, blocking numerous shots and Wings goaltender Anton Castro coming up big several times. But St. Cloud put on the pressure and tied things up when Sabo got his second of the game at the 13:53 mark in the third. Neither team took a penalty in the final period, but the Norsemen took 18 shots at Castro while holding Aberdeen to eleven. And when the horn sounded, the Wings readied themselves for their first postseason overtime period, St. Cloud’s fourth.
Aberdeen took an early penalty just 22 seconds into the extra time but the Wings killed off the man-advantage for the second time in the game. Both teams fired off six shots before the Wings dug into a puck battle deep in the St. Cloud zone and Yee came away with it, passing it into the crease where Gaffney took a shot on goal. Bolo made the initial save, put Gaffney found the bouncing puck and put in a backhand shot at the 7:15 mark in overtime for his first goal of the postseason and the edge in Round 1. Yee and Walsh both grabbed their second postseason assists on the game-winner.
And with that, the Wings not only grabbed their fifth straight win, but also their third straight on the road during the Robertson Cup playoffs.
“It definitely means a lot, obviously,” Gaffney said. “It’s always tough playing on the road and to get another one gives us some more confidence.”
Wings head coach Steve Jennings was also pleased with how his team handled lineup changes and playing from behind to gut out the win.
“I really liked it,” he said of his squad’s level of commitment. “They came out with jump and we weathered the push. I really liked the compete and focus of the group.”
Overall, the Norsemen outshot the Wings 45-38 but were held to 0-2 on the power play while also giving up a shorthanded goal. Despite a heavy third period attack, and ultimately allowing a goal in the process, Jennings said his team has been working to limit chances defensively.
“That shift had a few breakdowns and they were fortunate to get a bounce off one of our guys,” he said of the third period St. Cloud equalizer. “This team is committed to making it hard for teams to get clean shots through.”
Castro denied 41 of the 45 shots he faced, good for a .911 save percentage. Overall in four postseason games played, he carries a 2.67 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage.
The teams will hit the ice for Game 2 Saturday night in St. Cloud with a 7 p.m. scheduled puck drop. Fans can watch the game using their HockeyTV logon, or catch the action live at Buffalo Wings & Rings in Aberdeen, the official home for Wings away games. The game’s audio is broadcast via Hub City Radio’s 94.1 The Rock.
“It’s just managing the game a period at a time,” Jennings said about Game 2. “We need to limit turnovers and get to the net.”
The teams will return to the Odde Ice Center next Friday, May 13 for Game 3. If needed, Game 4 will also take place at the Odde on Saturday, May 14. Fans can purchase tickets for Friday’s game online at tickets.AberdeenWings.com.