After coming back to tie from two goals down in the final eight minutes of regulation on Thursday night, Miles Winter picked up the puck at his own blue line, skated the length of the ice and fired a laser over the glove of Alpena IceDiggers goaltender Nick Graves 7:38 into overtime to secure the Mahoning Valley Phantoms' 3-0 sweep of their North Division semifinal series.
“One of their guys threw it to the point, and I just saw the two defensemen slumping down at the blue line,” Winter said after his game-winner. “I picked up the puck and ended up with a breakaway; I saw the opening glove side and took it.”
The Phantoms’ second overtime win of the series gave the team a berth in the North Division finals versus the St. Louis Bandits - 3-0 winners in their best-of-five semifinals against the U.S. National Team.
The series win also gives the Phantoms a berth to the Robertson Cup Championship (the Bandits receive an automatic bid as tournament hosts).
Mahoning Valley has now won nine of its last 10 games and 12 of its last 14.
It only took 5:34 for Alpena to jump out to a lead for the second straight game. Jon Puskar picked the pocket of Derek Graham at center ice and started a 2-on-1 shorthanded break for the IceDiggers. He fired a wrister over the glove of Phantoms goaltender Garrett Bartus to give Alpena the early advantage.
With 7:14 left in the second period, Alpena’s Russell Anderson redirected home Jimmy McCusker’s shot from the point. The goal, Anderson’s third of the playoffs, came with the Ice Diggers enjoying a 5-on-3 power play.
With roles reversed from Game 1, the Ice Diggers became the victims of a third period comeback. After Chad Boeckman fired a shot from the high slot off the right post, Kyle Bailey picked up the rebound and slotted his first goal of the playoffs to pull the Phantoms to within one at the 11:08 mark.
“Alpena was getting the better of us there for a while, but we thought we were getting some good opportunities,” said Phantoms coach-GM Bob Mainhardt about the comeback. “Their goaltender was playing great, as he was all series. We just knew we had to stick with it and the key was getting that first one. After that, we really started taking it to them - that was the difference.”
With just 5:45 left in regulation and trailing by one, the Phantoms’ Jon Madden stepped up to tie things up. After Graham got a shot wide from a one-on-one rush, Alden Hirschfeld picked up the loose puck in the corner and found Madden lurking at the top of the point. Madden’s wrister beat Graves high on the glove side and evened things at 2-2.
“We knew it was going to be a tight series,” said Mainhardt after the game. “Every shift counts. One bounce here, once bounce there, could be the difference. It was a sweep, but it was a battle, and with the overtime games, it was a much tighter series than a sweep would entail.”
Bartus turned aside 31 of 33 Alpena shots, while limiting the Ice Diggers to just one power-play goal on five opportunities. It was his third career playoff win in as many starts. He finished the series stopping 126 of 132 shots he faced.
Next up, the second-seeded Phantoms will defend the North Division playoff crown they earned last season against the first-seeded Bandits. Game 1 of the best-of-five series will be next weekend (time and place are to be announced).
“St. Louis has had our number pretty much all year, so I think we need to show them something,” said Winter. “We need to prove a point; we need to show them we are the top team in the North Division.”