Despite outplaying Laredo through most of the seventh game of their Central Hockey League Southern Division opening round series, the Allen Americans found themselves clinging precariously to a one-goal lead early in the third period.
“Yeah, we controlled play for most of the game but didn’t put enough pucks in the net at that point, so it’s a one goal game and a funny bounce can end up in your net, and now you’re in a tie game and maybe headed to sudden death overtime,” said Americans Coach Dwight Mullins. “But we didn’t let up. We kept taking the game to them, and we’re moving on. I’m glad – it’s been a tough two weeks. It’s a good feeling to move on and keep playing.”
To the relief of Mullins and the nearly 3,000 fans at Allen Event Center, defenseman Jordie Benn and CHL All Star Bruce Graham padded the lead later in the period, helping Allen win Game Seven by a 4-1 count on Wednesday night. The victory completed a dramatic two-wins-in-two-nights comeback against the stubborn Bucks.
Benn, the older brother of Dallas Stars’ forward Jamie Benn, pinched into the slot from his blue line post and fired a 15-foot wrist shot past Laredo goalie Pier-Olivier Pelletier just seven minutes after the visitors had scored, giving Allen a much-needed two-goal cushion at 3-1. Graham put a punctuation mark on the series with four minutes remaining by wristing home his third goal of the playoffs, finishing off an impressive three-way power play passing maneuver that included linemates Justin Bowers and Nino Musitelli.
“We really took the game to them from the middle of the first period on,” said goalie Chris Whitley, who made 21 saves to earn his fourth win of the series. “They looked a little tired because we played a physical, high-energy game, and it took a toll on them. We wore them down as game went on.”
“We thought they’d give us their best effort in Game 6 (Wednesday night), so we felt pretty good about winning tonight if we stuck to our game, and that’s what we were able to do,” said Mullins.
The Americans, who visit Odessa on Friday night to open a best-of-seven semifinal series against the division’s regular season champ, took control of the game midway through the first period. Musitelli appeared to give the home team a 1-0 lead eight minutes into the frame, but a linesman nullified the goal, claiming that Musitelli pushed the puck into the net with his glove.
“I really questioned that call. The referee signaled a goal, but the linesman saw what he saw, so we just had to regroup,” said Musitelli, the game’s first star after his goal and two assists.
“I saw the replay of the call — it was made by someone who wasn’t in a position to make it,” said Mullins. “But I thought that whole situation helped our game. We were a bit tentative up until then, and right afterward, we really picked things up and put more pressure on their goalie.”
Musitelli finally picked up the much-needed first goal of the game with just over three minutes remaining in the stanza when he deftly shoveled a pass from Bowers from the half wall on the left wing over Pelletier’s left shoulder.
“Getting that first goal was huge, because it’s easier to play when you jump in front,” he said. “You still have to build on the lead, but you’re more confident and relaxed, and it just seems to make it easier to jump into the play and force the pace.”
The Americans spent most of the second period in Laredo’s end but struggled to put pucks behind Pelletier. They finally extended the lead to 2-0 midway through the session on a power play when Musitelli picked up an errant pass in the neutral zone and fed center Tobias Whelan on a two-on-one. Whelan backhanded a shot through Pelletier, who admirably kept the Bucks in the game with 30 saves.
Laredo finally solved Whitley at the 4:30 mark of the third period when forward Todd Griffith roofed the rebound of a shot by Ryan Lehr over the goalie’s prone body to make it a 2-1 game.
“It was a terrible rebound to give up to a guy who’s been burying the puck on me the whole series,” Whitley said in a salute to Griffith, who finished with a team-high six goals. “But our guys picked it back up and took the initiative, and we put the game away. We didn’t want to go into the final minutes hanging onto a one goal lead, because Laredo has the fortitude to reload and come back and tie, or even win.”
The Americans forced a seventh game the previous evening when forward Matt Radoslovich and Bowers broke a 1-1 tie with third period goals to give the home team a 3-1 lead in Game 6. Allen held on for a 3-2 triumph behind Whitley’s 22 saves. Radoslovich knocked home his own rebound five minutes into the period, and Bowers converted a breakaway midway through the session. Musitello had given Allen a 1-0 lead early in the second period, and Laredo’s Griffith tied it later in the middle stanza. Darryl Smith cut Allen’s lead to 3-2 with a third period marker. Pelletier made 40 saves for Laredo.
“We did not run away with this series – it was a tremendous battle,” said Musitelli, who has led the team with four goals and tied for the scoring lead with linemates Bowers and Graham (each with nine points). “It feels good to move on, but we have a rugged test in front of us when we go up against Odessa.”
In Laredo, the Bucks had rallied to take a three-games-to-two lead with 4-3 and 5-1 victories in Games Four and Five, respectively. Griffith scored twice while Brent Cullaton and Neil Trimm added a goal each to give Laredo leads of 3-1 and 4-2 in Game Four. Allen received goals from Erik Adams, Colton Yellow Horn and Jarret Lukin (who registered the franchise’s first post-season shorthanded marker). Whitley made 24 saves, while Pelletier stopped 37 shots.
The Buck puck stopper added 41 saves in Game Five behind two goals from Cullaton and one apiece by Evan Schwabe, Sylvain Deschatelets, and Mike Looby. Graham netted Allen’s only goal, which cut the Laredo lead to 4-1. Whitley was replaced by David McKee after allowing the first three goals.
Allen grabbed a two-games–to-one lead in the series with a 3-2 triumph in Game Two in Allen and a 4-1 Game Three win in Laredo. Lukin, Yellow Horn and Musitelli gave the host Americans a 3-1 lead in Game Two, and Ryan Lehr and Griffith tallied for Laredo, whose late third period onslaught nearly knotted the game and forced overtime.
Pelletier stopped 21 shots, while Allen’s Whitley made 30 saves, and added 24 in Game 3 in Laredo to back Bowers’ two goals and one each from Graham and Adams. Laredo’s Pelletier stopped 29 shots.
The Bucks won the opener in Allen, 4-3 when Looby (his second of the game) and Trimm scored third period goals to erase a 3-2 lead. Smith also scored for Laredo, while forward Liam Huculak, Whelan and Adams netted goals for Allen. Whitley finished with 28 saves, while Pelletier stopped 33 shots for the Bucks.