It may have been the day after Valentine’s Day, but the Leamington Flyers didn’t offer much love to their cross county rivals from LaSalle.
The Flyers won a crucial game against the Vipers in the race for second place with a 4-2 victory at Highbury Canco Arena Thursday, Feb. 15. Backed by a three-goal game by points leader Griffin Robinson, the win also locked Leamington into a tie for first place in the West with the struggling London Nationals. LaSalle led Thursday’s game for 23-and-a-half minutes, but couldn’t fend off the hosts’ forward attack long enough to narrow the points gap in the standings.
Two early minor penalties against the Flyers set the pace for the first period, where the Vipers outshot their hosts 14-6. Leamington struggled to create scoring chances at the south end of the rink while Connor Meyerink had to be sharp consistently in the Flyers’ zone. With just over six minutes to go, Hayden Johnston opened the scoring for LaSalle after twice grabbing hold of his own rebound to flip a shot into the right side of the goal.
The Flyers’ attack was somewhat more of a threat in the second, although man shots fired in the direction of Dershawhn Stewart were blocked or deflected wide. Leamington came close to evening the score multiple times during their first and only power play of the first 40 minutes, but continued to trail by Johnston’s first period tally until about two-and-a-half minutes remained in the centre stanza. After taking feeds from Josh Pope-Ferguson and Zach Guilbeault, Robinson maneuvered along the perimeter of the faceoff circle to the right side of the Vipers net and released a waist-high wrist shot that eluded a screened Stewart.
The Vipers were outshot 13-7 over the course of the mid 20 minutes, where both goalies offered solid performances.
The third period proved another tense session at both ends of the ice, with overtime appearing imminent until the clock ticked down to just over six minutes. Approaching the Vipers’ goal from its left side, Rory DiNiro snapped an ice level shot into the lower right corner to give Leamington its first lead. Assists went to Dylan Weston and Levi Tetreault. Fifty-nine seconds later, Robinson sunk his second of the night, also going ice level with a shot that found its way just inside the right post. Kenny Styles and Cory Schneider drew assists on the game winning marker.
With about three-and-a-half minutes left on the game clock and 1:16 to go on a power play, LaSalle called a timeout and returned to the ice with a sixth skater and an empty net. Twice, the Flyers nearly put the game away by firing the puck the length of the ice just wide of the right and then left posts.
Eventually, when back at even strength, Robinson carried the puck to a location between the red line and Vipers’ blue line before sniping a shot into the empty goal. Kade McKibbon and Blake Bain set up the goal, Robinson’s 33rd of the season.
LaSalle’s forwards refused to give up, however, as Bradley Vincent managed to turn the puck around on its way out of the Flyers’ zone and stuff a backhander into the right side of the goal, unassisted. The Vipers’ bench again pulled Stewart for the extra forward, but to no avail.
Leamington was outshot 32-24 and was zero for two on the power play while the visitors were zero for three.
“Both teams played well tonight,” said Flyers head coach Tony Piroski. “We just managed to capitalize a couple times late in the game. LaSalle’s a good team and they’ve been capable of beating anybody these last 10 games or so — they’re going to be a handful in the playoffs.”
Leamington’s coaching staff and players alike credited the crucial two-point night largely to their goalkeeper, who made pivotal saves throughout the match.
“Meyerink was outstanding — he was our first star tonight for sure,” said Piroski. “We knew tonight’s game was a big one and we played it like a playoff game. Both teams had good power plays, we just couldn’t seem to pull the trigger.”
Robinson’s three-point night brought the team’s scoring leader to 55 points, including his fourth game winner of the season.
“I give all the credit to this team,” he said of Thursday’s hat trick. “They’re the ones who put me in a position to score like that. This was a big win for us, especially with how tight it is from first to third. We’re playing good hockey now. Our focus is to keep playing the same way and bring it into the playoffs.”
“We looked a little shaky in the first (period), but we turned it around for the second and third,” added Meyerink of the match against LaSalle. “This was an important game for us. Before, we weren’t really thinking about first place — we were just concentrating on the race for second. Now that it’s within reach, it’s what we’re aiming for.”
On Saturday, the Flyers will pay a visit to the Sarnia Legionnaires. The Flyers' last regular season home game will be Thursday, Feb. 22 at 7:10 p.m. against the St. Thomas Stars. Prior to the game, the team will honour graduating age players Guilbeault, Dalton Langlois and Noah Hedrick.
Leamington’s regular season will end Saturday, Feb. 24 against the Kings in Komoka.