Bisons fly off to finals
Hockey: Okotoks gets past High River in six-game thriller
By: Remy Greer
| Posted: Tuesday, Mar 18, 2014 12:18 pm
HJHL finals schedule
Game 1: Friday March 21 8pm Okotoks
Game 2: Sunday March 23 3:30pm Blackfalds
Game 3: Tuesday March 25 8pm Okotoks
Game 4: (if necessary) Saturday March 29 7:30pm
Game 5: (if necessary) Sunday March 30, 1:15pm
The thud you could hear across the foothills on Monday night was the Okotoks Bisons shedding a two-tonne weight off their back.
The Bisons clinched the Southern Division final over the High River Flyers in six games in holding on by the skin of their teeth for a 3-2 win at the Bob Snodgrass Recplex to wrap-up an epic Heritage Junior Hockey League semifinal series.
“We hadn’t lost a playoff game in three years and I told the boys this is the first time we’ve had adversity,” said Bisons head coach Mike Hannigan. “Where we had to play our very best or it wasn’t going to happen.
“And we came together after that overtime loss. That was devastating.”
High River took early command of the series when Tanner Franson’s overtime tally in Game 3 on Tuesday, March 13 in Okotoks gave the Flyers a 2-1 advantage.
Turnabout was fair play when the series switched venues as Matt Howatt’s point-shot lifted the Bisons to a 4-3 overtime win of their own on Friday in High River to even the series 2-2. Okotoks took Game 5 by a 5-3 score on Sunday to set up the series-clinching win late on Monday evening.
“It was definitely tough, especially playing the last few years where it’s been not as much of challenge and knowing High River every time we play them they bring their best game against us,” said Bisons captain Michael Savage. “We had to get over that hump, to play our own game and not buy into what they’re doing.”
In Game 6, after Flyers captain Ryan Midtdal scored in the first period, the Bisons rallied for three-straight second period markers through Brooker Pretty Youngman, Kevan Mikkelsen and Phil Dillon. High River blueliner Matt Pronchuk then cut the deficit in half on the powerplay late in the middle frame.
Facing the prospects of a post-season cut short, the Flyers emptied the tank in the final frame and threw countless pucks at Bisons rookie netminder Brayden Engel who stood tall and picked up his third-straight victory in relief of injured starter Alex Bilton.
“We’ve struggled against these guys all year, they’ve had our number, but coming into the room you got the feeling like the guys were confident and that helps me,” said Engel. “I knew in the third period them trailing by a goal, they were going to come at me with everything they have. I told myself I’m going to have to shut the door here.”
By advancing to the league finals, the Bisons lock up a berth in the Junior B provincials in Grande Prairie where they’ll look to repeat last year’s gold medal.
“There was a lot on the line,” Hannigan said. “This was for pride, for provincials, for finals.”
Awaiting the Southern banner winners is the new Northern kings, the Blackfalds Wranglers who rode the Stettler Lightning to a five-game series victory. The best-of-five league final is a rematch of the 2012 championship in which the Bisons swept the Wranglers en route to a provincial silver medal.
“We know it’s only one step. We still want to take the league and provincials, there’s more to do,” said Savage. “Once you taste the win you feel like you want to do it again and again. There is a big group of guys here who know what that feels like.”
As the Bisons breathed a massive sigh of relief in shedding themselves of their archrivals, the Flyers came to grips with a bitter end to what was a groundbreaking season for the franchise.
“It’s bittersweet. We wish we would have made it to the next round, that would have meant a berth in provincials,” said Flyers alternate captain Alex Pronchuk. “At the same time we started this year without a rink, we had 18 guys at camp. We did not expect this at all.
“If someone had of told us at the beginning of the year that we would be in Game 6, down by one-goal with a minute left in the South final against the Okotoks Bisons, no way we would have believed it.”
Pronchuk, the league’s top scorer in the regular season, headlines a strong group of graduating Flyers who’ve left a legacy for the High River club to aspire to after setting a new benchmark in its opening round victory over Banff, the first playoff series win in franchise history.
“It was a fantastic series, unbelievable and a great way for us to finish off our season,” said Pronchuk, on the Southern finals. “For the 21-year-olds, including myself, I couldn’t ask for a better group of competitors to play against.”