ALEC DOPP — With less than two minutes remaining in regulation, it seemed the Green Bay Gamblers and Muskegon Lumberjacks were destined to play their third overtime match in as many games this season.
Evan Tironese didn’t want that.
Capturing the puck off a Muskegon turnover, the Gamblers’ first-year forward plowed through several Lumberjack defenders en route to the game’s go-ahead slap-shot goal with 1:11 remaining in the game’s final period. The score was the game’s first since midway through the opening period.
“We got the puck on our own half and I had a nice little give-and-go play with Kevin Irwin,” Tironese said after the game. “I just went down there and had a fake slap shot and he bit pretty hard, so I was able to slide it in.”
The British Columbia native’s score was promptly followed by two more, one from Ryan Siroky and another from Sebastian Weberg, giving Green Bay the 4-1 victory over Muskegon.
With the win, the Gamblers ran their record to 9-5-4 through 18 regular season games and elevated their 2013-2014 point total to 22 — pulling the club within two points of Muskegon for the fourth spot ‘in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.
“They’re a very tough opponent, especially for us,” head coach Derek Lalonde said. “They’re a very passive team. They take away the middle of the ice and they stack their blue line. I give our guys a ton of credit — we battled through adversity all night.”
And battle adversity Green Bay did.
Following Nick Schmaltz’s game-opening goal 41 seconds into the contest, the Gamblers went a span of nearly 50 scoreless minutes before Tironese’s score late in the contest. Much of that time was spent killing Lumberjack power plays, which hampered Green Bay’s ability to attack offensively.
“We spent most of the second period killing,” Lalonde said, “and that drains a lot of our guys.”
It didn’t help that Green Bay had one of its goals reversed, either.
“Missed goals are really hard to bounce back from. To the ref’s credit, he thought the goalie squeezed it originally, and he said it should have been a goal. I don’t mind it, but that’s tough for a team to fight through.”
But the Gamblers were able to stymie Muskegon’s offense long enough in penalty kills midway through the game. Jared Rutledge tallied nine of his 26 total saves during the crucial second period in which Green Bay had been on a five-minute penalty kill for an infraction on R.J. Gicewicz.
“What I really like about that particular penalty kill is we pretty much used everyone,” Lalonde said. “We knew that was going to be an important penalty kill, and we used 10 guys knowing we needed to have some energy after that. It was a great group-effort on killing that penalty.”
While the postseason remains a ways off, Green Bay and Muskegon have jockeyed for positioning in the Eastern Conference throughout the season and Lalonde believes a victory such as this was crucial — especially following an 0-2-1 road trip.
“We have four games in hand and now we’re only trailing (Muskegon) by two points,” Lalonde said. “It’s a little early to start talking about playoff positioning, but you can see how the league is stacking up. There’s going to be seven really good teams battling for four spots, so you have to win your division games, especially at home, and this was a huge win for us.”