If there were ever a night for the Green Bay Gamblers to come out on the winning end of an overtime contest at the Resch Center, Saturday night’s 15th annual ‘Teddy Bear Toss’ game would have ideally been that night.
Fortunately for the Gamblers, Saturday night turned out to be that night.
In front of 7,517 fans who donated exactly 6,525 teddy bears, the Gamblers defeated Team USA by a 2-1 overtime score. The victory was Green Bay’s second consecutive following a tough stretch of games to start the month of January, improving its record to 18-12-5 through 35 regular season games.
Increasing its season points total to 41, the Gamblers pulled even with Cedar Rapids for the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 spot to finish out the weekend.
“It’s a great event — win, lose or draw,” Gamblers head coach Derek Lalonde said after the game, “but to have the event like we did with the packed house and to get a win like we did, it just keeps building that relationship. We’re so fortunate to be so significant in this community. It’s a relationship that just keeps building and building, and we’re going to run our organization knowing it’s a privilege to be important in this community.”
Registering two shots on goal in the first 10 minutes of the game — seven in the first period altogether — and two avoidable minor penalties in the first frame, the Gamblers didn’t get off the fast start Lalonde likes to see from his team each time they hit the ice.
“Their speed was an issue for us,” Lalonde said. “You’re not going to find a quicker team in the league this year, and we try to prepare our guys for that. But until you face it, you don’t have the time or space you think you do.”
But as he’s done all season, Green Bay goaltender Jared Rutledge stepped up to the challenge at home — saving all 13 of Team USA’s shots against him in the opening period. Lalonde wasn’t afraid to give credit where credit is due, especially after watching his goalie pitch a shutout at Chicago the night before.
“He’s been a rock — our best player — our team MVP up to this point right now,” Lalonde said. “And it’s not only his good, strong play — it’s his calming affect in there. I mean, it got to a point where toward the third period we looked tired — they wore us down with team speed and that’s tough to defend all night.”
Green Bay’s offense picked itself up in the second period, matching Team USA with seven shots on goal. And it was on the sixth attempt that first-year Gamblers defenseman and Montreal Canadiens draft pick Colin Sullivan put Green Bay up 1-0, which triggered the momentous teddy bear toss.
“It was a quick transition up the ice, I saw there was an open lane for me to take and I decided to join the rush,” Sullivan said. “(Connor) Hurley took the puck wide, and I just kind of went to the net under the defenseman. I put my stick out, Hurley shot for it and it went off my stick and in for the goal, so I was really happy.”
Nevermind the fact that Saturday night was only Sullivan’s seventeenth game of the season — the addition of the Boston College product has played a key role in Green Bay’s success this season.
“He’s just getting more and more comfortable,” Lalonde said. “Great acquisiton to get him midway through the season, leaving Boston College like he did. There’s no doubt there was rust to his game early on, and as he just keeps getting more and more comfortable, he’s become a more important part of our decor.”
Following a twenty-minute clean up of the bears, Team USA’s Brendan Warren responded with a goal three minutes into the final period. What was once a seemingly invincible lead, given Rutledge’s sure-handed skills between the pipes, turned into a 1-1 tie with just a few minutes to go in the final period.
Neither team was able to convert from that point to the end of regulation, meaning the game would either be decided in the five-minute overtime period or in the ‘shootout’ portion of overtime.
And with a mere 1:20 left in the extra period, Nick Schmaltz hooked up with Connor Hurley for the game-clinching goal to seal the 2-1 victory.
“The puck got dumped in and me and Nick (Schmaltz) were going to the fore-check,” Hurley said, “and we got it cycled a little bit low and Nick was able to pickpocket the guy, and guys were already up the ice and I was fortunate to tap it in.”
With three game-winning goals since joining the Gamblers prior to the Christmas break, Hurley has embraced the pressure that comes with big moments late in games, — a key reason Lalonde traded for him in December.
“We acquired him to be a difference-maker,” Lalonde said. “There’s still areas in his game he’s still improving, but he’s been that difference-maker and it worked out again tonight.”