The Green Bay Gamblers haven’t been in this position often.
Following their regulation loss Friday night to the Youngstown Phantoms – a game in which Green Bay allowed a season-high seven goals at home – the Gamblers were effectively leapfrogged by Chicago for the fourth and final postseason slot in the Eastern Conference, marking the first time since October that Green Bay wasn’t included in the playoff picture.
“It feels very weird,” head coach and general manager Derek Lalonde said. “It felt like the first time in a while here like our backs were to the wall.”
Fortunately for Lalonde and 4,477 fans in attendance at the Resch Center Saturday night, his team didn’t take the adversity lying down in the weekend finale against those same Phantoms.
After a scoreless first period that included an 11-4 shots advantage in favor of the home team, Green Bay broke through with the game’s first goal at the 9:14 mark in the second period. Receiving a pass from forward lines-mate Connor Hurley, Nick Schmaltz tallied his first goal in nearly a month’s time to put the Gamblers up 1-0 on its first power play opportunity of the night.
It was the eleventh goal of the season for the University of North Dakota commit, which extended his season points mark to a team-best 45.
“It’s good – I’ve had a few chances these last few games,” Schmaltz said after the win. “I’m obviously a pass-first kind of guy, but it’s always good to put one in the back of the net, too.”
Green Bay kept its foot on the gas pedal offensively in the period, as Ryan Lough came through with his thirteenth goal of the season just over a minute after Schmaltz’s score. The goal was the first for Lough since Dec. 28 against Cedar Rapids, and in turn gave the Gamblers a convincing 2-0 lead by the end of the second period.
Two key penalty kills – including one 3-on-5 disadvantage – helped preserve Green Bay’s two-goal margin in the second frame, in large part due to the impressive play from goaltender Jared Rutledge, who Saturday night posted his third shutout of the season and first since Jan. 24.
“He was excellent tonight,” Lalonde said of Rutledge. “He was the difference in the game, as he’s been throughout. We needed this game and he really stepped up. We killed those penalties, we did have a two-goal lead, but we were very tired the last five to six minutes of the second and they took it to us. For him to close the door and get through that led us to victory.”
Anthony Walsh put the dagger in Youngstown’s comeback hopes with his first goal of the season, a score that immediately followed the Phantoms’ pulling of goaltender Sean Romero.
With the victory, the Gamblers now boast a 22-18-6 record through 46 regular season games and salvaged two critical points for the weekend. Green Bay (50 PTS) remains a mere point back of Chicago (51 PTS) for the conference’s final playoff spot with a two-game set with Omaha on the horizon next weekend.
“Big series – one of the top teams in the west,” Lalonde said, “and we get Cedar Rapids again. Three really good teams and I’m just glad we get them at home.”
With the season winding down and ground to make up, what’s Green Bay’s mentality moving forward?
“We’ve got 14 game left, we’ve got a lot of home games,” Schmaltz said. “I think we’ve got the top two or three offensive players in the league and three deep lines, so we’re deep in our forwards. We just have to bear down and play well in the defensive zone like tonight.”