BISMARCK, ND – The Bismarck Bobcats wrapped up their fourth straight Robertson Cup Playoff berth thanks to a last-second rally and a thrilling shootout triumph to stun the Coulee Region Chill 4-3 Friday at the VFW Sports Center.
The Bobcats are the first team in the North American Hockey League to punch their tickets for April.
“Being able to wrap up a playoff spot so early certainly has its advantages,” noted Bobcats assistant coach Mike Peluso, “but it also has its drawbacks. Our hope as a coaching staff is that the guys don’t lay back now that they’re in and lose all the momentum it’s taken us 35 games to build.”
Momentum did not seem to favor the Bobcats over halfway through the third period, as Filip Starzynski served a boarding penalty—that visibly drew the ire of the visiting Chill—when Coulee Region forward Tommy Miller struck for a power play goal in transition with 12:05 left in regulation to push the Chill to a seemingly comfortable 3-1 lead.
Starzynski, however, started his road to redemption with 4:02 left when he sparked a Bobcat rally, collecting a centering pass on the rush from Danny Ray and spiked it through the legs of Coulee Region netminder Aaron Davis to slice the lead to 3-2.
When the Bobcats were awarded a late power play on a Ross Luedtke trip, captain Bryce Schmitt evened the score on a point-blank marker when Castan Sommer found him wide open in front of Davis for the captain to spin a backhander home with 1:36 to go in regulation.
Bobcat goalie Tommy Burke made sure that Schmitt’s tally would hold up and force overtime, denying Chill forward James Hughes on a breakaway in the game’s final minute to keep things even 3-3.
“Sometimes we don’t have our best games, but nobody ever gives up,” explained Schmitt, who has two power play goals in the Cats’ last three games. “We’ve had to makes some comebacks, but we know that no matter what the score is or how much time is left that we can still win.”
Neither team was able to score in an overtime that the Bobcats dominated, outshooting the Chill 6-1, bringing the Bobcats’ fifth shootout of the year.
That shootout started auspiciously for the Bobcats, who found themselves trailing 3-1 halfway through the third round before consecutive goals from John Furgele and Adam Knochenmus and consecutive stops from Burke gave the Bobcats a chance to win on their fifth shooter.
That’s when Bobcats head coach and general manager turned his attention to the man who had gotten under the skin of Coulee Region all night long, Starzynski.
“It was my first shootout chance this year, so my main focus was to convert my chance,” admitted Starzynski, who saw expanded ice time Friday after leading scorer Dan Zawacki was ejected for a spearing call halfway through the first period. “There was a lot of motivation for me going out there, not only because they were talking and going after me, but because my parents were in the stands [from Warsaw, Poland].
“I always seem to do well when they’re here, though,” added Starzynski, whose first career goal came on October 1 in Minot with his father, Tomas, in attendance.
Starzynski, a left handed shot, drifted to his right to start his attempt then cut hard to his left 20 feet out, causing Davis to commit to his forehand—but Starzynski dragged the puck back to the right as Davis slid left and tucked a backhander neatly into the net for the 4-3 victory.
The Bobcats got off to a rocky start in the first period when Luedtke broke the score open 10:49 into the game, one second after a Chill power play exipired, catching the Bobcat defense off guard and slapping a loose puck past Burke for a 1-0 lead.
Jeremy O’Keefe leveled the score just 1:40 later, taking a picture-perfect entry from Patrick Moore and beaming a rising shot over Davis’ glove for a 1-1 game.
Coulee Region answered in the wake of Zawacki’s ejection as Ryan Jaremko threaded a low shot through traffic on the ensuing double-minor power play that beat Burke five hole to give the Chill a 2-1 lead with 3:35 left in the first that would last until Miller’s late strike set the stage for the Bobcats’ late-game dramatics.
Burke held firm through numerous Coulee Region opportunities, turning away 21 attempts on the way to his 20th win of the year just three games into January.
Davis was saddled with the shocking loss, falling to 11-12-6 despite 30 stops.
The Bobcats and Chill will wrap up their season series Saturday with a 7:15 PM rematch at the VFW Sports Center.
As they did on Friday, the Bobcats will be helping to raise funds for Jack Jablonski, a high school hockey player from Benilde-St. Margaret in Minnesota who was left paralyzed from a hit from behind during a junior varsity game in late 2011. Chuck-a-pucks will have a special price of $5.00, with all proceeds going to Jack, whose story has touched the entire hockey world in the first two weeks of the new year.
Saturday’s series finale will be broadcast locally on the radio home of Bobcat Hockey, Super Talk 1270, KLXX-AM, and worldwide on the official internet television partner of the NAHL, FASTHockey, at http://nahl.fasthockey.com. Pregame coverage gets under way at 6:45.
Season tickets are still available for the second half of the 2011-12 season—and going fast! Call the Bobcat Hockey office at (701) 222-3300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on reserving a pro-rated package for the rest of the season!