Pat Payton, Gazette Sports editor
CAMBRIDGE – Have Stratford Cullitons turned the corner? Coach Phil Westman thinks so. He’s been repeatedly saying for the past couple of weeks that his young squad team is playing well and coming together as a team. Recent results obviously back up Westman’s claim.
Cullitons defeated the second-place Cambridge Winter Hawks 2-1 in a shootout here Saturday night. It was Stratford’s third straight win, and fourth in its last five games.
“We’re keeping it all in perspective,” coach Westman told the Gazette. “But I think giving up just two goals on the weekend was the most gratifying thing.
“The results are starting to show on the ice and we’re obviously happy with the progress of our hockey team. It’s just hard work by everybody, and our team game is growing. The players have to buy in (to the team systems). If everybody’s not on the same page and not buying in, then it makes it pretty tough,” he added.
After weekend action, Cullitons (10-8-3) sit in seventh place in the Midwestern Conference standings, but are just four points behind the third-place Waterloo Siskins (13-8-1). Only four points separate five teams in the middle of the pack–from third to seventh. Caledonia Corvairs lead the division with a 15-6-2 record, two points more than Cambridge (14-7-2).
Winter Hawks are in a little bit of a funk right now, with a record of 2-3-2 in their last seven games.
Stratford 2 – Cambridge 1 (Shootout)
At the Galt Arena Gardens Saturday, about 600 spectators watched sophomore winger Ryan Watson emerge the hero for Cullitons with the only goal of the shootout. The first two Stratford shooters, captain Andrew Barton and Jared Culliton, were stopped. All three Cambridge shooters were turned aside by Cullitons’ netminder Nick Caldwell.
It was Stratford’s first shootout win this season, after losing shootouts to Strathroy, Listowel and Elmira earlier this season.
It was also Cullitons’ first win over the Hawks in 2012-13 after two earlier losses–including a 6-0 defeat at the historic Galt arena back on Oct. 21.
In Saturday’s game, veteran defenceman Mike Pleon opened the scoring on a Stratford powerplay at 16:03 of the second period. Barton drew the only assist. For the usually defensive-minded Pleon, it was the 20-year-old’s fourth goal in the last five games. Trevor Sauder had a glorious chance to put the contest away, but Cambridge goalie Lucas Machalski stopped the Cullitons speedster on a penalty shot at 5:06 of the third.
Winter Hawks’ Brennon Pearce forced extra time with the tying goal with 5:33 left in regulation time. Stratford out-shot Cambridge 5-2 in a scoreless five-minute overtime, and 38-24 overall.
The visitors out-shot the Hawks 29-15 over the final 45 minutes.
Cullitons’ penalty-killing was again superb as Cambridge went 0-for-9 with the man advantage. Caldwell (7-4-2) lowered his goals-against average to 2.51 by allowing just two goals on the weekend. It’s the ninth-best G.A.A. in the GOJHL.
Stratford 5 – Kitchener 1
Coach Westman called it one of his team’s best defensive efforts this season. Cullitons limited Kitchener to just 24 shots and few quality scoring chances in a 5-1 victory over the Dutchmen in front of just under 1,400 spectators Friday night at the Allman Arena.
“Tonight, technically, it was probably one of our better games all year,” Westman said after he watched his team move to within one point of Kitchener (11-11-2). “Our forecheck was real good, we had good slants on our backcheck, and our defence stood up well all night.
“That was a good team effort tonight, and I thought everybody contributed.”
Cullitons led 1-0 after the first period and 3-0 after 40 minutes. They increased their lead to 5-0 before the 10-minute mark of the third, and it appeared the home team and goaltender Caldwell might just blank the visitors. However, Dutchmen made the most of a powerplay opportunity for their lone goal with just over eight minutes to play.
Centre Andrew Barton and defenceman Mike Pleon paced the Stratford offence, each with a goal and an assist. The other singles came off the sticks of Dylan Wettlaufer, Mitch Brooks and Shane O’Brien (his team-leading 12th).
Jordan Delaurier replied for Kitchener.
Cullitons’ penalty-killing was efficient all night, holding Dutchmen to 1-for-7 with the man advantage. Caldwell made 23 saves for the win as Stratford out-shot the visitors 33-24. The loss put a halt to a two-game Kitchener win streak.
This weekend: Cullitons host Brampton Bombers (6-14-1) this Friday at 7:30 p.m., before making their first trip to Listowel this season to play the fifth-place Cyclones (12-9-1). Game time at the Listowel Arena Sunday is 1:30 p.m.