Pat Payton, Gazette sports editor
ELMIRA – A weary Stratford Cullitons team could have probably been excused for taking the afternoon off here Sunday.
Cullitons were faced with playing their third Midwestern Conference game in a span of less than 48 hours, but they responded with one of their best efforts this season.
“It was as solid a hockey game as we’ve played this year,” coach Phil Westman said after watching his charges skate to a well-deserved 4-1 victory over the rival Sugar Kings in front of almost 700 fans.
“We were good all over the ice today. The guys played good, positional hockey and we had good intensity through the whole game.”
Due to foggy weather, Cullitons didn’t get home from Caledonia the night before until almost midnight. They turned around the next morning and headed back to Elmira–never an easy place for any Stratford team to take two points.
Westman was pleased to see his team earn four of six points on the weekend against two of the top teams in the Midwest.
After weekend action, Cullitons (16-16-5) sits 10 points ahead of eighth-place Brampton Bombers (12-23-3) and five behind the sixth-place Kitchener Dutchmen (19-14-4).
Stratford 4 – Elmira 1
At Dan Snyder Memorial Arena Sunday afternoon, sophomore forwards Shane O’Brien and Trevor Sauder scored two goals apiece to propel the Cullitons’ attack against the third-place Sugar Kings.
Sauder scored what proved to be the winner at 17:48 of the second period, putting Stratford ahead 2-1. The hard-working centre then made it 3-1, shorthanded, with just 24 seconds left in the period.
O’Brien’s second powerplay goal of the afternoon, at 17:09 of the third, completed the scoring. It was his team-leading 21st of the season.
Steven Jakiela, on a powerplay early in the middle frame, scored the lone Elmira goal–tying the score 1-1.
The hard-working Sauder was also one of Cullitons’ penalty-killers who drew high praise from coach Westman.
“We were really good on the penalty-kill; we killed off a couple of 5-on-3 Elmira powerplays that were lengthy,” he reported. “It was a good all-round effort. To get a win in Elmira is never easy; we played sound hockey today.”
Cullitons out-shot the Kings in every period and 59-41 overall.
Goalie Nick Caldwell, who played over 164 straight minutes for Stratford on the weekend, improved his record to 12-10-3 with the win.
The season series is now tied 2-2.
Caledonia 7 – Stratford 1
In Caledonia Saturday night, Cullitons’ three-game post-Christmas win streak came to a halt when they dropped a 7-1 decision to the first-place Corvairs in front of about 265 spectators.
“It was a terrible game with penalties and there was no flow to it,” coach Westman lamented. “It was a frustrating game to coach in and for the players to play in.”
Caledonia erased an early 1-0 deficit with three goals before the end of the first period–including two just 23 seconds apart. Corvairs tacked on four more goals in the second stanza–including three in a span of just over four minutes.
Four of the Caledonia goals came on powerplays.
Adam Brady and defenceman Ryan Blunt paced the Corvairs’ attack with two goals apiece. Brandon Montour–one of the best blue-liners in the league–contributed four assists.
Captain Andrew Barton (shorthanded) scored his 14th for Cullitons.
The teams combined for 83 penalty minutes, just one night after the two sides were whistled for 118 minutes in Stratford. Mitch Vandergunst picked up a fighting instigator, and the big winger will now serve a four-game suspension.
With the victory, Caledonia takes the season series 4-2 with their third straight home-ice win over the Cullitons.
Stratford 6 – Caledonia 2
At the Allman Arena Friday night, four unanswered second-period goals sparked Cullitons to a 6-2 victory over the front-running Corvairs in front of over 1,500 fans.
Cullitons improved their home record to 11-5-4 with the win, while it was the second straight road loss for Caledonia.
Coach Westman liked his team’s intensity level in Friday’s game–from start to finish.
“You look at it, and it could be a possible first-round (playoff) match-up with this team,” he said. “We have a real tough weekend ahead, so we knew we had to win tonight before going on the road for two.
“It was a pretty good effort overall by the guys tonight. I was most happy with our intensity for the full 60 minutes. And once we built the lead in the second period, we had pretty good puck management,” he added.
After the teams came out of the first period tied 1-1, light-scoring Jonathan Langford fired his second of the night at 4:21 of the middle frame to put Stratford ahead to stay.
Defenceman Jake Pleon made it 3-1 just 54 seconds later.
Powerplay goals by Ryan Watson (his 15th) and defenceman Ryker Killins late in the period put the home team firmly in the driver’s seat.
In the third, the teams traded late powerplay goals to complete the scoring. Adam Brady scored for Caledonia, and Brett Heaman replied for Stratford.
Connor Murphy had the other Corvairs’ goal, while Trevor Sauder and Mitch Vandergunst collected three assists each for the Cullitons.
Overall, Caledonia out-shot Stratford 38-31. Caldwell got the net win in relief of starter Michael Pesendorfer who left the game in the first period with an undisclosed injury.
This week: Cullitons have 14 regular-season games remaining, and three are tough ones this week. After a rare Thursday night game in Cambridge against the Winter Hawks, Stratford hosts Listowel Friday and then plays the Cyclones Sunday afternoon in Listowel.
Cullitons are 0-4 against the Cycs this season to date.