Pat Payton, Gazette sports editor
If the Midwestern Conference playoffs started today, the seventh-place Stratford Cullitons would play the second-place Cambridge Winter Hawks.
Shane O’Brien and the Cullitons may have sent a strong message to the Cambridge team Friday night: Winter Hawks had better be ready if a quarter-final series ever materializes.
O’Brien fired a picture goal 52 seconds into overtime, lifting Stratford to a thrilling come-from-behind 5-4 win in front of just over 1,100 spectators at the Allman Arena.
“That’s the biggest character win as a team we’ve had all year,” O’Brien said outside a jubilant Stratford dressing room. “All 20 guys contributed, and it was a helluva team win.
“If we meet (Winter Hawks) in the first round of playoffs, it’s going to be a hell of a battle. If can play like that in every game in the first round of playoffs, we’ll come out victorious.”
The victory gives Cullitons a modest two-game win streak, and it came against one of the hottest teams in the division. Coming into Stratford, Winter Hawks (23-9-3) had won four in a row and seven of their last eight.
Cambridge had also won three of the first four meetings between the two teams, including two games at the Allman prior to Friday’s match-up.
It was their lone game of the weekend, and the dramatic win keeps Cullitons (14-15-5) within striking distance of Waterloo Siskins and Kitchener Dutchmen–both 18-14-4 and tied for fifth place.
Stratford led 2-1 midway through the second period, but trailed 4-2 going into the third.
Jonathan Langford pulled Cullitons to within a goal with 8:15 remaining, scoring from a scramble.
Rookie gets late equalizer
Rookie Dylan Wettlaufer forced extra time, jamming home a loose puck with just 26 seconds left in regulation time. It came with goalie Nick Caldwell on the bench for an extra attacker.
O’Brien’s OT winner was one of the prettiest goals at the Allman this season. After beating Cody Gratton with a nifty move, the second-year forward snapped a high shot past Hawks’ goalie Lucas Machalski.
“I knew Gratton was a forward playing defence,” O’Brien explained. “I made an easy move on him and then buried it (for his 19th). He was giving me blocker side all night. I finally squeaked one through after having probably 10 shots on net.”
O’Brien called it the biggest goal he’s scored in his Jr. B career in Stratford to date. Veterans Mike Pleon and Andrew Barton assisted on the winner.
Defenceman Josh Miller and Mitch Vandergunst scored the other goals for Cullitons. Cameron Pentsa, with two, Chris Taylor (powerplay) and Mitch Klie replied for Cambridge.
Coach pleased with effort
Coach Phil Westman was not only happy with the comeback, but pleased with his team’s overall performance.
“I thought we played solid the whole night,” Westman said. “We carried a lot of the momentum, and we worked damn hard at both ends of the ice. We got a little lazy on the back-check, but we learned from it and we hung around long enough to get the win.
“It was a good character win, and we needed that bad. It’s probably been 300 days since we’ve had one of those. Cambridge is a team we’re looking to meet in the first round of playoffs, so it was a must win for us. It’s that time of year, and we had to get our confidence going.
“Cambridge has a good team, and we competed right with them. Our overall team game was good tonight,” he added.
Stratford out-shot the Winter Hawks 38-24. O’Brien shot was the only one in extra time, and he made the most of it.
Three in three: This weekend, Jan. 11-13, Cullitons play three games in a span of less than 48 hours. They play back-to-back games against first-place Caledonia Corvairs (24-10-3), beginning Friday night on home ice.
After Saturday’s game in Caledonia, Stratford heads to Elmira Sunday afternoon for a 2 o’clock face-off with the third-place Sugar Kings.
It’s a weekend where Cullitons could move up or stay entrenched in seventh spot.r