ELMIRA – The 2014 portion of their Midwestern Conference regular schedule couldn’t have started any better for Stratford Cullitons this past weekend.
Here Sunday night, Cullitons gave up the first goal, then roared back for a 4-1 victory over the second-place Sugar Kings in front of approximately 525 spectators.
After three straight defeats, it was Stratford’s first win over Elmira this season.
It also capped a four-point weekend for Cullitons, who greatly benefitted from a full, two-week Christmas break. It gave injured players such as goalie Nick Caldwell time to heal and get back in the line-up.
Caldwell (7-9-1-1) posted both victories on the weekend as Cullitons (15-15-3) climbed to within just three points of fourth-place Guelph. They remain in sixth spot, but have four games in hand on the Hurricanes (16-17-4).
Beating two teams ahead of them in the standings was extra sweet for coach Phil Westman.
“It was a really good weekend for us,” Westman said from Elmira. “I think we looked at it as a measuring stick for our team, playing two teams that are running right at the top.
“We competed well and things went our way.”
Brad Kobryn gave Kings a 1-0 lead on a powerplay at 4:19 of the first period. However, it would be the only puck to get past Caldwell, who shut the door on the home team for the final 55-plus minutes.
Mitch Brooks (his eighth) tied it 1-1 at 14:01, and centre Trevor Sauder scored what proved to be the winner just 12 seconds into the middle frame. It was Sauder’s team-leading 15th goal.
Nick Nigro scored just his second of the season on a powerplay at 12:24, and the visitors took a 3-1 lead into the final 20 minutes.
Defenceman Jake Pleon completed the scoring into an empty Elmira net with 1:12 remaining. It was Pleon’s fifth goal of the campaign and his third point of the night.
Both teams had 29 shots. Twelve of Caldwell’s 28 saves came in the third. Sugar Kings’ Hayden Neuman, who has the best goals-against average in the GOJHL (1.78), took the loss.
“The last time we came down here, we took some bad penalties and the game was over before we could even get going,” Westman noted.
“(Before the New Year) we decided we didn’t want to make any more excuses why we lost, but create good reasons why we won.”
In Sunday’s game, Cullitons took 38 of the 62 penalty minutes. There were four fighting majors handed out in the second period.
Stratford 4 – Cambridge 3
At the Allman Arena Friday night, Cullitons got the New Year started on the right foot with a come-from-behind victory over Cambridge Winter Hawks.
Stratford trailed 2-0 before the game was 13 minutes old, but battled back for a 4-3 victory over the fifth-place Hawks.
“It was a big win for us and a good way to start the New Year,” assistant coach Mark Nelson said. “The boys worked hard. We really got on the forecheck and started hemming their defence in and it caused some turnovers.
“We competed well tonight; we battled for pucks and space and were going to the net. I thought we out-played Cambridge for most of the game.”
Cullitons went into the game five points behind the Winter Hawks (15-13-5), who were recently bolstered by the return of high-scoring forward Cody Gratton and goalie Lucas Machalski from Provincial Tier II Jr. ‘A’. They helped Cambridge reach Game 7 of the Sutherland Cup championship series last season.
Gratton opened the scoring at 7:53 of the first period. After Nick Caldwell stopped the Winter Hawks’ forward on a shorthanded breakaway, Gratton was awarded a penalty shot and he made no mistake the second time around.
Hawks’ Jake Moggy made it 2-0 at 12:47 after Stratford got caught on an odd-man rush.
Trevor Sauder got Cullitons’ comeback started on a powerplay at 15:56, converting a nice corner pass from Dylan Wettlaufer.
Stratford continued to carry the play in the middle frame, and it paid off when Shane O’Brien tied it 2-2 on another powerplay at 9:43.
Nathan Templeman (his fourth) put Cullitons ahead to stay at 8:16 of the third, with defenceman Ryker Killins picking up his second assist of the night.
Winger Mitch Brooks fired what proved to be the winner at 18:58 after taking a pass from Sauder.
With goalie Machalski on the bench for an extra attacker, Winter Hawks’ Hudson Michaelis completed the scoring with 34 seconds remaining.
Cullitons, who out-shot Cambridge 34-30, now lead the season series 3-2.
Caldwell, meanwhile, was making his first start for Stratford since Dec. 1. That day, he suffered an ankle injury in the first minute of a Midwest game at Waterloo.
“Nick wore off a little bit of the rust as the game went along,” goalie coach Nelson added. “You could see he was getting a good flow going, and was tracking the puck better.”
Coach Westman said Cullitons had three good practices last week (including one in Milverton), leading up to their weekend games against Cambridge and Elmira.
“For the team, it was a good week and that’s what you want at this time of year,” Westman said. “You want everybody in the right mood, and now we have to get a few wins and get everybody feeling good about themselves.”
–Cullitons’ centre Patrick McKelvie sat out both games this past weekend. He picked up a two-game suspension for a head-checking major he received in a 5-3 loss in Listowel on Dec. 20.
–First-place Kitchener Dutchmen (27-5-1) had lost three in a row heading into Tuesday’s scheduled home game against Listowel.
–Cullitons host last-place Brantford 99ers this Friday at 7:30 p.m. On Sunday, Stratford makes its final regular-season trip to Listowel. Opening face-off against the Cyclones (11-17-7) is 1:30 p.m.