Like a punch-drunk prize fighter, the Erie Otters kept fighting.
But by the end of what was the most important game of the season thus far, the Saginaw Spirit landed the knockout punch that could derail the Otters’ playoff hopes.
Gregg Sutch scored the lone goal in the shootout to push the Spirit to not only a 4-3 win but moved them 11 points ahead of the Otters for the eighth and final playoff position in the OHL’s Western Conference.
“It’s tough, it (stinks),” said Erie goaltender Devin Williams, who earned a tough-luck loss despite stopping 19-of-22 shots. “There (are) a lot of ways to explain it. But, we have crucial games coming up that I think we can easily win.”
You have to like the mindset of Williams, a Saginaw native who has taken over the role of starting goaltender once again as Oscar Dansk, who is out for the foreseeable future with a concussion. But despite Williams’ optimism, the Otters are running out of time to catch the Spirit (22-20-3-2).
Also, a loss like this hurts. Especially when you consider Erie had leads of 2-1 and 3-2 late in the third period.
“Obviously we are trying to gain ground and we fell behind a little bit more,” said Erie coach Kris Knoblauch. “It’s tough not to get the win with the way some of our guys played.”
Erie has lost five of its last six games and will travel to Kitchener on Friday for the opening chapter of a home-and-home series with the Rangers.
“We have to just have a short term memory,” Williams said. “If you think about games too much, they will come back and haunt you.”
The way the Otters lost on Wednesday might haunt them for a bit, however.
After Saginaw’s Nick Moutrey struck for the lone goal of the first period, a frame in which Erie appeared to be stuck in neutral, the home team quickly kicked it into fifth gear to start the second.
Connor Brown and Stephen Harper scores less than a minute apart in the early stages of the second period to kick start the Otters and quickly give them a 2-1 lead.
That would be the start of quite the night for Harper, who once again gave Erie a lead in the third period with a rocket from the point that beat Saginaw goalie Jake Paterson between the legs. That goal came after not only Andrey Alexeev knotted the game at 2 in the second, but also a crucial penalty kill to end the middle frame after Erie defenseman Adam Pelech was whistled for a 5-minute major for kneeing and a game misconduct.
Harper ended his night with those two goals and sits with 13 on the season in just his second campaign with the Otters.
Without a doubt, he was the best player on the ice for Erie all night.
“He (Harper) has been getting better and better,” Knoblauch said. “Tonight was a little taste of what we expect. It wasn’t just on scoring goals, but a lot of key battles he won in the defensive zone.”
But as solid as the Otters were in their own zone the majority of the night, a late breakdown led to Saginaw’s equalizer that pushed the game into overtime.
The Otters failed to clear a puck and eventually led to Garret Ross beating Williams right on top of the crease for a key goal that ensured Saginaw would earn one point.
As for the other point left up for grabs, the two teams battled throughout an energetic five-minute overtime that was highlighted with a key save by Williams on Justin Kea who broke in alone but couldn’t beat the second-year netminder.
But Williams couldn’t stop Sutch in the shootout, even though he appeared to have the play well read but couldn’t stop the last-ditch effort on a puck that just trickled over the goal line.
Meanwhile, J.P. Labardo, Dane Fox and Harper were all stoned by Paterson, who ended his night stopping 32-of-35 shots.
Sutch, however, just got a lucky break, according to Williams.
“I guarantee if we do that again, nine out of 10 times that puck won’t go in,” Williams said. “But (the puck) found its way in. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”