On a night where goals were hard to come by, the Erie Otters had to depend on a young goaltender and a defense that has been shaky all season.
But by the end Friday’s game against the Eastern Conference-leading Barrie Colts, the defense played its best game of the season and Devin Williams picked up his first career Ontario Hockey League shutout in a 1-0 win in front of 2,880 at Erie Insurance Arena. It was Erie’s first shutout since Nov. 25, 2010 when Ramis Sadikov blanked the Belleville Bulls on Thanksgiving night.
“We played the best defensive game since I got here,” said head coach Kris Knoblauch, who took over for Robbie Ftorek on Nov. 29. “I thought it was an outstanding effort. Barrie did have some opportunities, but that’s where your goalie has to step up.”
Williams did indeed answer the bell when called upon, and then some.
After Connor Brown broke a scoreless tie with his 20th goal of the season 3 minutes, 46 seconds into the third period, the Otters controlled the pace of play – like they did throughout the contest – and prohibited Barrie from registering a shot on goal through the first 18 minutes of the final frame. But in the final two minutes, the flood gates opened for the Colts (25-12-0-1).
Barrie would buzz in the final two minutes and get quality chances right on top of the crease of Williams, but the second-year netminder didn’t budge and stood on his head to preserve the Otters’ first win of 2013.
Williams would end his night stopping all 23 shots he faced.
“The team played great in front of me,” said Williams, who has started the last seven games as Oscar Dansk is away at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. “I give all of the credit to them. They played great.”
Williams improved his record to 5-6-1-0 on the season and has won two of his last three outings between the pipes.
Despite having to stop just 22 shots, Knoblauch alluded to the fact that it was a rough game for a goalie to play, especially when you consider he didn’t face any rubber for the first 18 minutes of the third period.
“It’s a tough game for a goalie to play,” Knoblauch said. “Especially when Devin is used to seeing 45 to 50 shots a game. He’s been playing very well for us. I think he would like to have a couple of those games back after Christmas. But for him to respond and play as well as he did tonight, I’m very happy for him.”
As for the Otters’ offense, don’t let the scoreboard fool you, they were flying around all night and creating quality chance after quality chance en route to 37 shots on goal. The only problem was that Barrie had a goaltender – Mathias Niederberger – who played quite well on the opposite end.
In the first period alone, the Otters registered four shots on goal before two minutes of elapsed time clicked off the clock and outshot the Colts 15-3 in the period. They just couldn’t solve him until Brown fired a shot from the slot that tricked through the pads before the Erie captain could tap home his own rebound for what would turn out to be the game-winning goal.
The offense was without rookie sensation Connor McDavid, who played for Team Ontario in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. The Otters were notified early Friday that none of the players would fly out of Quebec until late Saturday. That also means the Otters won’t have their 15-year-old star for Saturday’s game against West Division-leading Sarnia.
The Sting won 8-5 over Windsor on Friday, which helped the Otters when it comes to the playoff push. Erie entered Friday eight points behind Saginaw for the eighth and final playoff spot and five behind the Spitfires. London knocked off the Spirit, meaning Erie is now just six points out of the playoff picture.
But it’s a bit too early to be scoreboard watching. Right now, the Otters just have to continue winning hockey games.
And if the defense can become consistent and play like they did on Friday, suddenly Erie, with its high-scoring offense, can become a dangerous team in the second half of the season.