By Ryan McCracken on March 20, 2017.
It was a fitting end to a wild regular season for the Medicine Hat Tigers.
Mark Rassell, James Hamblin and David Quenneville all scored in the third period to close the book on 72 games with another comeback victory in Saturday’s 8-7 barnburner against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
“That was a wild game and the crowd was unbelievable. I think that really helped with coming back,” said Quenneville, whose Tigers jumped to 51-20-1-0 with the win. “It’s been a rollercoaster season with injuries and our game, and what a great way to get 51.”
Steven Owre set the pace for the back-and-forth shootout just 34 seconds into action with his 26th goal of the year, but Hurricanes captain Tyler Wong quickly stole the show.
The overage forward closed out his final WHL regular season by breaking the 50-goal plateau, beating Tigers goaltender Michael Bullion to secure the milestone after a four-game goalless drought.
Brad Forrest joined the scoring five minutes later, ripping a perfectly placed shot past ‘Canes netminder Stuart Skinner to re-establish a narrow lead. But the Hurricanes came storming back again.
Calen Addison and Ryan Vandervlis combined for a pair to steal the lead away after 20 minutes.
“It was pretty intense,” said Forrest. “We always have really high-scoring games against Lethbridge and they’re always fun games to play in.”
Tigers goaltender Michael Bullion left the game in the first intermission after falling ill, prompting the return of affiliate goaltender Duncan McGovern. The 16-year-old Winnipeg product has been playing his season with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Dauphin Kings — who play out of the same arena where the Brandon Wheat Kings will host Medicine Hat in the first round of the playoffs — and held his own despite a tough task for a 18-save victory.
“Bully wasn’t feeling good before the game and sort of a wave hit him so Duncan kind of got thrown into the fire,” said Tigers head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston. “(McGovern) got better as it went on for sure. It looked like there were some nerves there early on but he made a couple big saves down the stretch. It was almost last shot wins but he did save the last couple so that was really important for us.”
The change seemed to light a fire beneath the Tigers. Mason Shaw knotted things back up 35 seconds into the middle frame then Max Gerlach took over Medicine Hat’s third lead of the game two minutes later. Lethbridge responded in kind by yanking Skinner from the crease in favour of their own affiliate goaltender, Adam Swan, and it too prompted a change in pace on the ice.
Tanner Nagel put the Hurricanes back in the conversation by beating McGovern over the glove just over a minute late. While Hamblin pushed the Tigers back out in front with his 22nd of the season midway through the frame, Medicine Hat was once again unable to secure a lead at the break as Alec Baer and Wong struck in succession to push Lethbridge back out in front.
“They’re a powerhouse team but we continue to find a way,” said Quenneville. “The contributions we’ve had from everybody this year has been incredible. I think that really shows in our 51 wins. Everyone helped get those.”
The Tigers dug in their heels and added another to the long list of come-from-behind victories with a commanding effort in the third. Rassell struck for his team-leading 36th goal of the year — and the 100th point of his career — to kick off the frame. While Egor Babenko tucked one past McGovern to give the Hurricanes another leg up, Hamblin responded with the timely tying marker then Quenneville completed the comeback with a blistering one-timer on the power play.
“I had been so irrelevant out there for a while in that spot so it felt really good to find it like that,” said Quenneville, who immediately started beating his fists against the glass in celebration to rile up the crowd of 4,390. “I kind of blacked out on the celebration and got a little crazy. I thought I might have to pay for new glass in the rink or something but I wanted to get the crowd into it late in the game.”
Bullion stopped 12 of 15 through the first 20 minutes, while Lethbridge’s Skinner was pulled after allowing four goals on 24 shots and Swan stopped 17 in relief, dropping Lethbridge to 44-21-4-3 at the end of the regular season. The Hurricanes will face the Red Deer Rebels in the first round of the playoffs.
The Tigers open the playoffs at the Canalta Centre on Friday against the Brandon Wheat Kings (31-31-7-3). The puck drops at 7:30 p.m.
Clouston added Zach Fischer was missing from the game due to back spasms, though he should be fine for the start of playoffs.
Matt Bradley served his one-game suspension Saturday for a spearing infraction in Friday’s game in Lethbridge and will be ready to return to the lineup against Brandon.
Tigers goaltender Nick Schneider returned home earlier this week due to illness — leaving both of Medicine Hat’s goalies battling a bug — but Clouston says he too should be good to return to action for the post-season.
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