By Ryan McCracken on March 14, 2018.
The Medicine Hat Tigers may not have left the ice with a victory on Tuesday night at the Canalta Centre, but by the time they climbed into their cars, they were Central Division champions.
Calgary Hitmen winger Riley Stotts scored with seven minutes left in the third to steal a 3-1 victory from the hands of the Tigers, but the Lethbridge Hurricanes were unable to get the points they needed to stay in the hunt for the Central with a 5-1 loss to the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Medicine Hat locked up the banner for a second consecutive season.
“Obviously we would have loved to do it ourselves with a win tonight, it wasn’t our best effort but we’ve got to thank Edmonton for doing their job,” said Tigers captain Mark Rassell. “We wanted to do it ourselves and feel that pride, but it was all season, all 70 games so far that got us another banner, back-to-back.”
The Tigers last won back-to-back Central banners when they controlled the division for four consecutive seasons from 2003-04 to 2006-07 —a span bookended with a pair of Ed Chynoweth Cups.
“I’m proud of our team and the players should be very proud. We’ve put ourselves in a very good spot,” said Tigers head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston. “We’ve battled some injuries, battled through some adversity and found ways to win games at key times. I thought we played pretty well tonight, we just didn’t get the result.”
Tigers goaltender Michael Bullion kept his team in an early stalemate with nine saves through a scoreless opening frame — including a number of big stops on odd-man rushes and a pad save on a Jakob Stukel breakaway.
Medicine Hat pushed the pace into the second and quickly took over a lead in the shot department thanks to a pair of early power plays, but former Tigers goaltender Nick Schneider had an answer for everything and carried a 26-save performance into the third.
“There’s a reason he has an NHL contract,” said Rassell of Schneider. “He was probably the X-factor tonight. We just couldn’t seem to get them past him”
Tigers centre Ryan Chyzowski jumped on a chance to fire up his team after taking exception to a Mark Kastelic hit in the dying seconds of the middle frame. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Kamloops product held his own against the 6-foot-3, 213-pound Kastelic, and his teammates immediately rewarded the effort in the third.
“I know (Ryan) Jevne is a pretty hard guy and he was giving (Chyzowski) a hard time about not being in a single fight in his career,” said Rassell. “Jevne stepped up for him, but then Chyzowski kind of came out of nowhere and said, ‘No, I’ve got this one.’ It was huge for us, a big momentum swing.”
It only took 12 seconds for the Tigers to gain the zone and set up Dylan MacPherson’s fourth goal of the year on a hard shot from the slot with Chyzowski watching from the bin — but the Hitmen dug in their heels and came surging back.
First Calgary’s Tristen Nielsen scored off the rush to draw even six minutes later, then Stotts stole away the lead with Tyler Preziuso in the box for a slew footing double-minor.
Connor Chaulk iced the game with an empty netter in the final minute of regulation.
“We wanted to get on them and we came out buzzing but they pushed back steadily,” said MacPherson.
Schneider locked up the 36-save victory in his final WHL appearance at the Canalta Centre — pushing Calgary to 22-36-9-2. Bullion stopped 20 in the loss, dropping Medicine Hat to 35-27-8-0.
“I thought it went well,” said Schneider, who set a new Hitmen record for minutes played by a goalie in a single season by passing Alexander Fomitchev’s mark of 3,371. He also tied Fomitchev’s record of 60 games played in a season. “I spent a lot of time and had a lot of good memories here. I’m happy we could get the win tonight in my last game here. It was pretty special for me.”
The Tigers close out the regular season with a home-and-home set against the Hurricanes, starting Friday in Lethbridge at 7 p.m.
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