The energy level never wavered, even after the Dubuque Fighting Saints fell behind early in a game they desperately needed.
Ten different players tallied at least a point Wednesday night as the Saints rallied for a 6-2 victory at Green Bay.
Dubuque (21-22-3-1, .489) moved within striking distance of Team USA (21-21-3-4, .500) for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and will pull even if Green Bay beats the Americans on Friday night in Green Bay. Dubuque hosts Team USA on Saturday night, and the winner of that game will have the inside track to the playoffs heading into the final week of the regular season.
Wednesday night got off to a rough start.
Jake Schmaltz gave the Gamblers an early lead with his 16th goal of the season just 5:38 into the contest. Off the rush, he executed a give-and-go with Jackson Kunz on the left wing before sneaking a shot past goaltender Lukas Parik.
“To be honest, I thought we had a really good start tonight, even though we got scored on first,” Saints coach Oliver David said. “We had three really good scoring chances on our first three shots on the first shift of the game. The guys stuck with it, and eventually we were able to assert ourselves in a game we really needed.”
Dubuque tied it with a transition goal of its own by Andrei Buyalsky at the 16:58 mark. Stephen Halliday slid the puck to Buyalsky from his own zone and Buyalsky had a give-and-go with Connor Kurth in the neutral zone to create a 2-on-1 with Braden Doyle. Buyalsky deked goaltender Matt Davis down, then tucked a shot into a vacated cage for his 15th goal in 34 games since joining the team in late December.
Just 30 seconds into the middle period, Davis made a brilliant stop of a Matt Savoie shot during a 4-on-1 rush. But the Saints scored on their next opportunity 45 seconds later.
Halliday sprung Kurth for a rush, and Kurth outmuscled defender Owen Murray in the slot before sliding a shot through Davis’ legs for his 14th of the season.
“Both of those goals, you have to give all the credit to my linemates – Andrei for burying that shot and Steve for finding me with a perfect pass,” Kurth said. “The key tonight was the energy on the bench. O.D. always makes sure we have good energy in the room and throughout the game, and all of us brought great energy tonight. That’s basically what helped us stick together and rally against a team that has beaten us a lot this year.”
Green Bay won the first three meetings in the series, but the Saints have won the last two. They play again Monday in Green Bay and twice in Dubuque next weekend.
Zane Demsey stretched the lead to 3-1 just 7:10 later with his third goal of the season. The Saints maintained pressure in the Green Bay zone while making a line change, Kenny Connors collected a rebound below the goal line and fed Demsey at the point. Demsey had a clear lane to the net along the left wing and wired a shot into the top right corner of the net for the eventual game winner.
“I saw I had my guy beat right when I got the puck, so I went down the wall and all of the sudden everything opened up, like the parting of the red sea,” Demsey said. “It was an awesome feeling to score that goal. I don’t know where that came from, but it definitely was pretty cool.”
Later in the period, Demsey drew a slashing penalty on Matt DeBoer that gave the Saints their first power play of the night. And Savoie scored his 17th of the season 46 seconds later at 17:01 to make it 4-1. Halliday fed Robert Cronin in the right circle, and the rebound of his shot found Savoie’s tape in the left circle for a wide-open look at the net.
Cronin benefited from a fortunate bounce for a key insurance goal 6:31 into the third period. Savoie won a faceoff in the Green Bay zone, and Davis stopped Ryan Alexander’s initial shot. Cronin’s second effort deflected in off Green Bay defenseman Mason Lohrei’s shin pad for his 25th of the season.
Less than five minutes later, Tristan Lemyre sprung Daniyal Dzhaniyev for a breakaway goal and a 6-1 cushion. It was Dzhaniyev’s 15th of the season.
Savoie finished with a goal and an assist in his first trip to Green Bay since March 16, when Lohrei delivered a hit to his head that drew a three-game suspension.
“Obviously, he got suspended for it, and the last thing I wanted to do was hold a grudge or do something that could have hurt the team,” Savoie said. “I came in with the same mentality as everyone else. We needed to win tonight, and I was willing to do whatever it took to get that done.
“This was a huge win for us, and we needed it in our push for the playoffs. The most important thing is we all came together and played really well.”
Schmaltz scored a back-door tap in at 14:06 to wrap up the scoring.
The Saints outshot Green Bay, 17-5 in the second period and 40-29 overall, and went 1-for-2 on the power play while stopping both of the Gamblers’ man-advantage opportunities.
Technically, the Gamblers clinched a playoff berth prior to Wednesday’s game. The USHL will use winning percentage, instead of standings points, to determine playoff seedings because not every team will play all 54 games in the regular-season.
Green Bay will not have an opportunity to make up three games against last-place Youngstown, and Dubuque will not get to play two games against the same Phantoms. So, fifth-place Dubuque cannot catch third-place Green Bay (28-15-1-2, .641).