Pressure cooker playoffs

Randy Russon
April 15, 2019

From a pressure-packed Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League playoff game to an elimination match in the Ontario Hockey League, the tension was ticking on a Sunday in Sault Ste. Marie.

Back-to-back games, from the quieter east end of the Soo to the grit and grind of the downtown, playoff hockey was on full display.

It began with a 5 p.m. match at John Rhodes Community Centre, where the Soo Thunderbirds were playing host to the Hearst Lumberjacks in Game 2 of the NOJHL championship series.

One could almost feel the anxiety in the air from among the parents of the Thunderbirds and the more than 60 fans who ventured from the little hockey hotbed of Hearst to watch their Lumberjacks try to overcome a one-game deficit from a previous Saturday night setback.

You could feel it and sense it in the lobby of the Rhodes Centre before the game began. Upstairs, in the neat and tidy sports bar that overlooks the Rhodes Centre, there were wringing of hands and shuffling of feet and tilting of elbows as the game got going.

A close game turned into a wider margin and the visitors from Hearst hustled and bustled their way to a 7-3 victory over the Soo that tied the best-of-seven set at a game apiece.

Later, in a 7:07 p.m. start at GFL Memorial Gardens, the Soo Greyhounds took to the ice trying to extend their OHL Western Conference semi-final series with the Saginaw Spirit.

There were nervous grins and jittery jowls aplenty among the Greyhound supporters who were doing their best to convince themselves that the Soo would make it a third straight win over Saginaw and tie the best-of-seven set at three games apiece.

But it was not to be.

It was Saginaw that wiped the smiles off of many of the same Soo fans who had celebrated — maybe even over-celebrated — a four game sweep by the Greyhounds of the Spirit in the opening round of last spring’s OHL playoffs.

Oh my, there was karma among all of that pressure and panic on Sunday as the visitors from Saginaw snapped open a scoreless tie from the first period to score five times in frames two and three to sideline the Soo with a seamless 5-0 victory.

Saginaw was the better team through six games, let it be said. The Spirit handled the pressure of playing three games in the Soo by winning two in what was a hostile environment.

So, at the end of this particular hockey Sunday, the visiting teams were able to vacate the pressure cooker with big victories.

The Thunderbirds, despite a low fan base that includes an owner who seems smitten with himself, are still very much alive in the NOJHL championship series as they head to Hearst for Games 3 and 4 all tied up.

As for the Greyhounds, an overachieving season from a somewhat-young team that has more good days ahead, is over. For them, the pressure cooker is turned off for a few months.

And in Saginaw, the rising Spirit now prepares for the pressure of making its first appearance in franchise history in the OHL Western Conference finals.

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