Cooper Hood (18) celebrates his winning goal as Glanbrook opened the South Conference final with a 4-2 victory over Wellesley.



GLANBROOK (Apr. 19) — If first impressions are the strongest, the main takeaway from Game 1 of the South Conference Final would be, Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.

From puck drop to final whistle, that’s what the Glanbrook Rangers and Wellesley AppleJacks provided for the throng of fans who gathered at Glanbrook Arena for the inaugural encounter in the PJHL’s regional playoffs.  And the fact that the Rangers came away with a 4-2 triumph made it just that much more thrilling.

Of course, no one really knew what to expect, since under the PJHL’s divisional format, these two teams did not face each other during the regular season.  But it soon became apparent that the squads were well-matched, and they provided a show featuring classic  “playoff” characteristics:   high-speed play, momentum swings galore and physicality, with goaltending and special teams playing a key role.

“They’re very fast, they work hard and they move the puck very well,” said Rangers’ director of hockey operations John McDonald.  “They came out with guns ablazing.”

The AppleJacks were fresh off their six-game victory over the New Hamburg Firebirds in the Doherty Division final last Saturday night, while the Rangers were not-so-fresh off their five-game triumph over Grimsby way back last Wednesday.  And the layoff showed.  Wellesley dominated the early going, with the Ranger defence back on their heels and labouring to clear their zone.

“I think our biggest issue was that we haven’t had game-like situations for a week now,” said Ranger forward Ryan Burke, “and we just didn’t really have that push in our game as we normally would.”

That the Rangers were able to emerge from that entanglement (during which they were outshot by the AppleJacks 17-11) with no damage was largely due to the diligence of goaltender Tiago Rocha,  who was making his 11th consecutive start in the post-season, and who showed the same coolness under fire that was on display in his shutout effort in the clinching game against Grimsby.

A couple of penalties to Wellesley midway through the frame gave Glanbrook a brief respite and the chance to flex their offensive muscles somewhat but without result, and the balance tilted back in Wellesley’s favour for the rest of the first and into the second period.  But there were signs that a change might be imminent.  The Rangers survived a couple of AppleJack power plays and it looked that they were starting to feel their legs at last.

“Between periods, we talked about attacking more, getting in on our forecheck and moving our feet quicker,” said McDonald.  “We also changed a couple of things in our own end to help us find ways to move the puck out.”

And at 14:55 of the middle stanza, a breakthrough came.  Owen Johnston swept in from the left side, picked a loose puck out of a mass of players by the Wellesley net and flipped a shot past netminder Noah Bender for the contest’s opening goal.

“It was just kind of a broken play,” said Johnston.  “Gobi’s  (Sean Golebiowski) shot got blocked and I just kept whacking until it went in.”

One-goal leads are flimsy at best, especially in the playoffs when the slightest error or indiscretion can lead to catastrophe.  And that’s what appeared to be Glanbrook’s fate when Golebiowski was assessed a four-minute penalty for head contact late in the second period.  It took a while, but early in the third, Wellesley capitalized — devastatingly.

Isiah Katsube connected on the power-play just 50 seconds in, and Carson Wickie put the AppleJacks ahead a couple of minutes later.  But there was still plenty of hockey left and the Rangers weren’t ready to concede just yet.

“We have come a long way in dealing with adversity,” said Johnston.  “Everyone knew we weren’t out of it.  We just had to do the things it takes to win.”

And, putting that reasoning into practise, Burke provided the spark the Rangers needed to rouse themselves.  While enjoying a man advantage, Burke made a rush into the Wellesley zone, skirted around a defender and cut for the net and across the goalmouth.  He seemingly went too far, but spun back and fired a shot that beat Bender on the short side to knot the game at 2-2 with just under six minutes remaining.

“When I scored, I think that gave the team the boost we needed and helped us realize that we were still in the game,” Burke said.  “It also kind of got me rolling to help the boys finish off the game and capture the win.”

What Burke was referring to was the decisive goal, which came just over a minute later when he repeated the same manoeuvre, only this time, he slid the puck across ice to Cooper Hood in the slot and he netted his fourth tally of the playoffs to put the Rangers back in the lead.

Thereafter, it was man the barricades and the Ranger defence held until Johnston beat a Wellesley defender in a foot race for a loose puck and deposited his second goal of the game into the empty net  to conclude the comeback, and send the Rangers into Game 2 in Wellesley with a surge of momentum … and a couple of goals to focus on.

“We definitely have to start better,” said Johnston.  “And play more physically.”

NOTES:  Rangers forward Terry Bridgland sat out the game with an upper-body injury … Karter Doohan left the game in the second period with an injury suffered when he crashed into the boards … Forward Jackson Gruber is expected to return to action on Friday night in Game 2 in Wellesley.  He’s been sidelined since Feb. 2 with a lower-body injury … Rocha faced 38 shots, the most he’s faced in the post-season, turning aside 36 to notch his ninth win …  Although the game was very physical, only 20 minutes in penalties were assessed, 10 to each team.