INNISFAIL — The Bentley Generals probably had no business completing a sweep of the Innisfail Eagles in Friday’s fourth game of the provincial senior AAA hockey championship series.
But as the old adage goes, good teams find a way to win and the Bentley Generals proved that with a 6-5 overtime conquest of the host Eagles before an overflow crowd at the Innisfail Arena.
Randall Gelech connected from a scramble 5:06 into the extra period to give the Generals their eighth Alberta title and a date with the Powell River, B.C., Regals in the McKenzie Cup, a best-of-five set starting April 3 at the Red Deer Arena. The winner will advance to the Allan Cup tournament April 14-19 at Dundas, Ont.
“We’ve got a certain system and a certain culture in our room that we expect to win every night, that’s why we play this game,” said Gelech. “It wasn’t easy tonight, it was back and forth and an ugly game. I’m sure it was entertaining for the fans, but we found a way to win and that’s what we set out to do.”
The Eagles carried the play big time in the opening frame, outshooting their guests 19-6. Yet, the Generals trailed only 3-2 after 20 minutes, and after falling behind 4-2 early in the second period fired three consecutive goals before Innisfail drew even and forced overtime with a late third-period marker from Shawn Bates.
Eagles forwards Kevin Smyth and Michael Kneeland scored in the first four minutes of the game. The Generals got one back when Scott Kalinchuk’s power-play point shot beat a screened Innisfail netminder Jonathan Larose, the Eagles restored their two-goal cushion on a man-advantage tally from Dan Shermerhorn, and the visitors pulled to within one when defenceman Craig Weller scored on the power play in the final minute.
“They came out strong and we knew they would,” said Gelech. “They’re well-coached and they have a good squad over there. They’re going to come out hard. Being down three-oh, they’re playing for their playoff lives. We weathered the storm and luckily we answered back with a couple of goals.”
Bates beat Generals goaltender Travis Yonkman high to the blocker side just 26 seconds into the second period and the Eagles appeared to have momentum on their side once again.
However, Chris Neiszner pulled Bentley to within one at 2:27 and Kalinchuk evened the count with his second of the evening three minutes later. That spelled the end for Larose, who stopped six of 10 shots before being replaced by Bryce Luker, who in turn blocked 16 of the 18 shots he faced the rest of the way.
Gelech cashed a rebound five minutes into the third period to give the visitors their first lead of the game and the Gens went into lockdown mode until forward Keenan Desmet drew a tripping penalty to gave the Eagles a later power-play opportunity.
Bates took full advantage of the man-advantage situation when he stepped around a Bentley defenceman and wired a shot to the far low corner.
The Eagles had another late power play when Sean Robertson was fingered for high sticking at 19:27 — an infraction that carried into the overtime period — but the Generals got a couple of big saves from Yonkman while killing the penalty and then the extra-time winner from Gelech.
“We knew what we were going to get early in the game,” said Bentley head coach Ryan Tobler. “They (Eagles) didn’t quit all series, or all year. That’s just the way they played. We just kept chipping away and found a way to hang in this game, much like they did in Game 3.
“You look at the series and see 4-0, but it was a closer series than that. It was a great series with two teams giving it their all. There were gutsy efforts on both sides and it was just fun to be a part of, for sure.”
Tobler wasn’t dispelling the notion that good teams simply find ways to win.
“That’s exactly it. The character in that room just speaks volumes,” he said, nodding towards the Generals dressing room. “You go down a couple of goals, the guys pull together, they never push apart. That can’t be under-stated. We have a lot of guys who have played together for a long time and it’s a tight room and you saw it tonight. There was no quit in these guys and I’m very proud.”
While Yonkman was beaten for five goals, he also turned aside 30 shots, including four in the short overtime.
“They (Eagles) had a game plan to get players and pucks to the net and they did it well. The goals they scored were well-earned,” said Tobler.
“But Travis was there for us tonight and he’s done it all year for us. He’s been great and he’s been clutch. He’s just found a way to bear down when we need him the most. Again, he’s won games for us and we’re going to need him even more now moving forward.”
Eagles head coach Brian Sutter, who coached the Generals for several years before moving behind the Innisfail bench at the start of the 2012-13 season, bemoaned his club’s inability to protect a pair of two-goal leads.
“The game could have gone either way. Three of the games in this series could have gone either way,” said Sutter. “We should have been up 3-0 or 3-1 after the first period tonight, then we’re up 4-2 early in the second.
“I have a lot of respect for them (Generals), but they didn’t have to work hard in this series for their goals. It’s a game of inches and you have to learn how to win. I know what it was like when I went there (Bentley). They didn’t know how to win. We talked about winning and learned how to win and (Tobler) has done a good job of keeping them where they should be.”
The Eagles come a long way since winning a single game in 2011-12. Last season, Sutter’s crew captured the provincial AA crown and this winter became a force at the next level.
“We knew we had to get better this year and we did, even though we had a real young group,” said Sutter. “But again, you have to learn how to win. Guys who say they don’t know how to win, you don’t want them around. Guys who want to win, they do it.
“We came a country mile this season and we’ll take another step next year. We should be going back to Red Deer for a fifth game, but give them (Generals) credit for what they did. It doesn’t disappoint me, it pisses me off. But you have to take it as a positive and build on it.”