IROQUOIS FALLS - Cody Gratton buried a backhand shot high over a sprawled Chet Tooker to lift the Cochrane Crunch to a 4-3 overtime win over the Abitibi Eskimos at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night.
The Eskimos had dominated the extra frame, swarming all over the Crunch end of the ice but goalie Ben Auger came up with two huge saves to keep the home side from netting the game winner before a Jackson Atkinson stretch pass sent Gratton in all alone on the Eskimos puck stopper 1:41 into the first overtime period.
Gratton, whose unassisted short-handed breakaway goal had tied the game at 3-3 just 50 seconds after the Eskimos had taken a 3-2 lead on Ryan Kerr’s power-play marker, his second goal of the season, made the most of the Crunch’s only scoring chance in overtime.
“On the short-handed goal, I got a lucky bounce and just ended up going in on a breakaway and I beat the goalie on the backhand,” Gratton said.
“It felt pretty good to tie the game for the boys.
“(On the overtime goal) I couldn’t believe that Jackson passed the puck so well. Good for the kid.
“I was coming down and thinking about shooting high blocker side, but then I decided to go backhand, because I had already beaten him once.”
Gratton leads the NOJHL in points (45), goals scored (26), and game-winning goals (5), but perhaps his most amazing stat is the eight short-handed goals he has scored — double the four scored by Nicolas Tassone, of the Soo Thunderbirds, who sits in second place.
“I am not too sure what the secret to my success short-handed is,” Gratton said.
“I think our D move the puck up well and I just get lucky bounces.”
The back-and-forth game saw the team exchange first-period goals, with Brady Clouthier getting the Eskimos on the board first, with his 18th goal of the season, and Henry Berger netting his first goal in a Crunch uniform, when he one-timed a cross-crease pass on the power play.
Berger’s second goal of the game and season put the Crunch in front 2-1 midway through the second period, but defenceman Brennan Roy’s 12th goal of the season, a power-play marker, tied the game at 2-2 heading into the third period.
Crunch coach, general manager and owner Ryan Leonard was much happier with the outcome of Saturday night’s game than he had been with the first half of the home-and-home series 24 hours earlier.
“I was really happy with the effort tonight,” he said.
“How couldn’t I be happy. We battled adversity tonight. We had a four-minute penalty called against us in the third period and we scored a short-handed goal.
“We lost two defencemen (Dustin Deagau and Brandon Janveau) and we were playing with four D the last half of the game.
“That is why we had to call a timeout, just to get the defence some rest. We were battling with just four guys and two of them were rookies.”
The overtime frame did not start off too well for the Crunch, as they spent most of it trapped in their own zone.
“They had us hemmed in there for about a minute and a half, but finally we got some goaltending to save our bacon, which we have been looking for all year,” Leonard said.
“He (Auger) showed up tonight, when we needed him and he gave us the opportunity to win it in overtime.”
Leonard felt the game should have been decided without an extra frame.
“We missed seven breakaways, clear-cut breakaways,” he said.
“Cody missed three, Dustin missed three … and (Blake) Peavey missed one.
“So, we shouldn’t have gotten ourselves into that situation (needing overtime to secure the victory), but we did.
“We battled from start to finish and it was a good hockey game, from start to finish, and you can’t take nothing away from either team. It was a good hockey game, over all.”
Leonard was not too surprised by Gratton’s heroics.
“That is what a leader does,” he said.
“That is why he is one of our leaders and that is why he is leading the league in goals.
“He is streaky. Sometimes he doesn’t do what you want him to do and then all of a sudden he wakes up for a couple of shifts and fires up the boys and we feed off the energy.”
Leonard was also impressed with the play of one of the newest members of the team.
“You have to be happy with Henry Berger,” he said.
“It was only his second game with the team and I think he has four points now. He got two nice goals tonight. Him, Racek and Gratton are really connecting well on that line.
“Daniel Stagg’s line, with Aviv (Milner) and (Jason) Berube might not be on the scoresheet, but they were really dominant tonight, and the same with (Dustin) Cordeiro’s line, with Peavey and Reed Gregory, they really worked hard.
“We had three solid lines working tonight and it was just a good team effort.”
Despite the overtime loss, Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne was pleased to see his team pick up three of a possible four points on the weekend.
“It was night and day compared to the last two games against them (9-3 and 10-3 defeats),” he said.
“We are an improved club and we deserved to win tonight. We had some great chances.
“Chet kept us in there in the second period. He made some key saves and I thought we had better opportunities, but we didn’t capitalize … compliments to their young goalie.
“In OT … it happens. We know what they do but we were all over them. It was high risk for them and it worked. If we had intercepted that pass, we are going the other way four on three.
“That’s hockey. We are really proud of the way we played this weekend. Three out of four points is not a bad weekend.”
Clearly the Eskimos strategy heading into the overtime period was not to sit back and wait for the other team to make a mistake.
“We have a program to play four on four and we emphasize it,” Gagne said.
“If our defence see the play developing they are allowed to go in and jump in the play.
“We want puck possession. It is very simple. We would rather have puck possession than chasing it four on four and that is what we did. We had puck possession for all of the overtime, pretty much, and for two seconds they had puck possession and it’s a goal.”
Auger made 39 saves to pick up the victory for the Crunch, while Tooker turned aside 38 shots and was tagged with the loss.
The Eskimos will return to action Friday night when the host the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners in the first half of a home-and-home series at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls. The second half of the series will be played at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex in Kirkland Lake.
The Crunch, meanwhile, are off until Friday, Dec. 5, when they will begin a three-game road trip with a game against the Thunderbirds in Sault Ste. Marie.