When it was announced that the West Auckland Admirals would be hosting a Friday night playoff game with puck drop set for 5pm, followers of the NZIHL could be forgiven for being apprehensive of the possible attendance.
Peak hour traffic in Auckland is not great most days, but it’s particularly worse on a Friday afternoon. Your likely options were to either: a) get out of work early somehow, or b) battle the NorthWestern and make it in time for the second period, or perhaps later still.
And yet, the Admirals faithful came in numbers to support their boys in blue as they faced the Dunedin Thunder in the league’s inaugural 2v3 playoff game. The winner of this game would advance through to the Birgel Cup Finals to face the daunting Skycity Stampede who are in the hunt for a fourth consecutive title.
The Thunder came out swinging, looking to silence the home crowd as captain Paris Heyd scored within the first minute of play – his centring pass into the crease taking a fortuitous bounce off goaltender Csaba Kercso-Magos’ pads and in. It definitely looked like the Dunedin side had come to play in this do-or-die matchup.
Speaking with Puck Yeah afterwards, Heyd mentioned that a fast, physical style was all part of their game plan. “You’ve got to get in there and try intimidate them a little bit, the easiest way to do that is finish the hits and make them a bit nervous of what’s happening and hope that creates some turnovers,” the Thunder captain elaborated.
Andy Hart tied things up for West Auckland later in the first before the intensity ramped up in the second period. It’s a shame the NZIHL doesn’t officially track hits as a stat because there were several board-rattling checks in the second tilt alone, with Heyd practicing what he preached, tallying several hits himself.
The only penalties of the game all came in that second twenty – all three giving Dunedin the man advantage. In a season that saw a fair share of games threatening to reach triple digits, a total of only six PIMs was refreshing. The action was free-flowing, resulting in clean, fast-paced exciting hockey that was a joy to watch for all those in the stands.
Unfortunately the Thunder’s specialty teams couldn’t capitalise on their chances, the disappointment clear on the face of alternate captain Brandon Egli post-match, “We just couldn’t really get our break out together and in a game like this it’s really a game of inches…I think we made a couple of mistakes that cost us there.”
As the puck dropped for the third period, the score remained tied and Paradice Avondale was rocking with announcer Cam Green in full voice. The fans were right there with him, chanting and cheering every key save made by Kercso-Magos, and with sustained pressure, the goals started to come for the Admirals – Shaun Harrison tallying two in quick succession to put the home side ahead by two, causing the Thunder head coach Jeff Avery to take a timeout to regroup.
Dunedin’s Joe Orr clawed one back as the away team threw everything they had at the Admirals net, but in the end the Admirals held on for the 4-2 victory, much to the delight and relief of the home crowd. There were plenty of times throughout the game where the Thunder looked threatening, a different bounce of the puck could have seen what one of this season’s greatest games go a different way.
As the clock hit zero, Kercso-Magos jumped for joy with his teammates mobbing him in the crease, celebrating their big victory. His 40-save performance proving to be a key factor as he was awarded the first star of the match. “He’s one of those guys that just plays big in pressure games like this, so it’s really good to see him step up and take that role. He played amazing tonight, so he definitely deserved the first star…there will be a few beers for him tonight I think,” said Admirals forward Dale Harrop.
Defenseman Gareth McLeish recalled matter-of-factly what was said in the locker room by head coach Kercso-Magos Sr. during the second intermission that helped spur on the Admirals after such an intense forty minutes of hockey. “He told us to keep our heads and just keep doing what we were doing…it gets a bit chippy at times but we’ve just got to keep playing so that we don’t end up in the (penalty) box and give ourselves a disadvantage. We finished off pretty well there, we didn’t have any penalties in the third period, barring the one that carried over from the second, so we did what he asked and pulled it off.”
After such a strong showing, the Thunder were understandably dejected by the loss but both Paris Heyd and Brandon Egli remained optimistic about what this Dunedin side is capable of.
“This year was a step forward, I think we might’ve overachieved a little bit but we just gotta take this (loss) for what it is, it’s a lesson learned and just come back next year as a stronger core,” said Egli.
Heyd explained his teammate’s point further by saying, “It’s just a real fun place to play and I think when you’re having fun you get people making the most of their opportunities, everyone loves it, it’s fun to come to the rink, it’s just that sort of atmosphere so as long as we can build on that, everyone’s experienced now with our first playoffs in a few years…I think we’re gonna build on that and come back stronger next year.”
As for the Admirals, their sights are now firmly set on the Stampede and winning the Birgel Cup for the first time in franchise history. They will host game one this Saturday, looking to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series before traveling down to Queenstown the following week.
Watch the game recap video below for highlights and more interviews:
Photos by Mike Froger