After a very quick first quarter of the season, the Canterbury Red Devils have been through a full season’s worth of ups and downs already, and coach Anatoly Khorozov seems to finally be righting the once wayward ship.
In the first weekend of the year, Canterbury had a very forgettable effort against the emerging Botany Swarm. Along with picking up no points from two losses, the club was undisciplined, and looked to otherwise be searching for its identity. Tough-guy attitudes and mental mistakes led to a long couple of days in East Auckland, with penalty minutes adding up – Ukrainian import Tolstushko had 18 PIMs in one game alone.
Almost as if they just had the weekend purged, the second round saw the Red Devils coming home to the Alpine Ice Arena in need of some good karma, and better discipline against their neighbours from the south, the Dunedin Thunder.
Dunedin seemed to be expecting a physical, tough-guy attitude from the Devils as they poised themselves in Saturday’s first period for what they thought would be a backyard brawl. What they got instead was a steady dose of well-coached hockey that took advantage of turnovers and poor positioning. In the first two frames, the Devils managed a nearly unbelievable 5-1 lead. And then it happened.
As had been the case in the first weekend, the Devils have been prone to two major weaknesses thus far in the early campaign; penalties in bunches, followed by giving up multiple goals within short periods of play. The third period, and specifically the first half of Saturday’s third was all Dunedin. Five goals in 9:55 seemed to seal a magnificent collapse by Canterbury. Suddenly down 6-5 with half a period to go, it seemed ripe for the Red Devils to drive off the preverbal cliff.
Instead, the opposite happened. Canterbury played disciplined, penalty free hockey, didn’t panic, and played a very hard-fought last ten minutes with a goal and a very solid defensive effort. They punished what was probably Dunedin’s only big mistake to tie the game, and then prevented any mental cramps of their own to take the game to overtime.
In overtime, it was Dunedin that lost their mental edge. Starting with 5 seconds to go in regulation with a completely unnecessary delay of game penalty, several minor penalties followed for the Thunder. They played the entire overtime shorthanded, and eventually conceded the winning goal after 4 minutes of almost all two-man advantage ice time.
And with that, the sellout crowd knew that the Red Devils were on their way back to being a contending club. Instead of folding and being willing to mail in another season, the grit and determination to fight back was evident to everyone who came out to cheer them on.
That momentum carried into Sunday’s match as well. After the first period, the Devils found themselves up 3-1. Solid play by the Devils, avoiding bad penalties, and a little luck with Kane Easterbrook having a below average afternoon in goal for Dunedin allowed for a re-do. Of course, Sunday turned out to be nothing like Saturday.
Instead of piling onto a lead, Dunedin led the charge to stay in the game. After hard skating and hustle throughout the second period, the Thunder were starting to frustrate the Devils on home ice. Suddenly 4-3, Canterbury was staring over that same damn cliff for the fourth time in four games. They’d passed the challenge finally in their third attempt, but the fourth game brought on a twist.
Officially with 1 second remaining in the second, the stat sheet shows a major penalty called on Dean Tonks for abuse of officials. Nik Stefanissin served the penalty at the start of the third period, five minutes in the box for the Red Devils… the PA announced that it was officially a bench penalty, and I don’t think we’ll ever really know what happened or what was said. But this was the turning point for the game – it had to be given the prior discipline issues.
And then, the most promising thing happened for the Red Devils. For five straight minutes, the penalty kill ground out what was an amazing effort to kill the clock with effort from all sides. Hustle from every player on every shift, and putting Dunedin back on their heels, Canterbury dug themselves out of the mess they were in. Once that happened, the goals started flowing.
Without the fear of being off the ice, the Devils won several key faceoffs and made the most of their offensive opportunities. Suddenly up 6-4, there was yet another turning point in the game. They finally had a chance to finish off a game in regulation and get all three points.
And finish it they did. Solid forechecking kept Paris Heyd from getting odd-man opportunities, his specialty, and situational awareness and adjustments kept Dunedin’s speedster Orr from getting any significant opportunities with his skating. This combination, along with double-teaming Gavoille led to isolation and poor passing lanes for the Thunder.
Yoeman’s work by Chris Eaden getting back for multiple icing calls and breaking up developing odd-man situations killed off the game in the same way they closed Saturday’s game.
Though different in how it happened, the clinical focus of Khorozov’s club in the last 10 minutes of the game show that the Devils are prepared and coached up to make a turnaround season in 2018.
It’s hard to say whether the momentum will continue, or if this was just a one-off amazing series with the Thunder, but the pieces are in place. If the team continues to fight through the mental mistakes, continuing to take better penalties, and not putting goaltender Barakauskas in odd-man rushes, the Red Devils could potentially have the pieces in place to make a run for the Birgel Cup once again.
Of course the most intriguing part of this story is that the same potential exists for implosion and mental errors, and thus is the story of a team in transition. And that’s what makes the Canterbury Red Devils an absolute must-watch this season. Whatever it ends up becoming, it’s going to be the best ticket in town this winter.
All photos by Josh Fraser.