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BELLEVILLE, ON - Another white knuckle night at the Yardmen on Tuesday followed an extensive plotline that included four consecutive first period powerplays, outstanding goaltending at both ends, a nine minute nightmare and a dramatic finish; all the things that make OHL playoff hockey what it is.
Bulls fans would go home happy for a second consecutive game as the big horse on the Bulls blueline, Brady Austin, capped off an outstanding Tuesday night effort with a big overtime finish for his first career OHL playoff goal.
The Belleville win was certainly in doubt despite an explosive start to the game. It took Michael Curtis just 52 seconds to put the Bulls ahead as a great first shift by the Curtis-Mayer-Judson trio got the upperhand on their skilled Ottawa counterparts. Belleville's transition game proved superior as the Bulls cut through the neutral zone like a hot knife through butter, taking advantage of the gaps the 67's gave them to eventually find Curtis busting in through the high slot to beat Petr Mrazek with a hard shot over the blocker.
Curtis' third goal of the series had the Yardmen rocking as the cowbells were loud and proud not even a minute into the game. Under two minutes later, the roof came off the rink again as the Bulls' powerplay snapped out of an 0 for 16 drought that dates back to March 16th. A usual suspect on the Belleville man advantage, Brendan Gaunce got his stick on a rebound that was rolling helplessly through the slot to put the Bulls ahead 2-0 at 3:23. Daniil Zharkov played a big part in the goal, finding Luke Judson in the slot who fired a low shot on the pads of Mrazek, inspiring a rebound.
Despite allowing two early goals, Mrazek would stay composed in the Ottawa goal, holding his team in the game until they could get their feet under them. The Bulls outshot Ottawa 14-6 in the first period, controlling in the scoring chances department 9-2. If not for the stellar play of Mrazek in the first, Ottawa may not have been able to make things so interesting late in the game.
The Bulls had ample opportunity to bury the 67's in the moments that followed, enjoying six consecutive powerplays. Credit the Bulls for moving their feet and battling hard as they drew the 67's into penalties on their big ice surface.
The second frame was a better one for Ottawa as Malcolm Subban displayed his arsenal of tools and had a little bit of luck too. The 67's nearly got on the board midway through the second when Brett Gustavsen cut in over the blueline and got a hard shot away from the hash marks that Subban turned aside. The rebound sat loose to the left of the Bulls goaltender, but Gustavsen fired his attempt off the iron as the Bulls remained ahead by two.
Ottawa seemed to be finding their offensive creativity as Subban came up big moments later when he stopped Tyler Toffoli on a shorthanded two-on-one with a nice stick save.
The two teams weren't able to settle anything in the second frame as they both registered 14 shots on goal with Belleville carrying a 2-0 lead into the third.
Three goal leads they say, are the most dangerous ones to have in hockey. The Bulls got one 8:31 into the third when Austen Brassard ended a 14 game scoring drought. Strong work by Jake Worrad inside the Ottawa blueline resulted in an odd-man opportunity down low with Joseph Cramarossa directing a puck towards the goal. Mrazek wasn't able to corral the puck in front of him as it came loose for Brassard who swooped through the goal mouth and stuffed the puck over the goal line. It seemed like it was all Bulls at that point.
The tides began to turn just over two minutes later at 10:47 when Carter Sandlak went off to the box for high sticking on Ottawa's Gustavsen. Emotions got heated before the play was blown dead as Jake Worrad and Remy Giftopoulos dropped the gloves deep inside the Belleville zone. The 67's seemed to feed off the sudden surge in adrenaline and were also on just their third powerplay of the evening. Just 19 seconds into the advantage, Tyler Toffoli won a battle along the wall in the offensive zone, walked the top of the right circle and blasted a slapshot past the blocker hand of Subban to give the 67's some life at 11:07.
The snowball soon turned into an avalanche as big power forward Ryan Van Stralen collected the garbage at 16:14 when Ottawa's crafty transition game paid dividends. Van Stralen fanned on his initial attempt, sending a rolling puck into the shin pad of Brady Austin only for the puck to carom back out on to Van Stralen's stick with Subban caught out of position. The Prescott native had his 67's back within one with plenty of hockey left and an opportunity to stake themselves out to a 3-1 series lead.
The comeback was complete at 18:22 when the Bulls, who had seemingly stopped skating at the pace which they once had, got burned on a four-on-four situation inside their own blueline. Blueliner Jake Cardwell was rewarded for being the late man into the offensive zone as a puck came in his direction and he made no mistake, beating Subban with a low shot on the glove side to tie the game up at three.
The 2,363 on hand in Belleville were stunned as the Bulls clung for life and managed to haul the game over into overtime.
"We didn't want to dwell too much on the negative in that dressing room," said Bulls Assistant Coach Jake Grimes. "We actually reviewed the goals on video quickly without belabouring our errors, we just wanted the guys to see what was happening and how their goals were coming. From that point onward, we prepared for the coming period and focused on the positive."
The Bulls came out refreshed and both teams played a cautious opening five minutes of OT before a hero emerged.
Collected the puck behind his own goal line, Brady Austin showed off his great speed for a 6'4", 230 pound blueliner, cutting through the neutral zone and deking past Van Stralen inside the Ottawa blueline before using Jake Cardwell as a screen to label a wrister under the glove of Mrazek at 7:46. The Bulls managed to overcome the mental obstacle of surrendering a three goal lead in a span of 7:15 to come back and beat one of the OHL's best hockey clubs and tie the series at two.
"That was by far the biggest goal of my life," said Austin bewildered. "I just kind of went with the flow when I saw their neutral zone trap. The forward stuck with our winger and it opened up the middle and I just threw it toward the net hoping for a goal."
"We knew what Ottawa is capable of well in advance of tonight," continued Austin. "They're an older team and they never give up. They have a lot of firepower. I think we should be proud of ourselves for getting into what's a two out of three series from this point forward. We deserve to be in this situation."
The Bulls set their sights on Friday night's game five back in Ottawa, a building they played very well in in both games one and two of the series despite a pair of close losses. Friday's game will be aired across Canada on Sportsnet as part of their CHL Friday Night Hockey Series. Bulls fans can also come and support the team by registering for the fan bus that heads to Ottawa at 3:00pm on Friday (DETAILS HERE).
The Bulls will be back in Belleville for game six of the series on Monday night at 7:05pm. Season ticket holders have until Saturday at 5:00pm to pick up their tickets before they are released to the general public.
Tune into AM 800 CJBQ at 6:50pm on Friday night as Bulls voice Jack Miller brings you pre-game coverage. The game will also be aired on Sportsnet. For tickets to Monday night's game, contact the Bulls Box Office at 613-966-8338.