Sports

Merchants lead Firebirds 2-0 in quarterfinal series

By Colin Percy

The Norwich Merchants rode into the playoffs riding high after ending the season by winning nine of 11 games and their prize was a first round playoff date against a familiar foe – the New Hamburg Firebirds.

Norwich and New Hamburg have met in the playoffs six of the past seven years, including last year's first round series that saw New Hamburg sweep away the Merchants in four straight games. Norwich entered this year with a chip on their shoulder and they got their first chance to exact revenge on Friday, Feb. 3 with the series opener in New Hamburg.

The Firebirds opened the scoring 1:39 into the game, but the Merchants responded quickly when Troy Lamoure fired a wrist shot from the point 1:04 later. Blake Pow gave Norwich their first lead 7:23 into the second period when he dangled home a short-handed marker. New Hamburg tied the game 2:10 later and regained their one-goal advantage 19 seconds after that, forcing Norwich to play comeback in the third period. That comeback started quickly when Lamoure wired home his second of the game 48 seconds into the third period. Matt Caskanette buried a powerplay tally with 14 minutes left to give Norwich a one-goal lead. That was followed by goal number two for Pow 4:25 seconds after that. New Hamburg would make it 5-4 with 8:27 remaining.

A late Norwich penalty gave New Hamburg a man advantage with three minutes left. Norwich would kill it off, however were still in penalty kill mode as the Firebirds pulled their goalie in favour of an extra attacker. A scramble in front of Norwich's net saw the puck slide to New Hamburg's Nathan Grossi who wired home an equalizer with 1.3 seconds left on the clock, sending the teams to overtime.

The Firebirds pressed hard in the early going, but Norwich countered with a breakout from their own end that saw Jordan Gillis slide over a beautiful pass to Brett Parsons who made no mistake on the breakaway, sliding in the game winner 4:31 into the extra game and handing Norwich the crucial Game One victory with a 6-5 scoreline. Jon Damm, Jesse Dunn, Gillis (2), Matt Larochelle, Pow, Mason Cooper, Brandon Velda (2) and Nathan Innes notched assists for Norwich while Tyler Gubesch made 29 saves in the game that saw New Hamburg out-shoot Norwich 34-30.

Norwich looked to maintain home ice advantage when they hosted Game Two of the series on Saturday night, Feb. 4. Gillis opened the scoring roofing a wrist shot 3:13 into the game. Derek Slaght popped in his first off the playoffs with 33 seconds left in the period handing Norwich a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes.

New Hamburg got on the board 13:48 into the second period, but John Foreman slipped in a goal with 1:49 remaining in the second to maintain Norwich's two-goal lead after 40 minutes. The Firebirds cut the lead back to 3:04 into the third period.

The teams would battle back and forth through the final frame trading big hits and scoring chances, but nothing would materialize until late in the period. For the second straight night, Norwich had to kill off a penalty late in the game. New Hamburg pulled their goalie in the final two minutes making it a 6-on-4 advantage. Slaght would slide the puck into the neutral zone from his own end onto the stick of Parsons who floated in an empty net, short-handed goal from center ice with 1:32 remaining to restore Norwich's two-goal lead.

That empty netter would prove crucial as the Firebirds poked home a goal with 30 seconds left, however Norwich held on for the 4-3 win, sending the Norwich fans home happy and handing the Merchants a 2-0 series lead. Lamoure (2), Parsons, Slaght, Cooper, Larochelle and Ryan Dayman recorded assists for Norwich while Gubesch made 21 saves in the game where Norwich out-shot their opponents 34-24.

Norwich will look to make it three in a row when they play Game 3 in New Hamburg on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. Game 4 will go on Sunday afternoon in Norwich at 2 p.m. Game 5, if necessary, will be on Monday in New Hamburg at 7:30 p.m.

OVERTIME

Tickets are now available for the Norwich Merchants' Spring Fish Fry. The event takes place on Saturday, April 15 in the auditorium of the Norwich Community Centre and features an all-you-can-eat perch and pickerel dinner with all the fixings, followed by a dance with DJ. There will also be a live and silent auction at the event. Tickets are only $30/person and are available from all Merchants executive members or by calling/texting 519-532-6704.