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The Peninsula Panthers captured the VIJHL Championship with a comeback and overtime 4-3 victory to close out the Oceanside Generals in Game 6 in front of a packed house in the friendly confines of the Panorama Recreation Centre Friday night.

The Peninsula Panthers jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, but it took until Game 6 for the Club to finally close the deal. Logan Speirs scored with 1:43 left to knot the score at 3-3 and then scored the OT winner at the 1:36 mark to seal up the VIJHL Championship.

With 2:05 left in the game, the whistle sounded and the stripes directed a faceoff to the right of Oceanside Generals Goaltender Ashton Sadauskas. There was a real likelihood that the Peninsula Panthers would be making a trip up to Parksville on Monday evening for Game 7 as they trailed the Generals 4-3 with timeclock obviously as much an enemy as the Generals Hockey Club. Several seconds after the puck was dropped, it popped out to the left point and onto the stick of Panthers 4-year veteran Hunter Jensen. Jensen dipsy-doodled down the left wall and got the puck to Captain Riley Braun and from there the disk found its way onto the stick of linemate Logan Speirs. Speirs had a touch angle but Sadauskas was trying to come across the crease and he was left going into the prone position when Speirs was about to unload. And unload he did and when the shot only was stopped by the mesh at the back of the net behind the visitor’s stopper, the scoreboard became knotted at 3-3 and the capacity crowd in the friendly confines of the Panorama Recreation Centre absolutely exploded!

It did not look good in the very early going as the Generals opened up a 2-0 lead only 1:36 into the initial stanza. Carter Johnson broke in on the backhand only 30 seconds removed from the opening faceoff and his backhand somehow eluded Panthers’ starter Ashton Lukan for the first goal of the contest. And just 66 seconds later, Generals’ Evan Dyce took a cross ice pass from the slick and skilled Brendan Carlson and he ripped it past Lukan for the Generals 2nd tally in as many shots. The Coaching staff for the Cats had seen enough and Lukan was pulled in favour of Brady Kelly. It was perhaps the turning point in the game. The Panthers seemed to wake just a bit and at the 6:19 mark, the speedster Aleko Sdrakas intercepted a Generals’ pass through the middle of the ice and broke in all alone on Sadauskas. And Sdrakas made no mistake snapping a shot high on the blocker side to put the Panthers back on the map. Speirs was next to beat the Oceanside netminder when at the 8:43 mark, he hit paydirt on helpers from Riley Braun and Jensen and suddenly the score was tied at 2-2 with not even nine minutes having been expired. Both Kelly and Sadauskas made some key saves and the two teams skated to the first intermission with a couple goals each.

The Panthers dominated the 2nd stanza with the shots on goal at the end of the period heavily in favour of the home side by a 22-11 count. But neither squad had hit paydirt and the game would be decided in the 3rd period and/or overtime. Although no goals were scored, the saves from both targets were exceptional at times.

The drama started at the 8:42 mark of the final frame when a shot went off a Panthers’ shin pad, bounced over the net and somehow reappeared back in front on a bad bounce and landed behind Kelly for a Generals go-ahead goal. Trey Boylan was awarded the unassisted goal. The Panthers pressed for the equalizer and eventually it was Speirs with his 2nd of the night.

But Speirs was not yet finished on the scoresheet. At the 19:23 mark, he raced down the left side and seemed to have Carlson beat on the way to Sadauskas. Speirs went around the defenceman and seemed to get a small nudge but it was enough to take him into the goaltender. He was whistled for Goaltender Interference and now the Panthers would need to kill off the all-important two minutes. And they did. The first 37 seconds were killed at the end of the period and the Panthers were still on the penalty kill with 1:23 left going into the first overtime stanza. There were a couple quality chances and with just seconds remaining in the Speirs infraction, a Generals’ forward found himself wide open with Kelly out of position. He unloaded but Captain Riley Braun dove out and blocked the shot which for all intents and purposes would have been an overtime winner for the visitors. The puck was gathered in and dumped down the ice killing off most of the waning seconds of the penalty. The Generals gathered in the disk behind their own net and worked it up the right side and into the neutral zone just as Speirs’ penalty had expired. He stepped out of the penalty box much to the surprise of the Generals forwards and stopped the rush in its tracks. Speirs then moved the puck past a would-be defender and just over the Generals blueline where the speedy Ryan Grambart picked up the puck in full flight. Grambart wheeled down behind Sadauskas and threw the puck out front into a crowd. Speirs gathered in the disk almost from the same spot where he had scored just minutes earlier when he tied the game at 3-3 to force overtime. And once again, the talented Speirs corralled the disk and beat Sadauskas just as he had done with 1:43 left in regulation to force the extra period. But this goal was for all the marbles, a VIJHL Championship marker!

The Cats exploded off their bench to join the party which had formed on the half wall to the left of the Oceanside Generals. At one point, Aleko Sdrakas skated hard off the ice and came back with the Grant Gilbertson jersey which has been so coveted by every member of the team since his tragic death back on January 3rd in a motor vehicle accident while on the way to practice. The Organization had vowed the balance of the season would be played in memory of their fallen friend and undoubtedly Gilbertson could not have possibly written a better end to the story.

The two teams shook hands and then the Panthers were awarded with the League Trophy and Banner. Photos and more on-ice celebration ensued before the players and staff had a meeting in the dressing room to discuss the upcoming Cyclone Taylor Cup Championship Tournament set to go in Ladner, B.C. from April 7-10.

“This game was a microcosm of our season, it really was,” quipped Panthers GM Pete Zubersky. “We had so much adversity this year. We lost our Photographer Gordon Lee in October. And then we lost our Coach in late November with some medical issues. And of course, Grant’s death hit us all like a ton of bricks. I was unsure at times this season if some of our guys could continue playing the game. They were all going through so much adversity and it was just a monumental load each of them carried. But they relied on each other and came out the other end. Tonight was no different. After being up 3-0 in the series, Oceanside won the next two and really did have the momentum in the series. And they came out and scored on their first two shots and it did not look good. But our guys simply refused to give in and they refused to give up. After climbing the hill, the Gens got a lucky goal to go ahead in the 3rd period but even with under two minutes to go, we would not go away. And Speirs, who has been just amazing this season, played Superman not once but twice late to take us to a VIJHL Championship win. I actually feel sorry for the Generals. They could not beat us tonight because we had an angel riding on our collective shoulder. We talked about that angel in the dressing room before the game. That angel decided to wait a lot longer than we would have hoped. Grant was like that! He always had a way to play a trick on everyone. He wanted to make us sweat just a little bit, but he was there for us and we knew he would be.”

The Panthers players had long exited the rink and the Generals were just leaving after having a post-game meal when two of the Assistant Coaches from the Generals threw out a couple comments to Zubersky.

“They were very gracious and one of their coaches said the ending to this Championship Series was truly storybook.”

Grant decided to make it that way.

The Panthers hold their Wrap-up Awards Banquet Saturday night and then will prepare for the Provincial Championship starting on Thursday afternoon at 3:30 pm when they play the PJHL Champion Langley squad. And the Club hopes that their Angel is up to the task for their four remaining games in this season.

Grant Gilbertson…..Forever a Panther.