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Houle denies Thunder

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The police were not called to the Tillsonburg Kinsmen/Memorial Arena Saturday evening.

But outright theft was committed in the pivotal fifth game of a WOAA Senior Men’s Hockey opening-round series clinched 4-2 by the Petrolia Squires over the Tillsonburg Thunder with a 2-1 win the following evening (Sunday) in Petrolia.

“Pretty much,” agreed Thunder captain Brad Streib Saturday evening following a 5-3 loss which included an empty-netter. “(Goalie Chris) Houle is pretty much their all-star.”

Minimal investigation was required – it was the usual suspect, easily identifiable by the fact he was wearing Petrolia Squires uniform number 34, and could be found frustratingly consistently inside or about the opposing goal crease.

Tillsonburg’s 53-35 advantage in shots on goal were an indication of the balance of play.

“Fifty-three?” responded Streib. “Unbelievable.”

Houle’s stellar effort dictated the outcome by making the Squires’ gameplan of hanging around, working hard, clogging up the neutral zone and capitalizing on fewer scoring opportunities an effective one, despite being outskated, outshot and outchanced by a wide margin.

“It’s definitely not for a lack of trying,” said Thunder assistant coach Phil Durham Saturday evening. “The guys are going hard, we’re getting shots.”

Tillsonburg’s goaltending has been solid, he added, with Saturday night, Ben Thomas coming up with some big saves when needed.

But while statistics rarely tell the whole story, comparing respective shots on goal through Saturday’s running scoring summary gives an indication of the quality of Houle’s performance.

The Squires’ Scott McPhail opened scoring on his team’s first shot of the game, a point at which Houle had been good on all six directed on his net. Tillsonburg’s Travis Lisabeth squared accounts at one with 6:56 remaining in the opening period, tucking the puck home inside Houle’s right post on assists to Justin Salt and Ryan Gaertner, the Thunder’s 16th shot compared to five for Petrolia at the time.

Petrolia’s Tyler Haddon eased the visitors back into a one-goal lead 1:25 later, his team’s seventh shot on goal compared to 18 for Tillsonburg.

Despite being outshot 30-10, Petrolia went up 3-1 at the 5:15 mark of the second frame, courtesy of a Jesse Drydack marker.

Mike Findlay responded for the Thunder with 8:18 left in the period, slapping home his team’s 37th shot (compared to 13 for the Squires) on an assist to Shane Balcomb. The Squires’ Mitch Zavitz followed up his own rebound for a 4-2 lead with 3:24 remaining in the second, on exactly half (20 versus 40) the shots on goal.

The Thunder had one goal waved off on a quick referee’s whistle with 12:58 left in the third. Arguably Houle’s best save came with 7:01 remaining in regulation time, with Tillsonburg trailing 4-2. The Thunder’s Nathan Peacock centred a nifty backhanded pass to the slot, where linemate Dwayne Blais stepped into a one-timer labelled for the bottom, right corner, before Houle was able to extend his left toe for a timely save.

The Thunder’s grind line did cut the gap to one goal shortly after, 5:16 prior to the final buzzer. Balcomb started the play off with a heavy hit along the boards to Houle’s left, helping keep the puck in the Squires’ zone. Devin Homick gained possession with some gritty spadework along the opposite wall, feeding defenceman Pat Ouellet, who teed up a shot from the left point.

“The rebound popped out,” recalled Tillsonburg’s Adam Vandepoele. “Luckily it came to me and I just backhanded it in.”

The Thunder swarmed the Squires’ zone following Vandepoele’s goal, subsequently killing off a minor retaliation penalty assessed with 4:40 to play. Tillsonburg got goalie Ben Thomas off in favour of an extra attacker with ample time remaining, but an empty-net marker by Petrolia’s Chris McGuffin effectively decided the issue with 51.6 seconds left on the clock.

“We’ve got to get pucks by him, through him or create some more net presence or she’s going to be over,” said Streib following Saturday’s game, agreeing it may take a ‘dirty’ goal or two.

“They are pretty defensively sound, we’re going to have to throw some pucks on net, crash it and get some rebounds.”

“We need to put some pucks on net and crash the net,” added Vandepoele.

Petrolia 2, Tillsonburg 1

Houle earned his fourth victory of the series, despite his squad being outshot 43-31. Petrolia’s Scott McPhail scored the only goal of the first period, teammate Jason McPhail the lone second-period marker, and what would stand as the game-winner.

Peacock brought the Thunder within a goal with 9:20 remaining in regulation time, assisted by Kevin Galerno.

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