The Tillsonburg Thunder won the 'battle' Saturday night in their bid to make the WOAA A-side playoffs, beating Petrolia 6-4 with an empty-net goal.
It was a must-win to give fifth-place Tillsonburg a chance to catch Huron East (Seaforth) Centenaires.
But Clinton Radars lost the Thunder's 'war', dropping an 8-7 decision to Huron East in a Saturday night game that finished five minutes after the Thunder match. Clinton, runaway division leaders with a 21-1-1 record going into the season finale sent a short-benched roster Seaforth, minus their starting goalie, for a game that had no meaning in the standings.
For Huron East, however, it meant everything, and the win allowed the Centenaires to finish with an 11-13 record, one point ahead of Tillsonburg 9-12-3, who were relegated to the Consolation or B-side playoffs.
Thunder assistant captain Shane Balcomb had a goal and assist on the official scoresheet, but scored twice.
Ryan Fletcher was credited with Balcomb's first goal, a power-play at 18:50 of the third period. Fletcher had room on the left point to approach the top of the circle before wristing it by Petrolia goalie Chris Houle, tipped by Balcomb in the slot.
"I just got a piece of it," said Balcomb.
There was no question on Balcomb's second goal, another power play, this time with 7:17 left to play in regulation, breaking a 4-4 tie.
"I deflected it, then it hit him (Houle). I could see him looking up in the air, he was trying to track it, catch it. Then it went off his glove and I hit it again. It bobbled off his arm, then I hit it again and it just crossed the line by three or four inches. Their guy reached in and threw it out – good thing the ref was where he was."
Thunder's Mike Findlater also finished with three points, two goals and an assist, although the assist didn't appear on the scoresheet.
Petrolia was leading in shots-on-goal by a two-to-one margin when Findlater's power-play goal at 9:40 of the second period brought the Thunder back from a 2-0 deficit, roofing a shot from the left wing.
"I think we were just a little nervous, we knew the pressure of the game," said Findlater. "We had kind of a slow start, but in the second period we picked it up."
Ryan Stephenson knotted the score at 2-2, but Petrolia jumped back in front with 1:27 left in the second on a shot that caught Thunder goalie Tommy Lee off balance.
"That was a bit deflating," Findlater admitted, "but we knew we had a power play going into the third. We knew we had a good opportunity to even the game up and it worked out – we got two quick ones and the momentum was basically right back on our side after that."
The key, said Findlater, was not worrying about the out-of-town scores.
"We just had to do our job and I think we did. We did a hell of a job tonight to actually pull those two points out."
The players, just returned to their dressing room, did not know the final score in Seaforth yet. The latest update, with 1:41 left to play, had Huron East leading 8-6.
"8-7," said Thunder manager Bill Ryan with the updated final.
"I figured they (Clinton) wouldn't win," said Balcomb. "They know we've still got good guys. We just haven't had the commitment all year. Yeah, they knew and didn't want to play us."
Balcomb shrugged, accepting the outcome.
"It's our own faults, we've got no one to blame but ourselves really. We can look back at so many games this year, if we had one more or two more guys even... how many one-goal games?"
Those games added up. There were 6-5 and 4-3 overtime losses to Huron East and Petrolia in November. A 4-3 loss to Petrolia. Another 4-3 loss to Tavistock in December. And another 5-4 ovetime loss to Huron East in January.
Huron East finished 4-1 head-to-head against Tillsonburg, and that was the difference.
"It is what it is," said Balcomb. "Not enough depth this year. Last year we were four lines deep and that's why we won. Plus we had awesome defence."
Other Southern Division teams in the same boat this year. In the past couple of years, he said, it seemed like any team could win on any given night, Goderich at the bottom being the exception. This year Clinton was in its own league at the top, everyone else at a lower tier.
"They (Clinton) have always been good and this year they picked up a couple good pieces. It would have been nice to give them a battle but... oh well, it wasn't meant to be."
The season is far from over for the Thunder, however. The Consolation playoffs involve a five-team round-robin, then up to two best-of-seven series if they keep winning.
"It is bittersweet missing the A playoffs," said Findlater. "That was our goal at the start of the year, definitely, getting in those A playoffs. But we'll definitely still show up for the B's."
Huron East, by virtue of their fourth place, meet Petrolia on the A side.
"Absolutely I think we could have (uspet Clinton)," said Findlater. "I think we've got three solid, solid lines that could keep up with them. And getting (goalie) Tommy Lee, who used to play for them..."
Findlater agreed with Balcomb, the Thunder lost some games in the middle of the season that were 'very, very close games.'
"They were points we needed," nodded Findlater. "One reason or another we weren't able to pull it out. We put ourselves in this situation where we needed to win tonight. But we can't control other teams, so..."
The Consolation Round-Robin begins on the road, Friday, Feb. 5th in Ripley at 8:30 pm. and Saturday, Feb. 6th in Lucknow.
The Thunder return to the Kinsmen Memorial Arena Saturday, Feb. 13th for their first home game of the 2016 post-season hosting Shelburne at 7:30 p.m., then Milverton on Saturday, Feb. 20th, again at 7:30 p.m.
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