It is not for a lack of effort, but the Saugeen Shores Winterhawks are battling through a dry spell.
Despite thoroughly outplaying the Durham Thundercats on Friday night at The Plex, goals were again hard to come by, as the Winterhawks dropped a 3-2 decision.
It was First Responders Night, as game sponsor Vanderwerf's Your Independent Grocer covered the admission for all first responders in attendance, with yet another home crowd in excess of 600 patrons.
The Winterhawks came out hard and controlled the play early, but as has been the case recently, they could not find the back of the net.
Durham appeared to have the opening goal off a two-on-two rush late in the first period, when the Thundercats' Justin Graham drew in the Winterhawks defenders and slid a pass to Matt Busby in front of the net.
Busby had a wide open cage to deposit the puck, but Winterhawks netminder Clayton Fritsch snared Busby's shot as he dove across the crease, making an argument for the save of the year.
The score held at 0-0 through the first period, despite the Winterhawks outshooting Durham 15-9.
The Thundercats opened the scoring just 19-seconds into the 2nd period when they dumped the puck into the Winterhawks zone.
The puck took an uncharacteristic bounce and came out right in front of the net to Durham's Riley O'Connell, who caught Fritsch off guard to make it 1-0 for the visitors.
Perhaps a telling moment for the Winterhawks current struggles was encapsulated minutes later when the 'Hawks had a break into the Durham zone, but couldn't capitalize.
The Thundercats were quickly sprung for a breakaway the other way, with Cody Brown making no mistake to make it a 2-0 Durham lead.
A drought of more than four periods without a goal finally came to an end three minutes later when the Winterhawks cycled the puck down low in the Durham zone.
Curtis Johnston stepped out from behind the net and fired a quick shot over the arm of Durham netminder Malcolm Young, cutting the Durham lead to 2-1. Andy Fracz and Justin Donnelly assisted on the goal.
The Winterhawks pushed again for the equalizer, but couldn't find a way to beat Young.
Durham regained the two-goal lead late in the period when Brown struck again, dancing his way to the front of the net and putting a deke behind Fritsch to give the Thundercats a 3-1 lead heading to the third period.
The Winterhawks had their work cut out for them in the third period, but didn't back down.
They appeared to have scored a power play goal early in the period when Young made a save, but directed the rebound right to Josh Hopkin, who was driving toward the Durham net.
The puck bounced off Hopkin and through Young, though the referee ruled Hopkin had interfered with Young and disallowed the goal.
The Winterhawks didn't let it get to them, and Miles MacLean made it a one-goal game less than a minute later to cut the Durham lead to one. Mike Fiegehen and Trevor Smith assisted on the goal.
That was all the finish the Winterhawks could muster up, and despite outshooting Durham 48-29, they couldn't find another goal and dropped the decision with a 3-2 final score.
Johnston was named The Wismer House Player of the Game for his goal to get the Winterhawks on the board in the second period.
The offence should see a boost for the final three games of the regular season, as top scorer Luke Pither is expected to return from an injury for their next game, on Friday January 19th when the Lucknow Lancers visit The Plex. Game time is 8:30 p.m.
Despite of the loss, the Winterhawks clinched a spot in the Ontario Elite Hockey League "AA" Playoffs by virtue of other results around the league over the weekend. The playoffs will open during the weekend of February 9-11, though there's lots of hockey left to determine seedings.
PLAYOFF ROSTER SET:
The Winterhawks have set their 2024 playoff roster, as required by the Ontario Elite Hockey League.
The playoff roster features 24 skaters and four goalies.
The goaltending quartet of Clayton Fritsch, Tristan Lewis, Eric Peicheff and Jeff Flagler remain intact for the playoff run.
Skaters on the playoff roster are Kent Ribey, Justin Marlowe, Justin Donnelly, Logan Freiburger, Josh Deyell, James McHaig, Andy Mitchell, Andy Fracz, Keegan Angel, Nick Quaid, Alec Tiley, Trevor Smith, Dan Zweep, Curtis Johnston, Josh Hopkin, Lauchlin Elder, Chad Jones, Medric Mercier, Miles MacLean, Jordan Vanhaelemeesch, Matt Shields, Luke Pither, Trent Hawke and Mike Fiegehen.
Subsequently, the team has released forward Jay Thomson and defenceman Kevin McCallion.
50/50 DONATION: The Winterhawks have cut a cheque for the proceeds of the 50/50 draw held during the December 29th home game. The team donated $501 to the Southampton Rotary Club, which will go toward the G.C. Huston Playground Project.