Wolves showcase resilience, timely scoring in shootout win over Rangers

Quinton Byfield, left, of the Sudbury Wolves, attempts to elude Michael Vukojevic, of the Kitchener Rangers, during OHL action at the Sudbury Community Arena in Sudbury, Ont. on Friday December 14, 2018. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

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What a finish.

The Wolves stretched their win streak to three games in exciting fashion with a come-from-behind 5-4 shootout victory over the Kitchener Rangers at the Sudbury Community Arena on Sunday afternoon.

The Wolves tied the game late when veteran Shane Bulitka pounced on a loose puck in the slot with 2:27 remaining in regulation and the Sudbury net empty to force overtime. After a scoreless five-minute session of three on three, both Quinton Byfield and Blake Murray scored in the shootout to propel their team to victory.

While those shootout goals don’t add to their point totals, Byfield had a goal and two assists in the game to jump into first place in the OHL scoring race, on the strength of 12 points in five games. Murray also cracked the top 10, at least temporarily, scoring once in regulation to give him eight points on the season.

It was also a standout performance for goalie Christian Purboo, who entered the game in relief with the Wolves down 3-1, and proceeded to stop 20 of 21 in regulation as well as two of three in the shootout.

The first two shootout shooters were David Levin for Sudbury and Francesco Pinelli for Kitchener, both of whom missed. Then Byfield and Kitchener’s Riley Damiani each scored, setting up Murray and Purboo to be the heroes.

Murray tried to go five-hole on Rangers goalie Lucas Pfeil, and it took what seemed like forever to cross the line, but eventually it did. All Murray could do was wait and watch.

“I wasn’t too sure, until I saw the goalie, he was like gliding back into his net then I saw the puck cross the line as it was between his legs,” he recalled. “I was a little anxious, but it was nice to see it go in at the end.”

The goal gave Purboo a chance to end the game if he could make a save on veteran Liam Hawel. As it turns out, Purboo also got to erase some bad memories.

“My first year, I lost two shootouts,” he said of his rookie season with the North Bay Battalion. “That was the cause, too, that I had to stop it (and didn’t), so when Murray’s goal went in, I was kind of thinking back.”

Hawel tried to go high blocker and Purboo remained laser-focused, knocking it aside for the win.

As a guy who’s counted on to score, Murray was obviously thrilled to fill the net both in regulation and the shootout. But the Carolina Hurricanes draft pick was almost more proud of a play he made to get the game through overtime. The 18-year-old forward was last man back in the dying seconds of OT on what was essentially a two on one for the Rangers and managed to sprawl out and get the shaft of his stick on a pass that likely would have resulted in a goal had it gone through.

“I try to take pride in my defence and I thought that was one of my better defensive plays in a while,” he beamed. “That could have cost us the game. It’s nice to see that we played a good game and came back at the end.”

Murray sees a change in his team’s level of confidence and belief.

“This year we’re finding ways to win,” he said. “We’re down one with two minutes left and find a way to score, then push through OT and win it in a shootout. In my first year, we lost 30 one-goal games, then last year we were a lot better, and this year it seems to come a lot easier, so it’s nice.”

The Rangers got off to a fast start as Damiani, the Dallas Stars prospect, sniped one just 28 seconds after the opening face off to make it 1-0. His shot from the faceoff dot to the left of Wolves starter Mitchell Weeks went off the bar and in. It was the first shot of the game for either team. The Blueshirts also brought a chippy style, first targeting Byfield with some rough stuff and then Levin in the early going. But it backfired when Jonathan Yantsis went to the box for mugging Levin and the Wolves scored on the ensuing power play at the 6:52 mark. Just 22 seconds into the man advantage, Byfield found Jack Thompson open with a cross ice feed. His shot was stopped, but Murray was able to kick the rebound from his skate to his stick and bury his third of the season to make it 1-1.

The Rangers grabbed a 2-1 lead at 11:57 on the power play. Francesco Pinelli, the 13th-overall pick in this year’s OHL Priority Selection, scored his first of two on the game, his third and fourth of the young season. Pinelli found a loose puck in the slot and slid it along the ice past Weeks on the glove side.

Yantsis gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead just 58 seconds into the second period, chasing Weeks from the Sudbury net after he allowed three goals on 11 shots. Weeks made the first save with his right pad, but Yantsis somehow managed to get the rebound up and over as the overage forward made a good second effort.

The goalie change seemed to spark the Wolves as they scored a pair of goals 28 seconds apart to quickly erase the deficit.

Shane Bulitka fed a pass back through the slot to defenceman Phil Caron and his shot was deflected by Byfield for his sixth goal of the season at the 2:20 mark, then Thompson scored on a similar play, as Levin spotted him in the high slot and the sophomore fired it home high blocker to tie the score 3-3.

For the 17-year-old Thompson, who is NHL draft-eligible this season, it accentuated his hot start. The goal was the blueliner’s third of the season, which is the most by any defender in the league, and his six points in five games put the Wolves 2018 second-rounder third in overall scoring by defencemen in the OHL.

Right at the end of the second period, the Rangers put the puck in the net on a shot from the point on the power play as the buzzer sounded, but it was waved off and the teams went into the room tied 3-3.

Kitchener jumped ahead 4-3 midway through the third on Pinelli’s second of the game, as the rookie picked off a pass in the Sudbury zone and went in alone on Purboo, beating him high on the blocker side at 9:41. But the Wolves fought back for the two points thanks to Bulitka’s goalie-out goal and Murray’s and Purboo’s clutch plays in overtime and the shootout. The shots ended up 32-32 overall, including 2-1 for the Rangers in OT.

Asked why the Wolves were able to dig deep, Purboo, who earned his third win and improved to a 2.82 goals against average and .906 save percentage, found an answer that will surely make his coach smile.

“Definitely our practice habits, I think,” said Purboo. “Stilly (head coach Cory Stillman) always preaches that if you don’t do it right the first time we’re just going to keep repeating and repeating it. We’ve had really hard-working practices lately, so I think that’s why we got the good result.”

Music to his coach’s ears, no doubt.

The Rangers managed to get two of a possible six points on their northern swing, with a shootout loss in Sudbury, regulation loss in the Sault and overtime defeat in North Bay.

The Wolves will play host to the Peterborough Petes on Friday night before visiting the Greyhounds on Saturday, who are off to another hot start at 4-0. The Petes are a must-see for any Leafs fans in Sudbury this season with a roster that features 2019 second-rounder Nick Robertson and 2018 third-round pick Semyon Der-Arguchintsev.