The red-hot Jamestown Rebels needed to earn just one point Thursday for a spot in the North American Hockey League playoffs.
Winners of nine straight games entering the game, the Rebels didn’t settle for the one point, they went for the win and defeated the Maryland Black Bears 5-3 at Piney Orchard Ice Arena.
“They’ve really turned the corner as a group,” Rebels head coach Joe Coombs said about his team. “It’s a process to do everything. Just stick to it, just have to keep fighting and they’ve bought into that.”
The Black Bears had no plans of making it easy for the Rebels to qualify for the postseason, scoring a goal 2:23 into the game.
“They’ve learned getting scored on is part of the game,” added Coombs. “When things are bad you’ve got to get better.”
Jamestown was able to get an equalizer on the power play, when moments after Noah Szretter ripped a shot off the pipe, he got another crack at it, sending a shot that rebounded right to John Lundy, who was waiting backdoor and he promptly slammed home for his 32nd of the season. The Rebels’ success on special teams became a key to their victory.
The Rebels struck first in the second period on a quick transition from the defensive zone. AJ Reed managed to work the puck shallow into the offensive zone and Ethan Janda beat Maryland’s Sean Kilcullen to chip a puck to the slot for Joshua Burke joining the rush. Burke collected the puck alone in the slot and fired a shot gloveside to give the Rebels a 2-1 lead.
The trio of Jak Vaarwerk, Szretter and Lundy added on the power play again, this time with Vaarwerk scoring the goal.
Trailing 3-1 and in a desperate situation for the playoffs, Maryland began to turn it up.
The problem for the Black Bears soon became Nolan Suggs in net. Suggs made several saves diving across crease, sprawling out, doing whatever it took to keep the puck out of the net. Suggests made 29 saves on 32 shots in the contest.
“He’s been huge for us,” Coombs said. “We were rotating goalies all year long. The last couple games Suggests has just ran with it. He’s got a lot of fire in his belly. I couldn’t be happy for Suggsy. He’s a big-time player.”
With the pressure Maryland was applying, Suggs couldn’t keep the Black Bears out of the net as they came within one goal in the final minute of the second period.
Maryland built off the late goal in the third and equalized things early in final frame, putting the playoff celebration on ice. Just when things were looking bad, it got worse when a high-sticking from Lundy resulted in a double-minor penalty with the score tied at 3-3.
Early in the season this might have been a backbreaker for the Rebels, but the team, riding high on a nine-game win streak, had its sights set on clinching a playoff spot. Suggs and the Rebels managed to kill off the double-minor penalty unscathed with the game still tied.
“We won the special teams battle, for sure,” Coombs stated. “Last weekend in Danbury things didn’t go well, but here today our power play got us going. It was exciting that our special teams got us going. I’m very happy that it got something done for us.”
After the huge kill momentum appeared to be back on Jamestown’s side and shortly after at the halfway point of the period, an unsuspecting Rebel got back the lead. In just his third NAHL game, Tyler Stern found himself skating towards the low slot as the puck made its way across the blue line and Rebels’ defender James Miller fired a shot towards goal, Stern redirected the puck in midair to send it behind the goalie for his first goal and a 4-3 lead.
Stern’s goal had the Rebels almost locked into the playoffs and Kolby Amici sealed the deal later in the period with the empty netter.
Jamestown seeks a win today that will give it a home series next week at the Northwest Arena.
“There’s a good group of kids in this right now,” Coombs said about his team. “It’s been a long year and it’s better late than never.”