Jack Kopacka entered the offensive zone and cut to the middle in the 84th minute of play, snapping a low shot through the legs of Kitchener’s Mario Culina as the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds won a double-overtime thriller on home ice to claim the Wayne Gretzky Trophy as Western Conference Champions.
The 4-3 win in Game 7 sees the Greyhounds win their first Western Conference title since 1993, a year they would go on to hoist the Memorial Cup on home ice.
“I don’t really remember it too well,” recalled Kopacka. “All I remember is being in the middle of the ice and just trying to put the puck on net and when you do that good things happen. It ended up being the winner.”
The home team won every game of the seven-game duel as the Rangers pushed the Greyhounds to the brink before Kopacka emerged as the hero to guide Sault Ste. Marie to a second-straight Game 7 triumph.
Down 3-2 in the final minute of regulation, Kitchener defenceman Logan Stanley knotted things up at three to force overtime on a wrister from the point.
“There’s a lot of belief in our group that we can overcome everything, we have all year,” said Kopacka of the mood on the bench when the Rangers drew even. “We didn’t let it take the wind out of our sails, we stayed positive. At that point it’s just another 0-0 game and we’re looking for who’s going to get the next one.”
The next one wouldn’t come for another 24 minutes of play, a goal that blew the roof off the Essar Centre as 4859 fans in a sea of red celebrated another landmark in the club’s impressive franchise record-setting season.
“This is a special group that has done a lot of real special things this year,” beamed Greyhounds head coach Drew Bannister who won a pair of Game 7’s as a member of the 1992 OHL Champion Soo Greyhounds. “I’m proud of the group in that room and I’m happy for them that they’ve been able to achieve this.”
The two teams engaged in a back-and-forth battle with Sault Ste. Marie staying one step ahead throughout the night. Boris Katchouk (14, 15) opened the scoring with his first of two goals, finding the back of the net with 3:33 left in the opening period.
Kitchener’s Jonathan Yantsis (4) would respond with a goal from a low percentage angle 2:47 into the second before Katchouk tallied again to reinstate the Sault Ste. Marie lead. Kitchener forward Rickard Hugg (3) connected with Kole Sherwood and Riley Damiani for a power play one-timer at 11:40 of the second as the two teams entered the third tied at two.
Philadelphia Flyers prospect Morgan Frost (7) banged in a power play rebound with 8:19 left in the third before Stanley’s point shot with the extra attacker tied things up at three with just 52 seconds left on the clock.
Kopacka’s goal came on Sault Ste. Marie’s 41st shot of the game as the Greyhounds outshot the Rangers 41-36.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more from my players over the course of the season and especially in this playoff series,” said Rangers head coach Jay McKee post-game. “They left everything out there.
“We talked before the game about how true success isn’t in the end result, it’s in knowing you can look yourself in the mirror after the game and say you gave everything you had. My players from top to bottom did that, but sometimes in sports even that’s not good enough.”
Overage Rangers in goaltender Mario Culina, forward Kole Sherwood and defenceman Austin McEneny played their final OHL contest as the Midwest Division champion Rangers saw their season come to an end.
Sault Ste. Marie becomes the first West Division team to advance to the Rogers OHL Championship Series since 2010 and is the first team since 2004 (Mississauga IceDogs, Guelph Storm) to reach the league final after winning two different seven game series.
The Hounds will square off against the Eastern Conference Champion Hamilton Bulldogs for the J. Ross Robertson Cup and a spot at the 2018 Mastercard Memorial Cup in Regina, SK when the Championship Series gets underway on Thursday night in Sault Ste. Marie.
SERIES AT A GLANCE:
Game 1 – KIT 2 @ SSM 3
Game 2 – KIT 2 @ SSM 4
Game 3 – SSM 0 @ KIT 3
Game 4 – SSM 4 @ KIT 7
Game 5 – KIT 3 @ SSM 7
Game 6 – SSM 3 @ KIT 4 OT
Game 7 – KIT 3 @ SSM 4 2OT
POST-GAME PRESS CONFERENCE: