John Blessman, hardly a scoring machine this year, blasted in the game-winning shot with 2:44 left in the second period Tuesday night, and the Greensboro Monarchs went on to defeat the Virginia Lancers 3-1 to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series in the East Coast Hockey League playoffs.
The Monarchs can wrap up the first-round series tonight in Game 4 at the Coliseum. The battle starts at 7:30.Tuesday's battle was decided by a secret weapon, Blessman, a hard-hitting defenseman who did not score all season for the Monarchs. He picked the right time to do it Tuesday.
``I'm not paid to score,' Blessman said of his penalty-play goal that beat the Lancers. ``Actually, I was in the wrong position at the time. I was supposed to sweep across with the puck. Whitey (Scott White) told me to do the right way from then on.'
From then on, Blessman went back to his usual game, which is board-rattling, teeth-loosening defense. Actually, the entire team went back to basics after Blessman's goal, and the Monarchs all but erased the disappointing loss in Virginia Saturday night that threw the series into a 1-1 tie.
Wade Flaherty shut down the Lancers for more than 50 minutes, and Chris Laganas scored his second goal of the game on an empty netter with 12 seconds left to play for the final margin.
Jeff Brubaker, the Greensboro coach, was smoking a cigar after the game, just as he did after the series-opening win last Friday. But he was not looking forward to round two of the playoffs.
``We are confident but not cocky,' Brubaker said. ``This was another game that could have gone either way. We got the break in the first game and won. They got the break in the second game and won. It'll be another war (tonight).'
There were few wars waged on the ice Tuesday, unlike Game 2 which ended in a brawl that resulted in the suspension of four players.
There was a small altercation after Tuesday's game, one that sent Virginia coach Dave Allison in a fury. He accused the Monarchs of trying to start something after the game, then lashed out at the officials for allowing another near game-ending fight.
``I guess we'll get blamed for this one too,' Allison said.
Allison, who was fined $200 for his involvement in Saturday's melee, was livid that his team lost again, particularly to a team he had beaten seven out of eight times during the regular season.
``I can't believe it,' he said. ``There is no way they are as good as we are. No way. It's goaltending. That's all it is. Their guys are standing on their heads. I'd like to see them once we get three or four past them - if we can.'
Brubaker said that is not out of the question.
``This is a team that can score six goals in a period,' Brubaker said. ``We know that because they did it to us this year.'
In the 15 games during the regular season, the Lancers average more than five goals a game against the Monarchs. They have a total of nine in the first three games of the playoffs.
Of the nine, Blessman's was the crusher. Blessman scored one goal for the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds before coming over to Greensboro midway through the season. Since then, his job has been to play enforcer and kill penalties.
``He has two now,' Brubaker said. ``(Tonight) he goes for the hat trick.'
The game was a defensive battle from the start. Virginia scored the first goal to take a 1-0 lead for the first time in the series. In the first two games in Virginia, Greensboro took early 2-0 leads.
The Lancers' goal was scored short-hand by Al Leggett, who dumped in a rebound against Flaherty from an impossible angle.
The goal was set up by a breakaway by Chris Lindberg, who intercepted a pass at the center line and went one-on-one against Flaherty. Flaherty stopped Lindberg's drive from the point, but the puck bounced back to the Virginia center. His second shot was again stopped by Flaherty, but Leggett, streaking on the play, managed to flip the puck from about two feet outside the goal mouth between the post and Flaherty, who had all but about a two-inch space covered. Somehow, Leggett found that spot to give the Lancers a 1-1 lead at 8:21 of the first period.
The goal came with Doug Lawrence, the Monarchs' sparkplug, in the penalty box serving a 10-minute misconduct that occurred during the game's only major incident, seven minutes into the contest.
Lawrence was one of the last players into the pile, that included every player on the ice except the two goalies. Marco Fuster received a high stick penalty, and Scott Drevitch a double minor for the Lancers. Mike McCormick got a double minor for Greensboro.
The Monarchs tied the game at 17:10 on a blast by Laganas. Laganas took a pass from newly acquired Bruce Major, who the Monarchs picked up from Halifax of the American Hockey League for the playoffs.
It was the second period where Greensboro took over the game. Playing defense through the first 17 minutes, the Monarchs killed three power plays, including a key two-man disadvantage early in the period. The Lancers had a power play at 2:25 after a high stick penalty on John Sullivan, and 12 seconds later, Lawrence was called for boarding when he slammed a Virginia player into the plexiglass.
Lawrence's two-minute penalty gave the Lancers a two-man advantage for 1:48. Flaherty came up big during the power play, stopping three shots. Laganas dove to the ice to stop another shot, and Virginia came up empty in what could have been the turning point of the game. As it turned out, Greensboro took the momentum from its defense and went to its hard checking game.