The Hamilton Pistols and Hershey Bliss are battling for supremacy in the East, and they both possess an offensive explosiveness that makes them dangerous. Hamilton is one of the highest-scoring teams in the league; Hershey doesn’t typically generate quite the same volume of scoring, but their “Love Line” of LW Lance Sweet, C Justin Valentine, and RW Christopher Hart is as potent as any line in the league.
When the Pistols and Bliss squared off on Tuesday at Chocolate Center, they showed just how explosive they can be, combining for seven goals in a dynamite third period that turned a seemingly sleepy game into a roller coaster of an evening.
“I don’t know just what happened there in the third,” said Valentine. “But it seemed like somebody flipped the fun switch.”
After the first forty minutes, there were no signs of the frenzy to come. Hamilton led 1-0, with an early second-period tally by RW Ben Summers the lone goal to that point. Pistols netminder Lasse Koskinen had looked fairly sharp, turning aside all 27 Bliss shots, but he was unaware of what awaited him in the third.
The Bliss went a man to the good in the opening seconds of the third, as Summers went to the sin bin for interference. Hershey’s power play made the Pistols pay, as Sweet converted on a shot from the slot that sailed over Koskinen’s right shoulder and under the crossbar. The tally brought the home crowd back to life as Sweet hip-checked the glass before bounding into the arms of his teammates.
“Up to that point, it had felt impossible to get one past Lasse,” said Valentine. “So Lance’s goal definitely opened the dam for what came later.”
First, though, the home team had to endure a stiff pushback from the visiting Pistols. Hamilton grabbed control of the game over the next several minutes, and they made that control count. Their little-heralded bottom line got things going in a big way over the next few minutes.
LW Jamie Campbell, C J.C. Marais, and RW Kenny Patterson worked an extended shift in the Hershey zone, pinching off the boards and thwarting the Bliss attempted to flip the puck back to center ice. They’d been in the zone for over a minute when Patterson crashed the net, then fired it back to D Clayton Risch at the blue line. Risch threaded a perfect pass to Marais, who was streaking toward the net and beat Hershey goalie Christien Adamsson on the short side to retake the lead.
Less than a minute later, Marais returned the favor, putting the puck right on the blade of Risch in the high slot. Risch fired the puck over the glove of a screened Adamsson and into the upper-right corner of the net to take a two-goal advantage.
“One of the things I love about our team is that we can roll all three lines and feel totally comfortable,” said Pistols coach Keith Shields. “We don’t burn out our top-line guys, and everybody stays sharp and engaged.”
The Pistols’ pressure eased a bit after that, but the Bliss couldn’t mount a sustained counterattack. And when LW Steven Alexander buried a slapshot from the faceoff circle to make it 4-1, the arena fell into a despondent silence.
Hershey, though, wasn’t about to concede anything. After they killed off an interference penalty to Hart at mid-period, they tilted the ice in a big way and bombarded Koskinen with shots. They launched 16 shots over the final eight minutes of regulation, and even Koskinen couldn’t stop them all.
The Bliss began their comeback with seven minutes left in the game, as D Jean-Luc Aubin picked off a lazy Pistols pass and fed fellow blueliner Reese Milton, who fired a blast that deflected of a Hamilton stick and between Koskinen’s pads. The fluky goal got the crowd back to life, and Milton amped up the energy by swinging his stick over his head like a helicopter.
“I just thought it would be a cool thing to try,” said Milton.
A couple minutes later, Valentine picked up a rebound and found Hart, who stuffed it just inside the right post to make it a 4-3 game.
The final five minutes of regulation were a thrill ride; the fans stood and screamed while Hershey maintained intense pressure and kept up the barrage on the Hamilton net. Koskinen kept stopping the shots, though, and it looked as though the visitors would escape with a narrow win.
Finally, with 16 seconds remaining, Valentine skated behind the net and lifted a backhand shot over a sprawling Koskinen to tie the game. Valentine’s teammates mobbed him in front of the crease as the fans somehow shouted even louder.
It seemed inevitable that the Bliss would complete the rally and win in overtime. But the Pistols used the break between periods to take a breath and gather themselves, and then came out an won it in the extra session on another Summers goal. The win moved Hamilton six points ahead of Hershey in the East.
“There were some wild swings in this one, but it was a nice statement win for us,” said Shields. “I think we’re showing that we’re the team to beat, but there’s still plenty of season left. We have to stay on our toes if we’re going to get back to the postseason. Fortunately, no one in here is taking anything for granted.”