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Gritty Huskies fight to the end to split series with Wild

Both nights the home team got better and better, the score got closer and closer, and fans got louder and louder.

Both nights the home team got better and better, the score got closer and closer, and fans got louder and louder.

The most crashing cheers came just after 118 minutes of play in the two-game series between the Nuway Crushing Whitehorse Huskies and the Whitecourt Wild when the home team took their first lead of the weekend.

“I just got to a loose puck there and, unlike my college days, I tried to make a move through the defenceman and it happened to work out,” said Huskies assistant captain Derek Klassen. “We just kept pushing and it worked out for us.”

Klassen sent a backhand shot that found a gap between pad and post to give the Huskies a 6-5 lead with 1:45 remaining in the third. They held the Wild off in the final seconds to win the game and split the series on Sunday at Takhini Arena.

“You’d think we just won the league championships or something,” said Huskies head coach Michael Tuton, describing the scene in the locker room after. “We’ve been working all fall and to get in a series like that - I can’t say enough of how good that series was for us as a club to get moving forward.

“It brought everybody together and got the boys fired up for the rest of the season.”

The one-goal win came for the Huskies came after a one-goal loss, losing 7-6 to the Wild on Saturday.

Not only did the series mark the first time the two senior men’s AA hockey clubs met, the games were the Huskies’ first of the season.

The Wild, who are from about 150 kilometres outside of Edmonton, had already logged 10 games in Alberta’s North Central Senior Hockey League before the trip to Whitehorse.

They came out firing while the Huskies struggled to get the rust out on Saturday. Whitecourt finished the first period up 4-1 with three power play goals.

“It was a slow start for us both nights and I think that’s just a testament to it being our first competitive action of the season,” said Huskies centre Kevin Petovello. “I think we got better tonight than last night and that’s the goal, to try to get better every day.

“We’re just missing a bit of chemistry and gelling together. Some of our systems and systematical things, special teams, struggled early on and that kind of stuff wins hockey games. We got down early last night, especially because of that.”

Though the Wild took a two-goal lead to start Sunday’s game, it was a different story in terms of the Huskies’ special teams. Whitehorse scored three power play goals in nine chances and went six for seven on the penalty kill, surviving two full minutes of five-on-three for the Wild.

“They were our first games and I think we were a little rusty,” said Huskies forward Ted Stephens. “Once we got into it we started playing our game, got more comfortable and just got better and better as the weekend went on.

“We didn’t make it easy on ourselves but I’m happy to get the win tonight.”

“In the first game I think our penalty kill kind of cost us the game,” he added. “Tonight we had a little meeting before the game and kind of fixed a few things and tonight it was a lot better. I think that’s one of the big reasons we won tonight.”

Down 3-0 on Saturday in the first, forward Kane Dawe put in the Huskies’ first goal of the season on a tight angle shot.

Petovello added two more in the second to pull within one at 4-3.

Following three goals from Whitecourt in the second, Huskies forward Ryan Gleason scored early in the third and defenceman Colin Dendys added another in the middle of the period.

On the power play, and with goalie J.J. Gainsforth pulled for the extra man, Stephens knocked in a rebound with 35 seconds left to make it 7-6.

“Even when we were down in the first game Saturday night, everyone just kept on pushing, going out shift after shift trying to get it done,” said Tuton. “I had the feeling we were going to crawl back into it (Sunday) and the guys got the job done.”

The Huskies nipped at the heels of the Wild for most of Sunday. After falling behind 2-0, they narrowed the gap to a goal at 2-1, again at 3-2 and again at 4-3.

Finally Dawe tied it 4-4 on a rebound from Klassen, who had three assists in the game on top of the game-winner.

Down again, the Huskies tied it 5-5 on a one-timer from defenceman Simon Nugent on a cross-ice pass from Joe Densmore.

“It was fun. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, what team we were going to get here,” said Wild defenceman Darcy Charrois. “It seemed like there was a bit of a rivalry right off the start with big checks. Both games were right down to the wire, so it was exciting for everybody. The fan support was nice - we don’t play in front of that many fans back home.”

For Stephens and Densmore, who are both new to the Huskies team this season, the series was a bit of a homecoming.

Stephens played four seasons for the Moncton Wildcats in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and then four with the St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. Densmore last played competitive hockey with the Peninsula Panthers in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League a few years ago.

Neither had played in front of a hometown crowd since representing Yukon at the 2007 Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse - a team that included Huskies Dawe, Rob Stuckey, Daniel Clethroe, Dendys and captain Evan Campbell.

“It’s been a long time - eight or nine years - so it’s pretty exciting to be back out in front of the home fans,” said Densmore, who notched five assists over the weekend. “Not only that, a lot of the Canada Games team is now on this team. It’s pretty special, pretty fun. We’ve all been close friends our whole lives, our whole hockey careers.”

For Stephens and Densmore’s line mate, Petovello, it was simply a whole new experience all together. The former pro, who played in the CHL and ECHL, had never played men’s AA before.

The 29-year-old moved to Whitehorse in July. He came for a friend’s wedding, “and just never left,” he said.

“It was new to me. I’ve never seen senior hockey before and it was fun. It was fun to be competitive again,” said Petovello. “We’ve got a good group of guys in our room. Whitecourt came up and ... gave us a great test both nights.

“It was fun to play in front of the Whitehorse fans here - they’ve been great.”

A little over 400 fans attended Saturday evening’s game - doubtlessly competing with countless Christmas parties in Whitehorse - and a little under 400 on Sunday.

The Huskies will next host the Port Hardy North Island Capitals, a senior AA team from Vancouver Island, on Jan. 8-9 and then the Powell River Regals Jan. 22-23 - the same weekend Whitehorse hosts Rogers Hometown Hockey.

By reaching the magic number of six regular season games, the Huskies will qualify to play for the Coy Cup - British Columbia’s AA championship trophy.

“I’m excited in the direction we’re going. I’m super excited by the series that we had,” said Tuton. “I don’t think we could have scripted anything better than what we got this weekend. I mean, what a great series.

“We don’t have a lot of time, we don’t have a lengthy season to get our stuff together. The coaching staff, we saw good things on the bench and things we need to work on. Overall I’d call the weekend a huge success and a really good step in the right direction going forward.”

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