NLL: Thunderbirds lose OT heartbreaker to Roughnecks

Story courtesy of Luke Dyment

Halifax, Nova Scotia – Feb 04, 2023: National Lacrosse League game between the Halifax Thunderbirds and Calgary Roughnecks at the Scotiabank Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Trevor MacMillan/Halifax Thunderbirds)

A crowd of celebrating Calgary Roughnecks is likely the last thing the Scotiabank Centre faithful expected to see on Saturday night.

Leading by four goals on three different occasions, the visitors just wouldn’t go away. Even defensively-dominant points for the Halifax Thunderbirds – like the entire second quarter – weren’t enough to nail Calgary’s coffin.

But the visitor’s late-game brilliance took them the distance, holding the second-highest-scoring team in the NLL scoreless for the game’s final 18 minutes and 38 seconds. Maybe a little due credit to the Western Conference’s second-best defence heading into Saturday’s matchup.

Down by two heading into the fourth quarter, Dan Taylor’s shot finally eluded a seemingly-unbeatable Warren Hill in net, the tying goal. In overtime, Jeff Cornwall needed just nine seconds to scoop the ball at centre and psych out Hill for the game winner.

“We let up a little in the second half and against a team like that, you gotta play a full 60,” said Randy Staats. The Birds’ top scorer led his team tonight with a pair of goals and six points.

Even as the scoring springs ran dry as the match progressed, another potential hero emerged: Halifax goalie Warren Hill. The first few quarters were just okay for the stopper. But as the Roughnecks pushed the bill in the game’s final five minutes, Hill’s switch flipped to “showtime.” Take, for example, a massive block on a driving Kyle Waters with three minutes left on the clock, leading by just a goal.

Less than a minute later, he pulled out the blocker hand on Josh Currier, absolutely robbing a cross-crease tap-in. Then to top it off, Hill pulled out the two-pad stack with half a minute to go in the game, stoning Roughnecks’ leading scorer Tyler Pace. That was just before the ball looped back around for the fateful equalizer, setting Calgary on path to improve to 4-3 and tied for fourth in the west.

“That was huge. Our goalie made those big saves and our defence played really good. If we put the ball in the net, I think it’s a different game,” Staats said.

The Thunderbirds – who fall to an even 4-4 – controlled the game’s first 10 minutes, outshooting Calgary 14-6 and leading 4-2. Ten seconds after Chris Boushy scored Thunderbirds goal number three – taking air to sneak the shot around Christian Del Bianco in the Roughnecks’ net – Jake Withers took the ball off the faceoff and couldn’t be stopped. Elbowing off a pair of defenders, he shovelled in the 4-1 goal.

At 3:51 of the quarter, Calgary’s Jeff Cornwall took a five-minute major for boarding. But that didn’t stop the Roughnecks’ comeback effort, dominating on the penalty kill to score twice in 39 seconds. The second of those – a leaping shot from Zach Currier – tied the game at four. That was the score after one quarter.

The Thunderbirds couldn’t make much click to start that extended power play, but two of their best players finally powered through at the tail end. Austin Shanks took a no-look pass from Staats to retake the lead for Halifax. That kicked off a run of four unanswered markers in the second quarter.

The frustration began to show for Calgary as the half went on. After a mid-period penalty where Taylor hooked a T-Bird’s neck, Halifax held the ball from the trailing team behind their cage and killed precious time. The Roughnecks found the back of the net once more before the half.

While Calgary struck early in the half, the hosts were quick to shift the tone. As Hill denied a shot in close with his toe, he kicked the shot out far enough to launch his team on a three-on-two. Ryan Terefenko finished off the play to make it 9-6. The teams traded goals for most of the quarter’s remainder.

Then, things started shifting in the final minute of the third. Calgary’s Del Bianco hit Zach Currier from his net with a breakaway pass, where he scored. With fewer than 10 seconds left, the Thunderbirds removed the goalie in an attempt to restore that late goal. But Cornwall forced the turnover, firing the ball into the vacant cage from half. Somehow, the Roughnecks moved within two after 45 minutes of play.

Players from each team exchanged shots with one another as the physicality ramped up. Eight of the game’s 13 penalties came in the second half. But for Staats, that wasn’t a factor in the final result.

“We want to stick up for each other. That’s part of the game. I think [the result] was on us. Offensively, we only scored three goals in the second half. It’s not gonna cut it,” Staats said.

The fourth quarter was abnormally low-scoring, especially for the offensively-potent T-Birds. In fact, nobody could find the back of the net for the quarter’s first half. Calgary’s Cook cut the score to 11-10 Halifax at 7:09, setting up the nail-biting finish.

“We were getting shots. I just don’t think we were hitting our shots,” said Staats. He had a team-high 11 attempts on net, part of Halifax’s 65 total shots. Calgary registered 46.

Tonight was the only meeting between Halifax and Calgary this season. The Thunderbirds are back on the road next week, as they visit the first-place Rochester Knighthawks – who they beat last week – on Feb. 11. Meanwhile, the Roughnecks head back home for games on back-to-back nights, welcoming the Saskatchewan Rush (Feb. 10) and Colorado Mammoth (Feb. 11) to the Scotiabank Saddledome.