By DAVE PAUL
They may be separated by five places in the GOJHL Western Conference standings, but the sixth-place Sarnia Legionnaires clearly are not intimidated by the league-leading LaSalle Vipers.
The Legionnaires beat the Vipers 5-4 Thursday night at Sarnia Arena, in a wild and entertaining game. It was Sarnia's third one-goal victory this season over LaSalle (7-6, 5-4 and 5-4, all at Sarnia Arena), against just one loss, a 5-2 decision in LaSalle.
Even in that loss, the Legionnaires were in the game, trailing just 3-2 after 40 minutes, and Sarnia coach Dan Rose said his team matches up well against LaSalle.
"We've played well against them all year," said Rose, following Thursday's win. "We know we can play with them if we stick to our game."
Rose added he thought the Vipers, "maybe not quite as good" as their record would indicate. Still, with a 26-8-2 mark they remain atop the league rankings, two points ahead of Leamington.
Thursday's game started out as a bit of a defensive struggle. The teams played a scoreless first period, with Sarnia outshooting LaSalle, just 7-5. However the offence -- and the intensity -- picked up as the game wore on.
Sarnia's Riley Babkirk broke the 0-0 tie nearly seven minutes into the much more wide-open second period and Legionnaires Jay Clarke made it 2-0 about seven minutes later. The Vipers responded quickly with a goal, but Bobby King promptly restored the two-goal lead after that and the home team led 3-1 after 40 minutes.
The Legionnaires maintained their 3-1 lead through the first half of the third period -- but the final 10 minutes of the game produced a wild finish, which included five goals, combined for the two teams.
First the Legionnaires blew a chance to add to their lead when they were unable to score on a two-man advantage. Worse, in the dying moments of the second power play, the Vipers scored on a shorthanded, two-on-one rush to cut the Sarnia lead to 3-2.
However, the Vipers missed a chance to capitalize on any possible momentum shift when they took a two many men on the ice penalty, four seconds later.
Less than a minute into the power play, Josh Kestner roofed a shot over the shoulder of LaSalle goalie Paolo Battisti to re-establish a two-goal lead for Sarnia, 4-2.
Then things got really crazy.
As the Legionnaires celebrated the goal, Battisti and Sarnia forward Nathan Mater -- who had been sparring with each other a few minutes earlier -- started scrapping. Both were ejected from the game for fighting while Mater drew an extra two minutes for pulling the facemask off Battisti.
The Vipers scored again on that power play to draw to within a goal, 4-3, with over seven minutes left to play.
But the Legionnaires held the LaSalle attack at bay until Kestner scored his second goal of the game, on a dazzling play, outracing LaSalle defenceman Nicolas Crescenzi to a loose puck before beating Battisti's replacement, Cameron Zanussi with a nifty deke.
LaSalle scored a power play goal with nine seconds left to finish the scoring.
Kestner, who added an assist to his two goals (numbers 28 and 29 on the season) was the game's first star.
Daniel Beaudoin scored two of LaSalle's goals while Nathan Savage added a goal and two assists. Vipers captain Dylan Denomme collected three assists.
Sarnia goalie Hunter Johnson made 29 saves to pick up the win. Sarnia outshot LaSalle 35-34.
With 14 games left in the regular season, Rose said the Legionnaires are still looking to move into the top-four in the standings to get home ice advantage in round one of the playoffs.
It appears the two teams they will have to pass to accomplish that goal are London and Strathroy. Both are currently five points ahead of Sarnia in the standings.
That makes Sarnia's next game a crucial one, as the Legionnaires will visit Strathroy on Saturday.