In playing a gritty, tight, determined game, the Whalers punched their ticket to the 2014 Ontario Hockey League Playoffs for the 23rd consecutive season -- a current OHL record. In winning, the Whalers officially eliminated ninth-place Kitchener, who has 47 points with five games remaining.
Matt Mistele’s goal (17th of the season) at 17:56 of the third period snapped a 3-3 tie and stood as the game-winning goal. Yannick Rathgeb (7th), Francesco Vilardi (13th) and Ryan Hartman (24th) also scored for Plymouth, who improves to 26-31-0-7, good for 59 points.
Plymouth goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic – pulled in the first period in the loss in Erie – played a strong game, stopping 32-of-35 shots. Like a ace starting pitcher, Nedeljkovic got better as the game went on and saved his best work for the third period.
Luke Mercer (4th), Carter Verheaghe (27th) and Eric Ming (28th) scored for Niagara.
Plymouth’s victory hurt the IceDogs, too. They remain the ninth place in the OHL’s Eastern Conference race with a record of 21-34-3-5, good for 50 points and one point behind Mississauga and Ottawa.
Plymouth picked up two points on seventh place Owen Sound as well. The Attack lost, 5-4, in Barrie on Thursday. Owen Sound has 64 points over 63 games; Plymouth has 59 in 64 games.
The Whalers and IceDogs were scoreless, tied or no more than a one-goal differential over 60 minutes.
Luke Mercer started the scoring to give Niagara a 1-0 lead at 1:02 of the first period with a shot from the high slot through traffic that seemed to change direction. But the Whalers replied 0:50 later when Rathgeb followed Mistele’s shot from the hash marks to score on a back hand from the lower rim of the left circle at 1:52.
Verhaeghe gave the IceDogs a 2-1 lead at 5:59 of the period, working with Anthony DiFruscia two-on-one into the Plymouth zone, ripping the shot home from the left circle.
Nedeljkovic and the Whalers defense buckled down from that point on for the rest of the game.
Plymouth took the lead in the second period with a couple of power play goals, but not before Hartman rang a shot off the cross bar when he moved into the Niagara zone on a shorthanded breakaway.
Vilardi tied the game at 2-2 at 8:18, taking advantage of traffic around Niagara goaltender Brent Moran to score with a rising shot from the right circle that was tucked under the cross bar. Plymouth may have received a break on Hartman’s goal at 19:06, as the Whalers’ Victor Crus Rydberg hauled down Jordan Maletta in the Niagara zone. The puck went to Hartman at the top of the left circle and he made no mistake with the shot.
Nedeljkovic made outstanding stops in the third period on Ming and then on Maletta on a breakaway. Ming finally tied the game for Niagara at 15:43, scoring from the hashmarks with a low shot that Nedeljkovoic got most of, but the puck trickled over the line.
That set the stage for Mistele’s game winner on a play he started. Mistele dug the puck out from behind the net and it ended up with Nick Malysa at the right point. Malysa’s shot made it to Moran and Mistele got a piece of the puck and put it in the net.
Whalers head coach Mike Vellucci and Niagara head coach Marty Williamson both used their time-outs over the final 1:20. Williamson pulled Moran for the extra attacker, but the Whalers played well to earn their ticket to the playoffs.
Niagara outshot Plymouth, 35-32.
Plymouth is off until Sunday when they host Saginaw at 2 pm at Compuware Arena.