Published September 29, 2023

West shines in Colts opening shootout win over Battalion

West shines in Colts opening shootout win over Battalion

By Gene Pereira

Perhaps lost a little among the abundance of overagers coming into this season, Ben West sent a strong message in Thursday night’s Barrie Colts season opener why no one should count him out when it comes to locking down one of the three overage spots on the team.

West sparkled in regulation and overtime, stopping 36 of 39 shots, before slamming the door shut in the shootout to lead the Colts to a thrilling 4-3 win at Sadlon Arena.   

Named the game’s first star, West also turned aside a pair of breakaways and two penalty shots in regulation. That’s certainly one way to get the attention of the coaching staff.

“He played great for us,” said Colts head coach Marty Williamson. “Westie has looked good all through training camp. He got off to this kind of start last year, where he kind of took the job away from (Anson Thornton) and then he kind of waned a little bit toward the end.

“He’s come in 10 pounds stronger. He looks really good. He wants this job and he’s proving he can do it.”

With captain Connor Punnett and forward Jacob Frasca all but assured two of the three overage spots, and Thornton the favourite to grab the third spot if he’s returned by the Arizona Coyotes, West, along with defenceman Josh Kavanagh, remain hopeful there’s a place for him.

For his part, West put all that out of his mind as he stepped into the crease in the opener.

“I just wanted to treat it like any other game,” said the Barrie native. “Everything’s like last year and just go out and play.”

Three times the Battalion would jump to the lead in this one and three times a determined Colts team battled back.

Things didn’t look so good for the home side when Iggy Pazii, with North Bay on the power play, scored his first OHL goal with just 4:10 remaining, but Punnett, on a beauty cross-ice feed from rookie import Eduard Sale, one-timed a blast from the point past goalie Charlie Robertson.

A thrilling overtime with plenty of chances at both ends and two huge stops by West solved nothing. With both teams missing on the first two attempts in the shootout, Sale came through for the Colts when he deked to the backhand and roofed it over Robertson.

Pazii had a chance to draw the Battalion even, but he lost control of the puck and West and the Colts sent a boisterous home crowd of 3,342 home happy.  

“I was really excited when I saw (Sale) score,” said West. “I was just like, ‘Okay, one more.’ And then when we won it was just a huge relief and a great feeling.”

West admits he and his teammates wanted this one, especially being the home opener and the seven-game loss to the Battalion in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal series still fresh in their minds.

“We really wanted this one to start the year on a good note and kind of avenge last year’s Game 7 loss,” said West. “We battled through a lot and had some very clutch goals and heroic performances from guys tying it up three times.

“Yeah, it really meant a lot to get this one.”

The Colts have had little time to jell with NHL camps just wrapping up, but they got a huge boost with West playing behind them.

“Especially when you play teams early in the year, you’ve got to have goaltending because it’s a hodge podge out there,” said Williamson, whose club heads to North Bay tonight in the home-and-home-set before wrapping up busy three games in three nights Saturday in Owen Sound. “The systems aren’t great. You got two guys out there; one is doing one thing and the other guy doing another.

“This whole team hasn’t practised together once because we haven’t had all the guys here. We have to get through this weekend. It’s a big two points for us.”

Several new faces were making their OHL debut for the Colts, including Sale. The Seattle Kraken 2023 first-rounder appeared to get stronger as the contest went along, drawing a pair of assists and potting the shootout winner.

“In the overtime, I thought, and then the finish was big with the penalty shot,” said Williamson of his young star. “Again, a lot of travel for him. He goes to his first NHL camp and then he’s flying back from Seattle and gets one practice.

“And these guys don’t realize how good this league is. You can’t just sneak through it. You got to play and compete every shift and he’ll keep getting better for us. I don’t worry about him.”

Sale certainly came up a big at key times. Aside from his shootout winner, he helped get Barrie into overtime with the perfect feed to Punnett with just 28 seconds remaining.

“The composure to be able to find him and then also make a great pass that Punnett doesn’t have to adjust anything, and he can just let it go. It’s tough on a goalie to go all that way.

“It was a big goal for us. We led the league last year in third period comebacks and we’re on that pace again. Tough on a coach, I can tell you.”

Anthony Romani opened the scoring just 6:42 in to put North Bay ahead, before a pinching Kashawn Aitcheson tied things up almost midway through the second on a feed from behind net by Beau Jelsma.

Owen Van Steensel put the Troops back on top almost two minute later in the seesaw battle, but Jelsma tied it at 2-2 just six minutes into third.

“They got their money’s worth tonight,” said Williamson of the fans. “It’s not quite the way a coach draws it up. We see pieces there. We see good things. We still haven’t got where the chemistry all fits in with each other, but I’m enjoying this group. It’s going to be tough up there tomorrow night.”

While back from NHL camps, the Battalion sat Seattle prospect and defenceman Ty Nelson along with top goalie Dom DiVincentiis and captain Liam Arnsby.

“They got two big guys out, including the No. 1 goalie in the league, so it’s big to get the win at home,” said Williamson. “Then we’ll go take on that challenge.”

Game time Friday at North Bay Memorial Gardens is 7 p.m.

ICE CHIPS: Frasca, a free agent invite to Toronto Maple Leafs camp, was sent back on Friday, but did not play in the opener. . .  Colts top pick Shamar Moses had a strong effort in his OHL debut, drawing an assist on Jelsma’s power-play marker and playing on a line with fellow rookie Riley Patterson and Sale. . . North Bay outshot Barrie, 39-29. . . The Colts went 1-for-4 with the man advantage, while the Battalion went 1-for-3.

 babnner image - Terry Wilson/OHL Images

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