Thomas Nesbitt picked a good time to break out of his career-long playoff drought, scoring all three Ottawa goals in a 3-1 win for the 67’s, who took a 2-0 series lead over the Niagara IceDogs.
“It’s been a long time. It’s something I never felt before — scoring a playoff goal in this league, so it was huge for me, especially getting it done early,” said Nesbitt, who opened the scoring 2:31 into the game, ending a playoff points drought spanning 16 games over his three seasons in an Ottawa uniform.
“I was really down on myself after the first game, and I had it hanging over my head going into the second game,” said the Stittsville native, a 33-goal scorer in the regular season playing primarily on the team’s third line with regular penalty-killing duties. “It was just an indescribable feeling seeing the goal go in.”
Nesbitt scored his second goal in the middle of the second period to put the home side up 2-0, then with Niagara pressing in the third, he sealed the win with a last-minute empty-netter.
With the offensive outburst, Nesbitt added a number of firsts to his resume, with his first playoff point and first career hat trick, following up on his first career overtime winner in the final game of the regular season.
Coach Chris Byrne said it was just a matter of time before Nesbitt broke out.
“Even if he isn’t on the scoresheet, he contributes and works hard, so for him, it was a good game that carried through from the end of the year,” he said.
The first goal came off a smart pinch from Cody Ceci, who picked off a Niagara clearing attempt and made a move at the blue line before lobbing a shot at the net that deflected off the defender’s skate and landed right on Nesbitt’s blade.
He made no mistake burying his quick shot past Mark Visentin on the short side.
Momentum swung heavily in Niagara’s favour thanks to three straight power plays, but Ottawa goaltender Chris Perugini thwarted a furious Niagara attack.
Minutes after killing the penalty, Shane Prince won a battle for the puck and worked it down low to a waiting Nesbitt, who sailed a shot over Visentin’s shoulder for his second goal of the game.
But Dylan MacEachern got that back on the power play four minutes later.
Niagara stormed out of the gate in the third, but Perugini was once again solid, turning away all 16 shots he faced in the frame. His 36-save performance made him second star, while Visentin was named the third star.
“Both guys at both ends played well,” said Byrne. “Through the season series, both goaltenders have been strong.”
Byrne said the 2-0 series lead doesn’t make things any easier as the series shifts to the Jack Gatecliff Arena for games Tuesday and Thursday against a tight-checking Niagara team that carried the play for much of Sunday’s contest.
“They don’t go away, they work hard, they check well, they make it difficult to play against and they’ve played that style since Christmas. There’s not a lot of open ice and you’ve got to earn every chance you get,” said Byrne.
“That’s what we expected going in, a tight-checking series with good goaltending on both sides, so I think it’s lived up to its billing,” said Niagara coach Mike McCourt.
“I thought we generated lots of chances, but just couldn’t capitalize.”
McCourt doesn’t expect to change his game plan.
“You have to stay positive. It takes four games to win a series,” he said. “We have to continue to play a simple game and get pucks in deep. We’re not a flashy team. We’re a team that works hard and competes and nothing’s going to change.”