|Brandon Miller is used to coming up big in big games. He did it again Sunday, leading the Six Nations Chiefs to an 8-6 win to tie up the best of seven MSL finals at two games each. (File photo: Kevin Light)|
Stepping in to turn the tide is getting to be a habit for Brandon Miller. In 2013, he didn't play a minute in the playoffs but took over in the Mann Cup and helped the Six Nations Chiefs win the trophy for the first time since 1996. Last year, he split the playoffs with Evan Kirk and entered Game 7 of the MSL finals with the Chiefs trailing 4-1; they rebounded to win 9-5 and Miller went on to be the MVP of the Mann Cup as Six Nations earned back to back titles.
If the Chiefs head to Victoria to try to repeat their three-peat of the mid-90s, it will be largely thanks to Miller again. He stepped in for Dillon Ward in Game 2 of this year's MSL finals and, while he couldn't salvage that 18-14 loss, Miller has been the main man as the Chiefs have won back to back games to even the series including Sunday night's 8-6 win in which he stopped 49 of the 55 shots he faced.
Both wins have come with Kirk in net for the Lakers and playing outstanding lacrosse, as well. But Miller has made the stops the Chiefs needed to have and in Game 4 Ryan Benesch found his scoring touch to make the difference at the other end. Benesch entered the game with 4 goals in seven playoff games but connected five times and added a pair of assists.
“He's done it for us the last two Mann Cups. Last year Game 7 here, Kirky had a great six games, I was hesitant to pull him but at that point you had to,” Chiefs Head Coach Rich Kilgour said. “That's so hard, to come off the bench cold, Game 7 in a barn like this. But he took care of business last year. This year, same thing. He comes in, we were a little shaky there in the first, they were all over us. He made a couple of big saves that let us settle in and get out of the first up one. That was pretty much B Miller doing that work. He's a big game player and I'm glad he's on my side.”
As for Benesch's struggles putting the ball in the net, Kilgour said he and his coaching staff had told the forward not to worry. “That's what's so tough about our O. We don't care who it is. Benny was working hard and he was getting some shots, they just weren't falling. We told him, stay positive, on this team you don't have to get seven a night for us to win. It helps, but if you don't we've got other guys who can step up. Now tonight, they were falling for him.”
Benesch had the first and last goals of the first period, 1:50 into the frame and 54 seconds from the end, respectively, as Six Nations led 3-2. Miller made 16 saves in the period and many of them were jaw-dropping as the Lakers pushed and created good scoring opportunities.
Peterborough took their only lead of the night by scoring the first two goals of the second period; it took great plays to score them. Chad Tutton stole a pass in the defensive zone and raced the length of the floor with Wenster Green, who set an excellent pick to open a lane to the net for Tutton, who faked hard to Miller's right then tucked the ball just inside the other post.
Curtis Dickson got the second goal of the period when he sloughed off a series of checks to fight his way to the net, jumped in the air and managed to tuck the ball over Miller. The lead didn't last long, though. Randy Staats fired home his second goal of the game just 41 seconds later. Then Dhane Smith scored to put the Chiefs back on top.
That pair got mixed up in some rough stuff a few minutes after that. Smith was running after a loose ball near the Peterborough crease. Kirk came out and initiated contact but Smith knocked him down when they collided. Tutton raced to his goalie's defence, leading to a gathering along the boards. Staats and Eric Shewell came out of the scrum and went toe to toe.
Cory Vitarelli tied things up with a rocket from the high slot with 1:10 to play in the period but Benesch again scored in the final minute to make it 6-5 heading into the final 20 minutes.
Adam Jones scored 2:20 into the third to tie it once more but again the Chiefs responded quickly, and again it was Benesch, connecting just 21 seconds later. The Lakers pressed hard for the tying goal, firing 18 shots at Miller in the third while Kirk faced just 8 in the Peterborough goal. Miller stood tall, though, and Benesch scored the only other goal of the game at 12:25.
The teams don't have much time to rest up before the series resumes—they meet in Six Nations at 8 pm tonight (Monday) for Game 5, which can be seen live via JVI Sports Network webcast.
Both teams know anything can still happen. “They landed the first big punch. We got up, dusted ourselves off and punched,” Kilgour said. “So...best of three and knock on wood if it takes all three, two of them are in our barn.” But the Chiefs aren't taking anything for granted. “It's a long way to go,” Kilgour noted. They already showed they can win two in a row. They already showed they can win in our barn. We've got to get hydrated and be ready to go tomorrow.”
Lakers captain Scott Self, always calm and composed in victory or defeat, said the last two games could have gone differently but they'll be ready for Game 5. “It's been back and forth, back and forth, and unfortunately we've been on the wrong end of it for the last two games,” Self said. “But a shot here or there, a bounce here or there and we're winning 7-6, 8-6. We're not down about tonight's game or the game before. We know that's the way it goes and we'll be ready to play tomorrow night.”
“They're disciplined in the sense that they take away our transition,” Self added. “When things do break down—we had a lot of opportunities tonight—Brandon Miller was sensational. He stopped I don't know how many odd-man rushes tonight. And their short man has been very good, too, so you get some power play looks and you're not able to build momentum that way, it's tough.”
The key for Peterborough will be to solve Miller. “We've got to find a way, like we did in Game 2 when he came in, to throw a couple past him, preferably early just to get our confidence and maybe shake him a little bit,” Self said.
It's down to a best of three series now, and it is definitely a classic in the burgeoning Peterborough/Six Nations rivalry.