Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Grant leads Lakers to 8-3 Game 1 win over Oakville after pregame jersey retirement ceremonygr

John Grant Jr won the Mann Cup with Peterborough the last time he appeared in one, in 2012. He's hoping Tuesday's Game 1 semifinal win was the first step towards one more. (Photo: Dave Fryer)
The Peterborough Lakers held a ceremony to announce they are retiring John Grant Jr.'s jersey at the end of the season before Tuesday night's Game 1 of the Major Series Lacrosse semifinals against the Oakville Rock. Then Grant went out and reminded everyone why his #24 now hangs in the rafters alongside other all-time greats from the franchise.

Grant had 3 goals and 2 assists to lead the Lakers to an 8-3 win. Taking the first game at home was extra important to Peterborough since the next two games in the series will be played in Oakville; the Memorial Centre is unavailable for the the next week because of the annual Peterborough Exhibition.

The game was prefaced with an emotional 20-minute pregame ceremony during which the crowd of 2,724 gave Grant three standing ovations. His parents, wife Raygen, daughter Gabby and other family members were on the floor for the ceremony. Long-time friend and teammate Tracey Kelusky spoke. “When we were young we wanted to be the Gaits,” Kelusky said. “Kids today want to be John Grant Jr.”

The Lakers presented Grant a framed collage of photos from his legendary career with the team. National team chairman Dean French was also on hand to present Grant a framed Team Canada jersey. To conclude the ceremony, Grant addressed the crowd. He finished up saying, “Now if you don't mind, I need to wear this jersey for another month or so,” and ran to the Peterborough bench to get ready to play.

A few minutes later, appropriately, he got the Lakers on the board. Grant fought through a couple of defenders and fired a bouncer. Nick Rose got some of it but the ball dribbled across the goal line before Rose could spin and stop it.

“I wanted it. Anyone who knows me knows that stuffs important,” said Grant, who had almost scored even earlier. “I hit a pipe the first shift; that would have been good.”

The goal was the first of 5 points including 3 goals for Grant, who said he was feeling great during the game. “I don't know if it was adrenaline or what. I felt fairly younger than I have in the last few games and I'm just happy I could help the team win.”

Wesley Berg evened things up for the Rock when he slapped the ball home hockey-style as the rebound of an Andrew Kew shot rolled out of the crease. Brad Self got that one back for Peterborough on a three on one break. He used Chad Tutton as a decoy and ripped a shot just inside the left post. Cory Vitarelli scored his first of two after Adam Jones waited patiently with the ball on the power play before feeding it to Vitarelli atop the crease.

That would be it for scoring for the next 14 minutes. Both goalies, Rose for Oakville and Evan Kirk for Peterborough, were sharp. As the game went on, Kirk had to be occasionally spectacular to protect the Lakers' lead. He would wind up making 61 saves in total.

Finally, almost nine minutes into the second period, scoring resumed. Zach Currier stepped onto the floor at one end of Peterborough's bench as a forward sprinted to the other end. Currier timed his entry to the floor perfectly and turned to put his body between a Rock player and the ball that was rolling towards them. Under pressure, Currier tapped the ball along the floor then ran onto it. He passed it to Grant, who shot around a screen to make it 4-1.

Bradley Kri, who won nine of the game's 14 faceoffs for Oakville, took the next two and both led to Rock goals. Glen Bryan barely avoided a crease call as he tucked one past Kirk right off the draw. Then Jeremy Noble ripped home a step-back shot to pull Oakville within a goal at 4-3.

About four minutes later, Vitarelli gave Peterborough a little breathing room when he was left wide open on a pick and roll. Then the goalies shut the doors for more than 20 minutes. Both sides had chances, but Rose and Kirk were the stars of the game for that stretch. Kirk in particular was forced to make some sensational saves that kept Oakville at bay in a game that could felt closer than the final score indicated.

After the 13-minute mark of the third period, Joel Matthews finally broke the goalies' spell when he took a flip pass from Shawn Evans in the two-man game and fired a high-to-high rope to make it 6-3.

While Grant is nearing the end of his career, Evans is in the prime of his own legendary run with the Lakers and he made another great pass to set up the next Peterborough goal. With the ball near centre floor, Evans found a seam to rip a pass to Mark Steenhuis, inexplicably unchecked near the net. His goal at 14:57 felt like the dagger that finished off Oakville for this game. Grant finished off the scoring with an empty-netter three minutes from full time.

Kirk was pleased with the way the Lakers improved after he thought they got away from what had made them successful all season in the early going. “I thought we had a shaky start. I thought we were a little complacent. We built habits all year,” Kirk said, suggesting they got away from those habits in the first period. “I think we changed in the second and third. We got better as the game went on. That's what we're looking for.”

The goalie was happy with his play and the handful of saves he made on high-quality Oakville chances, but gave much of the credit to his defence for the majority of the 61 times he turned aside Rock shots. “They were big saves but my defence made it easy work. They got in the lane and I saw the ball really well. I just stood up and it was pretty easy, to tell the truth.”

The Lakers defence did block several shots, as they have gotten into the habit of doing. Robert Hope absorbed a few in addition to putting on a clinic in how to kill a 4-on-3 power play. Playing low in Peterborough's inverted triangle, Hope used his anticipation and lateral quickness to minimize Oakville's chances in what is generally considered an almost automatic goal situation against high-level offences.

Jeremy Noble did get one shot away that was very close to making it 5-4 and potentially changing the direction of the game during Oakville's 4-on-3 midway through the third. The ball rang off one post and directly across the goal line to ricochet away off the other.

The game was chippy from fairly early on and grew more so as not much was being called and the players grew frustrated. That side of the game is likely to only ramp up as the series progresses. Oakville appeared to be trying to take the Lakers out of their game with an aggressive style. Kirk said the Lakers are prepared for that.

“It's going to be a long series. They're a good team. That's why it's a four out of seven. They earned the right to be here,” Kirk said. “It's going to be tough back and forth. We talked about that. It's going to be a chippy series. That's going to help us in the long run, just stay composed and we have to give it back to them just as much as they give it to us.”

The key, he said, is to respond but to be smart about it. “Team tough,” Kirk summarized. “All five guys out there. You don't want to do anything stupid but just play tough.”

Games 3 and 4 will be in Oakville this Friday and next Monday before the series returns to Peterborough for Game 4 next Thursday.