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Wolves lose last-second heartbreaker in playoff opener

York Lions forward Daniel Nikandrov nets the winner with 5.3 seconds to go in regulation to give his team a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.

THUNDER BAY – The Lakehead Thunderwolves return to the OUA men’s hockey playoffs didn’t exactly go as planned.

Daniel Nikandrov scored the winner with 5.3 seconds on Wednesday night as the York Lions rallied from a two-goal, first-period deficit to knock off the Lakehead Thunderwolves 3-2 in the opener of their best-of-three OUA West quarterfinal at Fort William Gardens.

The Wolves now face elimination on Saturday and must win two straight on the road to advance to the second round.

“We really stuck with it,” said Nikandrov, a five-year Ontario Hockey League veteran who scored four times in his rookie campaign with the Lions this season.

“Going down 2-0 in the first was tough for our group. We were really excited to come out and play, but it didn’t start our way. We stuck with it, we were positive in the dressing room and it ended up paying off for us. Obviously it was a fortunate bounce at the end.”

It’s a heartbreaker, said Lakehead’s first-year forward Zach Whitlock, who tipped home captain Justin Sefton’s power-play shot late in the second, the goal staking the Thunderwolves to a 2-0 lead, an advantage they’d hold until the final three minutes of the second.

Whitlock said it was just a lucky play.

“I don’t think we were really looking at overtime or the clock. We just knew we were trying to get pucks deep. They got lucky with a break there and put it in the back of our net.”

The Wolves won the first and played even with the No. 9 Lions in penalty-free third, save for the last-second marker, but were dominated in the second, when York outshot Lakehead 17-2 and tied the game with two goals in the final three minutes.

“It was definitely a heartbreaker, especially that late,” Whitlock said, “but that’s the beauty thing about playoffs. It’s do or die from here an on out and it makes for fun hockey.”

Lakehead coach Bill McDonald said the Lions second goal was the backbreaker, Scott Feser and the Lions outmanning the Thunderwolves on a last-minute rush in the second to knot the score at two after 40 minutes.

“I thought in the third period we played pretty good. You make a mistake and missed coverage and they scored,” McDonald said. “In the third period, I thought we had our chances too and it never went in.”

Cody Alcock struck first for Lakehead, burying the puck past York goalie Mack Shield at the 8:31 mark of the opening period.

Derek Sheppard, who had a goal and an assist for the Lions, was first on the board for York, punching it past a sprawling Green in the LU net. Feser’s goal came on a sharp wrist shot inside the left faceoff circle.

Lakehead killed a 1:50 two-man disadvantage in the second. The Lions Tyler Mort rang one off the post about four minutes before Sheppard’s goal, with Thunderwolves defenceman Jake Ringuette serving a two-minute minor.

Scoring: 1. Lakehead, Alcock 1 (Valiquette, Springer) 8:31.2. Lakehead, Whitlock 1 (Ainsworth, Sefton) 17:37. Penalties: Sheppard YRK (unsportsmanlike conduct) 6:03, Hynnes LAK (holding) 9:54, Geiser YRK (high sticking) 12:01, Milner YRK (interference) 17:31.

: 3. York, Sheppard 1 (Hale, Nikandrov) 17:48. 4. York, Feser 1 (Sheppard, Jackman) 19:21. Penalties: Fullum LAK (tipping) 4:27, Sefton LAK (boarding) 4:37, Ringuette LAK (slashing) 12:06.

: 5. York, Nikandrov 1 (Feser, Jackman) 19:54. Penalties: None.

GAME DATA – SOG – York 12-17-9-38, Lakehead 11-2-11-24; Power plays (goals-chances) – York (0-4), Lakehead (1-3); Goaltenders – York: Mack Shields, Lakehead: Devin Green; A: 1,727.