Flint, Mich. – The Flint Firebirds extended their longest winning-streak in franchise history to seven games with a 5 – 3 triumph over the Western Conference’s first-place Kitchener Rangers Saturday. Jack Wismer scored twice in the tilt to earn ‘First Star’ honors and now has four tallies in his last three contests. Tyler Tucker (St. Louis Blues), Jack Phibbs and Evgeniy Oksentyuk also found twine. Oksentyuk’s goal was an empty-netter with one second remaining in regulation, and he also added an assist to claim the game’s ‘Third Star.’ Anthony Popovich earned his franchise-leading 20th victory between the pipes, making 29 saves on 32 Kitchener shots.
Flint scored the lone goal of the first period. Evgeniy Oksentyuk carried behind the Kitchener goal and tried to slide a pass through traffic in the slot. His attempt was blocked by a Rangers’ defender, but Oksentyuk stayed with it and dove to hold it in the zone at the blue line. He knocked the puck to Braeden Kressler who fed Tyler Tucker charging up the right-wing side. Tucker settled the puck in the right circle and rifled a wrister just inside the far post for his 11th of the season and third as a Firebird at 7:42.
First-period shots were 14 – 10 to Flint’s advantage, and the ‘Birds won eight of 12 draws. The Firebirds had the only power-play opportunity in the frame, but were unable to convert.
Flint extended their lead to a pair at 6:34 of the second period. Defenseman Dennis Busby (Arizona Coyotes) made a move around a Kitchener forward at the right point and carried into the right-wing circle. He lifted a wrister on net that Ingham saved initially. Jack Wismer was poised in the slot and was able to redirect the rebound between netminder Jacob Ingham’s left skate and the right goalpost for his 15th of the campaign. Evgeniy Oksentyuk was once again credited with the second assist on the play.
Kitchener found the back of the net at 10:10 to pull within one. Riley Damiani (Dallas Stars) sent a breakout pass that sprung Axel Bergkvist on a breakaway. As Flint’s defender closed in, Bergkvist faked a forehand shot before lifting a backhander just inside the far post for his sixth. Damiani was given the lone assist.
Jack Wismer logged his second of the night 25 seconds later, putting the ‘Birds up 3 – 1. Ethan Keppen (Vancouver Canucks) carried into the zone and backhanded a pass to Cody Morgan at the left point. Morgan fed the late-man Wismer, who slipped around a defender and scored with a backhander to the bottom right corner at 10:35.
The Rangers narrowed the gap again 34 seconds later. Michael Vukojevic (New Jersey Devils) shot from the left point and the puck bounced off Mike Petizian’s equipment and under Popovich. Petizian was credited with the goal, earning him his 17th of the campaign at 11:09 of period two. Vukojevic and Liam Hawel combined for the assists.
With under five minutes remaining in the middle frame, Connor Roberts snagged a loose puck in his own defensive end and fed Jack Phibbs in the neutral zone. Phibbs carried through the right circle with a step on two Kitchener defenders. As he approached the slot, Phibbs looked far post but snapped it five-hole for his 12th of the season at 15:31.
The Firebirds held a 4 – 2 lead after two periods. Shots in the middle stanza were even at 11, leaving Flint with the 40-minute edge of 25 – 21. Flint’s penalty-killers shut down both of Kitchener’s chances with the man-advantage.
Bergkvist scored his second of the night on the power play to pull the Rangers within one at 13:50 of the third. Damiani fed a quick pass across the slot to Bergkvist for the back-door, near-side one-timer from the right circle. Meireles picked up the second helper.
The Rangers called Ingham to the bench with just north of 90 seconds remaining in regulation. Jack Wismer fired a shot from the neutral zone that could have completed his hat trick, but it rang off the post and out. Oksentyuk sealed the victory just before time expired with a backhand empty-netter from the blue line for his 23rd of the season, unassisted.
Final shots were 36 – 32 in Flint’s favor. Faceoffs were 28 – 18, advantage Firebirds. Kitchener finished one-for-three on the power play while Flint was scoreless in two tries.
Next up for the Firebirds is a four-game road with stops in Erie, Hamilton and Oshawa next weekend, and then a visit to the in-state rival Spirit in Saginaw on Friday, Feb. 14. Flint’s next home game is Saturday, February 15 when the Firebirds host the Guelph Storm for a 7 p.m. tilt.
Photo Credit: Todd Boone / Flint Firebirds
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