A battling display that has become synonymous with the Edinburgh Capitals this season came up short once again, as Braehead Clan claimed the spoils by virtue of a 4-3 win after the shootout. The defeat signs off a 2016/17 season that had its low points but also its fair share of highs, with the Murrayfield men missing the play-offs for a fourth straight season despite countless close games.
At the back end of a home-and-home against the Clan, the Capitals knew that even victory would not be enough to move them into 4th in the Gardiner Conference standings. They did at least register a point that softened the blow of losing a ninth straight on home ice, a season that ends with Edinburgh once again at the basement of the Elite League.
There was no shortage of character and fight on display though, with this anything but a dead rubber. It is fitting that the season was signed off with a game that went the distance.
Things nearly got off to the worst start however as a defensive zone turnover from Jaroslav Hertl gave Alex Leavitt an early sighter. Stefan Della Rovere was twice denied after a neat feed by Harry Quast, before the latter was thwarted by Travis Fullerton.
Both sides began to trade chances with former NHLer Jay Rosehill denied from Matt Beca’s pass, while Gary Russell was forced into work for the first time on the night as Garrett Milan sped through on the break.
Lee Baldwin’s stretch pass had Scott Pitt bearing down on goal, before Rosehill failed to cash in on a chance that saw him in acres of space. The Capitals’ defensive coverage was found wanting, but they survived unscathed.
A Clan D-zone turnover nearly fashioned the opener for the hosts with Ian Schultz forcing a pad save from Russell following good work by Jared Staal. That seemed to energise Edinburgh with Schultz inches away from a highlight-reel goal of his own. Setting off on a superb solo run he evaded the attentions of several Braehead players, including Rosehill, before being kept out by Russell.
The opener was not long in coming though. It all stemmed from a Schultz face off win and, after Mason Wilgosh had picked out Jacob Johnston for the drive, it was that man Schultz who cleverly positioned himself in front. The Canadian fan favourite was on hand to divert the shot in past Russell to open the scoring with 11:15 remaining, his 20th goal of a prolific season in all competitions.
One nearly became two before long. With the Caps on the power play following a call against Scott Aarssen, the hosts would strike the post for the first time on the night. Johnston found his blue line partner Michael D’Orazio with Russell doing just about enough to palm his slap shot onto the post.
Pavel Vorobyev was next to go close, tipping D’Orazio’s bullet effort narrowly wide as Edinburgh threatened to open up a two goal advantage.
Edinburgh were nearly undone just as Aarssen emerged out of the box though. Michal Dobron fanned on a blue line effort allowing Clan to break, but Aarssen was wrapped up by Fullerton to preserve the Capitals’ lead.
But we were about to be reminded about the small margins in sport. With Edinburgh desperately unlucky not to add to their advantage, they would be pegged back here as Braehead grabbed a goal of their own.
The hosts will not look back too fondly on it though. The last thing you want to do is to give the prolific Beca the license to glide into the slot which is exactly what Edinburgh did. He made no mistake to slam home the leveller with 6:47 to play, assisted by Pitt and Rosehill.
Braehead were sensing further opportunities to strike and nearly did as both sides saw chances come and go. A fortunate bounce involving Rosehill nearly presented a gift of a chance for Pitt, but again the superb Fullerton was right behind it.
Up the other end, a neat one-two between Karel Hromas and Mason Wilgosh nearly brought reward with the Canadian denied by Russell who tipped the puck wide with the blocker.
There was a certain confidence flowing through the hosts’ play to begin the second, with a spate of opportunities coming up empty for the Capitals. Dobron was at the heart of the first two, fanning on a sweet Vorobyev feed before trying his luck on a wrap-around try.
Good work by Staal to break up the puck at centre ice nearly brought an opportunistic second. Taylor MacDougall’s square pass in the vicinity of Milan forced a smart stop from former Capital Russell to keep the scores level.
On their second power play, Edinburgh threatened to continue their good recent record on the man advantage only to be left frustrated. Neat combination play by Schultz and MacDougall almost had the desired effect but Staal could not quite give it the finish it deserved.
Both Matt Tipoff and the tireless Wilgosh found themselves just the wrong side of the post, with the latter firing an effort into the side netting as Edinburgh continued to ask questions of the visitors.
But two penalties called against Jay King gave Clan ample opportunity to register a marker of their own. The fact they didn’t owed much to the superb work of Fullerton. Aarssen was swiftly denied before Della Rovere met the same outcome with Fullerton extending the pad.
Braehead captain Matt Keith was next to be left frustrated as he could only fire at a sprawling Fullerton, with the former Clan goalie covering to force the whistle. The game, by this stage, was firmly end to end.
That power play quickly became a 25 second 5 on 3 chance with Dobron assessed for a delay of game infraction. Heroic penalty killing and the work of Fullerton to deny Aarssen and Cody Carlson kept the scores at one apiece.
Edinburgh survived a scare though as Kyle Wharton flashed over and Beca, on their next chance of note, went close to giving Ryan Finnerty’s side their first lead of the evening.
It proved to be a crucial passage of play as the Capitals would re-establish their lead before the second frame was out. Tipoff was well positioned to poke home his 11th league goal of the season with 2:46 remaining, after Vorobyev had been denied by Russell on the initial try.
Things nearly got better shortly afterwards. After a coming together between Staal and former Edinburgh forward Callum Boyd, the ex Carolina Hurricanes forward looked to be well placed to capitalise on a favourable bounce of the puck but Russell had other ideas to make the stop.
Yet if period two belonged to Edinburgh, the final 20 minutes of the regular season began in rather ominous fashion with wave after wave of Braehead attacks.
They should have drawn themselves level immediately. Leavitt connected with Wharton and, when he found Corey Cowick out in front, the puck looked destined to end up in the Edinburgh net. The forward, however, could incredibly only succeed in finding the side netting.
The pressure was relentless. If that was a huge missed opportunity, Beca may have been disappointed not to have found the net himself having spun away from the attentions of D’Orazio on their next series.
Fullerton, recently voted Edinburgh Capitals Supporters Club’s player of the season, had to be at his best to deny Craig Peacock with a superb save. But it was perhaps only a matter of time before Braehead drew themselves level for a second time.
After Baldwin had twice forced saves from Fullerton, up stepped the impressive Beca to sweep home his second goal of a three point night. 2-2 with just two and a half minutes played in the final period. It looked to be the goal that would energize the Clan and so it proved.
It was telling that Edinburgh were again caught cold defensively, the very problems that have unfortunately plagued the Murrayfield men all season. Though Pitt was held up after good work by Beca, it was Rosehill who reacted quickest to swat the puck home from close range with 14:23 remaining to give Braehead their first lead of the night.
The Capitals’ disjointed opening to the final 20 threatened to spoil what had been, up until that point, a performance characterised by plenty of fight and no shortage of grit. Again they had Fullerton to thank as he stood on his head to save on a three on one chance from Wharton.
Two quick Clan rushes, one involving Leavitt and the other Beca, threatened to deal a huge blow to Edinburgh’s comeback attempts as the Capitals survived on both occasions.
They weren’t without a stroke of fortune however. Former Capitals forward Bari McKenzie collected an inviting Boyd feed before rifling an effort that cannoned into the post. It was quite the let-off.
But the Capitals were to experience the same fate within minutes, the second time they struck the iron in the contest. It unsurprisingly had Vorobyev at the heart of it as his pass set up Sean Beattie for the effort.
The Brit, voted Edinburgh’s home-grown player of the season, nearly had his second goal in as many nights as he too fired the puck into the pipe with Russell well beaten.
That though was not to signal the end of the drama. After Staal was denied by a glove save following a neat pass from Rihards Grigors at the blue line, Edinburgh snatched a late leveller.
With 2:30 remaining, Hromas did extremely well to win a one on one puck battle to set the hosts up for the chance. It never looked in doubt once Schultz took receipt of the puck, driving behind the net to create just enough separation for Wilgosh to ram home his 11th league goal of the season from in front.
A frenetic finale was to come with both sides having chances to claim a regulation win, the last witnessing a huge stop from Russell who denied Wilgosh a second of the game with time expiring.
It was, however, on to overtime with both sides cancelling each other out. Carlson was denied by a sprawling Fullerton before opportunities for Schultz and Wilgosh came up empty.
With neither side finding the winner, the final game of the regular season would be decided by penalty shots. Both Beca and Pitt found the net, either side of Tipoff and Johnston misses, as Braehead warmed up for their play-off quarter-final with the Dundee Stars with the two points.
For Edinburgh, they sign off the 2016/17 season with a consolation point to take their tally to 35 for the campaign. A ninth straight home defeat, and a seventh in succession home or away, have taken the gloss off a season that was still flickering even a matter of weeks ago.
A lack of consistency hurt a once promising play-off charge, but if there is one thing that can’t be denied it is the fight to the last epitomised by a battling display against Braehead to force overtime and penalties.
An intriguing off-season awaits with Capitals fans left waiting and wondering about how many of this year’s squad will return in September. Captain Jacob Johnston was coy on his own future, with the Canadian out of contract, but was keen to emphasise the spirit and togetherness in the Capitals locker room.
“I think it’s kind of been the story all year. We’ve been pretty competitive, we’ve been in a lot of games and kind of fallen short. But seeing as we didn’t really have anything to play for this weekend, guys showed up and battled right to the end which is really nice to see.
“It does for sure,” said Johnston when asked if it meant something that the roster stuck together despite the disappointment of missing the play-offs, unlike in 2015-2016. “Everyone’s stuck with it this year, we have a great group of guys – a really tight group – and that really helped us. We all stuck it out right to the end and it was a great group that we had in the locker room this year.
“I think that we came up a little bit short on some of our goals. Obviously we wanted to make the play-offs, and that was the main one, but that being said we did have some positive strides. We qualified for the Challenge Cup [knockout stages] for the first time ever, we won in Fife which is tough to do and Edinburgh’s had a hard time doing that in past years. There has definitely been some ups, there have been some downs but I think we’re making strides forward.
“I don’t know yet, we’ll have to find out,” said Johnston when asked what the future holds for the Edinburgh captain. “I’m just going to recharge the batteries, go home and see my family and go from there.”
“It was great [being the Capitals captain]. We had a great group of guys in that locker room and to be the captain of this team was a true honour. If that is the last season that I play it will be a memorable one for sure.”