Six minutes remained in the second period of the North Division finals and the Jamestown Ironmen, for probably the first time all playoffs, were reeling.
Over the past 14 minutes the squad had watched as their once comfortable three-goal lead had shrunk to two, and then, suddenly, one; and now the Soo Eagles were threatening again - shorthanded, no less - with a 2-on-1 break, looking like they would tally the equalizer, steal the momentum and, worst of all, maybe even take the game.
Only Dylan Zink stood between the two Soo forwards flying down the ice.
Victor Johansson of the Jamestown Ironmen, right, takes a diving shot while Soo’s Alex Robert attempts to block on Thursday night at the Jamestown Savings Bank Arena during the North American Hockey League North Division championship game. See additional photos at cu.post-journal.com.
P-J photo by Scott Reagle
That was enough.
Zink, timing his maneuver perfectly, laid out flat onto the slick surface just as one of the Eagles, who had opted not to pass, fired a hard shot on net. But instead of stretching the twine as it seemed destined to do, the puck bounced off the 6-foot, Madison, Wis., native and scooted harmlessly into the corner.
Crisis averted; the Ironmen, in due course, win.
It was undoubtedly a breathtaking moment for the nearly1,000 Ironmen faithful on hand - not to mention for Coach Dan Daikawa and the rest of his crew that sat helplessly on the bench - but, as they have been apt to do (especially of late) the defense yet again stepped up at the most crucial of moments.
"They've been - the only good word is - clutch," Jamestown netminder Joe Ballmer said of the six players that form his own private Iron wall. "I mean, in every situation they've blocked shots, they've cleared my bad rebounds and have just stepped it up hardcore these last couple games.
"There's really not enough to say about those guys, they've been terrific."
Not only has the group - made up of Zink, who recently earned an NCAA Division 1 scholarship to UMass Lowell, Aaron Scheppelman, Brett Szajner, Ryan Urso, Michael Mazzota and Kenny Curtis - been top-notch on the defensive end, but, as one of them showed on Thursday evening during what was, to date, the most important game in franchise history, they can come through on the offensive end as well.
Leading by just one goal, it was Zink who gained possession of the loose puck at center ice, maneuvered around an Eagles defenseman and laced a wrister that dinged off the post and into the net.
The goal, which came a little more than five minutes into the third period, clinched for the squad the North Division title and a trip to the upcoming Robertson Cup National Championship in Frisco, Texas.
Given all the hard work they'd been doing stopping pucks - by any means necessary - and breaking up the Eagles' numerous scoring opportunities, perhaps it was only fitting that it was a defenseman that tallied the title-winning clincher.
"It's been a while for him," Szajner said with a wry smile. "We were actually talking before the game about how long it's been. It was really nice to see him get that goal."
The score was Zink's first of the playoffs.
"He does that to me in practice just about every day," Ballmer said of Zink's goal with a laugh. "So I knew as soon as he stepped in there he was going to score."
But while the goal was certainly welcome by Daikawa and the rest of the team, it's what Zink and his fellow members on the defensive unit do in front of Ballmer, away from the opposing net that's most important, and crucial, to the team's success.
"We've played great defense," Daikawa said. "It's really coming together for us."
And together the group - Ballmer included - has been nothing short of outstanding.
Ballmer sports a minuscule 1.97 goals-against average and has stopped over 96 percent of the shots that have managed to make it past the block-happy group patrolling the ice in front of him. Together they have yet to allow more than two goals in a single playoff game (they've now played six games in total, and all have been wins), and before their momentary letdown in the second period, they'd held the North Division's top-seeded team scoreless for five periods in a row.
"We've been playing really well," Zink said. "Everyone's keeping it simple, doing the little things right and just doing their job."
Added Szajner, "You've just got to play your heart out."
So far they've done just that. And if the defense can continue it's solid play through the gruelling opening days of the Robertson Cup tournament, it might hold strong enough to bring back to Jamestown the franchise's first-ever national championship.
"We've got a pretty good streak going right now," Szajner said. "We want to keep it going."