Ahead of Wednesday's tilt between the Battlefords AAA Stars and Prince Albert Mintos at the Civic Centre, there were a few indications the score wouldn't be close.
The Mintos had outscored the Stars 12-5 in their previous two wins over the Stars and outshot them by a combined 69-42 in those wins.
But the past is the past, and on Wednesday, the Stars gave the Mintos all they could handle, matching them chance for chance.
Unfortunately, it wasn't quite enough, as two late third period goals catapulted the Mintos to another win over Battlefords, this time by a 2-0 score.
"I was happy," Stars head coach Norm Johnston said after the game. "They're a [third] place team in the Saskatchewan AAA Midget League. We're a ninth-place hockey team trying to fight for a playoff spot. I asked [Mintos] coach [Ken Morrison] how he played and he thought his team played well.
"We had scoring opportunities. Just couldn't put the puck in the net. Tough loss for my kids."
The shots on goal this time were an even 30-30.
Kade McMillen notched a goal on a power play with 7:41 left in regulation to (finally) open the scoring and then Josh Pillar snuck a shot past Joseph Young with 3:06 left to give Prince Albert an insurance marker.
Cale Elder made 30 saves for the Mintos for his second shutout of the season, while Young made 28 saves in the Stars crease.
"Their goaltender played very well and we just didn't score," Johnston said. "[Adam] Beckman had a breakaway, [Ty] Mosimann had two chances, [Eric] Robbie had a couple chances, [Shayde] Peterson had some chances, [Tye] Scherger had a couple chances."
The Stars remain three points out of a playoff spot with a 14-22-1-0 record.
The good news is Johnston said positive signs are showing up on a more consistent basis, which hadn't been the case earlier in 2018.
"They're closer now then they have been all winter," he said. "The buy-in process is coming. I know it's late in the season, I understand that, but the buy-in process is coming. We're not moving pucks to inappropriate places. We're moving pucks on the wall and putting pucks deep. That's what we've got to do."
What was also a marked improvement on Wednesday was discipline.
The Stars were shorthanded just three times all night, a rarity considering they lead the league in penalty minutes with 834.
"Maybe we finally figured out if you stay out of the penalty box and play 5-on-5, we don't lose a lot of momentum. We keep going," Johnston said. "That's been a problem all winter. 834 minutes in penalties...we should have half that. Every time you take a penalty, what happens is you lose momentum and guys don't get on the ice on 5-on-5. Tonight we had, if you look at our lines, [Dylan] Esau's line had some chances, [Luke] Fennig's line had some chances, Beckman's line had some chances, because you know what, they got on the ice."
There are now just seven games left in the SMAAAHL regular season, and the Stars have to play six of them on the road.
Both the Stars and Sasktoon Blazers, who are three points up on Battlefords, have played 37 games.
Next up on the schedule is the Saskatoon Contacts on Wednesday, Feb. 6. The Contacts are seven points ahead of the Stars in the standings with a 15-15-6-0 record.
On Twitter: @NathanKanter11
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