By Jared Tennant

PHOTO: The News Herald

Columbus, GA - The Mentor Ice Breakers dropped a pair of two-goal games over the first two matchups of their three-game set against the Columbus River Dragons on the road before rebounding for a 6-3 victory on Saturday night. Despite losing a series for the first time this season, the Ice Breakers were able to maintain their spot as the second seed in the five-team Eastern Division with a 9-5-0-0 record, good for 27 points.

Wednesday, November 27 – River Dragons 3, Ice Breakers 1

Columbus and rookie netminder Ryan Pashovitz were able to stifle Mentor’s top-ranked offense in a 3-1 victory in the opener of the three-game series. Pashovitz, who played collegiately at Arizona State University, stopped 37 of 38 Ice Breakers shots in what was his best start of the season.

The Ice Breakers power play, which came into the weekend as one of the top units in the league, was unable to capitalize on a stretch of seven minutes of power play time after Will LaPorte took a fighting penalty to go along with a two-minute instigator call. Instead, Columbus scored while LaPorte served his time in the sin bin when CJ Hayes netted a shorthanded tally at 9:00, the first shorthanded goal allowed by the Ice Breakers this season. Unfortunately for Mentor, allowing shorthanded goals and struggling with Columbus’ forecheck would prove to be a theme for most of the three-game series.

Just 1:44 later, FPHL leading scorer Jon Buttitta tied things up off assists from Thomas Stuart-Dant and Declan Conway. Neither club scored again until midway through the second period when River Dragons veteran forward Jay Croop netted his ninth goal of the campaign. Shortly after, Chase Fallis scored on the power play to give Columbus a 3-1 advantage.

While no goals were scored in the final period, things were certainly entertaining as the two teams combined for 14 penalties, including a fight between Ice Breakers forward Nate Farrington and MJ Graham. Mentor netminder Austyn Roudebush took the loss, falling to 8-4-0-0 after stopping 30 of 33 shots while Hayes had a two-point night for Columbus with a goal and an assist.  

Friday, November 29 – River Dragons 7, Ice Breakers 5

From an outsider’s perspective, the Friday-night tilt between Mentor and Columbus was a wildly entertaining affair with back-and-forth offense and an exciting finish. The Ice Breakers likely had a much different view of the contest, which saw them blow an early 3-0 lead and allow three shorthanded goals.

Nate Farrington kicked off the scoring with a goal almost exactly a minute into the contest with assists being credited to Mark Essery and Alex Morrow. At 8:43, Jon Buttitta stretched the lead to 2-0 before Parker Moskal took advantage of a 3 on 0 shorthanded breakaway with a highlight-reel move at 13:17, giving Mentor its largest lead of the series at 3-0.

Shortly after Moskal’s goal, Yianni Liarakos scored on the power play before Tim Santopaolo pulled the Dragons within one at 17:14. The Ice Breakers looked to settle things down following the first intermission, but a pair of Columbus goals within the first 2:41 of the second frame put the River Dragons on top 4-3.

Midway through the second period, Declan Conway scored on a rocket of a slapshot to tie things back up at 4-4 with Essery and Moskal factoring in with assists. Just 49 seconds later, Ivan Bondarenko found twine to restore Columbus’ one-goal lead that the club would hold onto at the second break. At 13:17 of the final frame, Moskal scored to tie the game at 5-5. The goal seemed to be destined to send the two teams to overtime, but a bad turnover in the Ice Breakers defensive zone allowed Yianni Liarakos to tally another shorthanded goal with 28 seconds left in regulation to put Columbus on top 6-5 and send Mentor to a heartbreaking defeat.

The Ice Breakers pulled Roudebush in favor of an extra attacker for a 6 on 4 advantage in the final minute of play, but Chase Fallis scored into the empty net with eight seconds remaining to make the final score 7-5.

For Mentor, Moskal had a pair of goals and two helpers while Essery dished out two assists. Conway stretched his point streak to 11 games with a goal and an assist while Roudebush made 31 saves in the loss. His counterpart, Ryan Pashovitz, gave up three goals on nine shots in the opening frame but settled down to stop 24 of Mentor’s final 26 shots to pick up his second win of the series and third of the year.

Saturday, November 30 - Ice Breakers 6, River Dragons 3

A pair of four-point outings by Northeast Ohio natives Declan Conway and Jon Buttitta allowed Mentor to salvage three points from its trip down to Georgia. The Ice Breakers’ power play unit bounced back with a 2 for 6 performance and avoided the brutal turnovers that contributed to Columbus’ three shorthanded goals the night before.

Brody Duncan scored the first goal of the game on the man advantage at 7:56 before the River Dragons answered with a power-play tally of their own at 17:25 by MJ Graham. Just 14 seconds later, Buttitta scored his third goal of the series off a feed from Conway to restore Mentor’s lead.

After Conway capitalized on another power play chance at 4:22 of the second frame, Graham continued his strong night with another goal to cut Mentor’s lead in half at 3-2. The Ice Breakers out-shot the River Dragons 18-12 in the period, but neither team scored until rookie blueliner Stepan Jirovec fired a seeing-eye slapshot through traffic for his first professional goal just over five minutes into the third frame.

Columbus captain Chase Fallis beat Roudebush with a well-aimed wrist shot just 59 seconds later to make the score 4-3 in favor of the Ice Breakers before Conway and Buttitta hooked up to net the dagger at 8:15. Buttitta possessed the puck behind Columbus’ cage before feeding Conway in the slot for a one-time finish and a 5-3 Mentor lead.

With the clock ticking down, the Ice Breakers maintained pressure and prevented the River Dragons from pulling goaltender Jared Rutledge for an extra attacker. With five seconds remaining, Buttitta skated through on a partial breakaway and slipped the puck past Rutledge to make it a 6-3 final. The contest ended in fitting fashion with multiple fights and players from both sides exchanging some words.

Between the pipes, Roudebush rebounded from a tough performance on Friday to stop 34 of 37 River Dragons shots en route to his ninth win of the campaign. Rutledge made 36 saves for Columbus.

The Ice Breakers are back in action next weekend for a two-game set against the Danville Dashers on the road, continuing the club’s six-game road swing. Mentor will be back home on December 14 against the Battle Creek Rumble Bees on the back end of a home-and-home series.