By Len Bardsley
The Times of Trenton
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Sudden death took on a whole new meaning yesterday in Game 3 of the Titans-Bullies best-of-five ECHL playoff series at Boardwalk Hall.
Titans forward Nick Deschenes (pictured) provided a fitting end to the Titans-Bullies rivalry when he one-timed a Scott Bertoli pass behind Trevor Koenig to give the Titans a dramatic 4-3 overtime victory.
Deschenes’ goal with 8:01 left in the first period of sudden death completed a Titans’ three-game sweep of the Bullies and ended the Bullies’ franchise after four successful years in Atlantic City.
The Bullies will move to Stockton, Calif., next season.
The Titans advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-2002 season and will face the winner of the Reading Royals-Toledo Storm series.
Not surprisingly, Deschenes’ goal, which was initiated by B.J. Abel’s forced turnover deep in the Bullies’ end, generated incredible emotions on both sides.
The Titans were thrilled to close out a hard-fought series with back-to-back overtime victories, while a stunned Bullies team, realizing the enormity of Deschenes’ goal, suffered a momentary lapse of reason.
Bullies coach Matt Thomas and the majority of his team retreated to the locker room in the aftermath of Deschenes goal instead of partaking in the hockey tradition of shaking hands at center ice at the conclusion of a series.
Thomas attempted to apologize to Titans coach Mike Haviland for his oversight of hockey tradition following the game.
The post-game put only a slight damper on what was the best game of the series.
The Titans twice had leads only to watch the Bullies tie the game, eventually forcing overtime on a Shawn Mather power-play goal with 11:12 left in the third period.
The Titans played a steady, safe overtime, until they jumped on their first opportunity.
Fittingly, veteran forward Scott Bertoli, who has been waiting a long time to celebrate winning a series, was in the middle of the clinching goal.
Bertoli watched the Bullies sweep the Titans out of the playoffs in the second round in 2002 and first round in 2003.
“It is big,” Bertoli said. “The history of the two teams, the fact they have beaten us twice . . . It is a good feeling. It is a great group of guys who have come together at the right time.”
As they have done all series, the Titans never lost their composure or focus no matter what the situation. They took a 2-0 lead on goals by Rick Kowalsky and Bertoli, but responded well after the Bullies tied it up 2-2 midway through the second period.
The Titans grabbed a 3-2 lead on a Michael Schutte power-play goal early in the third period, but did not get rattled when Mather tied things up.
“They were like, hey, we were going to get this done,” Haviland said. “It is enjoyable to be around them right now because of their attitude and commitment to winning.”
Kowalsky feels the team has made huge strides in dealing with adversity since the Titans’ struggles in the middle of the season, when they suffered through a 2-8-1 stretch.
“It is a character-builder and reveals what we have in this room to win the last two in overtime,” Kowalsky said. “We have grown as a team. No matter what the situation we seem level headed. We make an adjustment and move on. It is a credit to the guys and the coaching staff.”
Thomas was still shaken nearly 45 minutes after the Titans ended everything for the Bullies.
“It was not a slight on anybody,” said Thomas of not shaking hands. “It was a pretty tough loss. I could not believe our season was over. I just think it was a reaction. It is tough to know we have been here for three years and the terms you have to leave on . . . There is a lot of emotion attached to that loss.”