By Thomas Becker
Photo Janessa Hogan
Acadia didn't have a lot of opportunities in the game, but they made the few they had count.
The Axemen scored twice on just 13 shots on goal, with Remy Giftopoulos and Alexander Lepkowski leading the way with a goal each in a 2-1 victory over the UPEI Panthers Friday night.
Down two heading into the final period, the Panthers outplayed their opponent and trimmed it to a single goal on RT Rice's sixth goal of the season. But goaltender Robert Steeves was too much for the home team to overcome.
"I'm really happy for him," said Axemen head coach Darren Burns of Steeves. "He's had a big year for us and our guys love playing in front of him."
Steeves recorded 25 saves on 26 shots, including 10 in the decisive final period, guiding Acadia (15-7-1) to their eighth win in their last 10 games.
Coming into the game, Steeves split playing time with freshman Devin Williams. But after Friday's performance, the third-year netminder might see more action between the pipes. In 12 games, Steeves owns a 9-3 record with a 2.17 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.
"He's worked hard and he's a great teammate," Burns said. "He's had a great season for us and we need him to keep doing that."
The intensity was high, with both teams looking to get back in the win column. Shots on net were scarce as the defences played disciplined and didn't give up many open looks.
That lasted until the midway point when Giftopoulos opened the scoring. From the side of the net, he corralled a bouncing puck with his stick and buried it past a diving Matt Mahalak for the early advantage.
Minutes later, Panthers defenceman Austin Levi fired a rocket from just inside the blue line at Steeves, who showed off the leather with a quick snag, keeping the slim lead intact.
The Panthers (8-11-4) were fortunate to be down by only one, as their penalty kill unit held Acadia scoreless on two separate power plays.
Sam Aulie nearly knotted it up in the final minute of the period, but missed the open cage wide right.
The Panthers came into the second period looking to even the score, with 1:57 remaining on a power play. But the formidable Acadia squad – ranked fifth in U Sports – came out with a sense of urgency and held UPEI without a shot on net.
Two minutes later, Lepkowski, on a feed from Stephen Harper, sniped a shot from the left circle past Mahalak, extending the lead 2-0.
UPEI's power play unit did a better job on their second stint with the man advantage, but Steeves continued his stellar play, stopping anything that came near him.
Goaltending continued to be the story of the night, as a flailing Mahalak, with his stick flying in the air, made a remarkable save in the opening seconds of the third to keep his team afloat.
Steeves matched Mahalak with a nice stick save across his body to deny a threatening Panther shot just minutes later.
But the persistent Panthers finally pierced through Steeves' near perfect outing. From an unlikely angle on the right side, Rice scraped iron to beat Steeves, trimming the deficit to one.
UPEI had a chance to even the score on a power play near the midway point, but Steeves quickly bounced back and regained his dominant form, denying an aggressive Panthers attack.
"I was dialed in," said Steeves, whose performance impressed as the pressure mounted. "I like it when I get more shots. I just get more comfortable back there."
The majority of the third saw Acadia stuck in their own defensive zone, as the relentless Panthers continued to pressure the Axemen. But Steeves' performance down the stretch was exactly what Acadia needed to escape with the 2-1 win.
The Panthers have a quick turnaround and will hit the ice again on Jan. 21 when they take on the Saint Mary's Huskies at MacLauchlan Arena. Puck drops at 7 p.m.