Pressure has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the Alpena IceDiggers.
The IceDiggers find themselves on the brink of elimination after USA scored three third-period goals to take a 4-1 win Friday at Northern Lights Arena in Game 3 of the best-of-five first-round NAHL playoff series.
Justin Faulk and Nick Shore scored back-to-back goals a little over a minute apart in the sixth and seventh minutes of the final period to give USA a comfortable 3-1 cushion, and Emerson Etem added an empty-net goal in the last minute to put the final touch on a win that gave the Development squad a 2-1 series lead.
The two teams battled to a 1-1 tie after two periods, but USA owned the last 20 minutes with three unanswered goals and a 10-5 edge in shots. Alpena also failed to connect on a handful of chances throughout the game, which proved costly as the game went on.
"We left a lot of goals out there, that was the biggest problem," said Alpena coach Jack Fritsche. "The chances we had were great. We just didn't put the puck in."
Alpena's lone goal came at the 8:36 mark of the second period as Andy Yarber ripped a shot past USA goalie Brandon Maxwell. Mike DeGrazia and Sam Cheraso assisted on the score, which knotted the game 1-1.
USA leads series 2-1
Game 1: USA 5, Alpena 3
Game 2: Alpena 5, USA 2
Game 3:?USA 4, Alpena 1
Game 4:?Tonight at Alpena, 7 p.m.
Game 5: Sunday at USA* if necessary
USA's Austin Czarnik, who had an assist on USA's final goal of the game, broke a scoreless tie four minutes into the second period when he forced a turnover deep in Alpena's zone, passed to Chase Balisy and got the puck back in front of the net and buried it past Alpena's Nick Graves.
Maxwell made 26 saves, while Graves made 30.
Alpena generated plenty of opportunities on rushes to the net, and Maxwell also helped create a number of rebound chances that Alpena couldn't convert.
"The rebounds were there we just have to get to the net," said Fritsche.
The IceDiggers also didn't bring the physicality needed to get the upper hand in the series.
"There was a lot of stick checking tonight," said Fritsche. "We were trying to get too fancy in their zone. They did a great job denying us their zone. They were clogging up the neutral zone and we didn't get the puck through the neutral zone. I've seen us have more jump and more grind down low."
With the series on the line, the IceDiggers have a chance at redemption tonight when they host USA for Game 4 at 7 p.m. A win would force the teams to head back to Ann Arbor for Game 5 on Sunday night.
"It's not over. We can still beat that team and we know it," said Fritsche. "But the pressure is on us. It's do or die hockey. There's no other way to spin it right now. We know we have to bear down and play 60 minutes."
Chris Dobrowolski can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5694.