By Thomas Becker
It was one of the biggest goals of his AUS career. After threading the ball past the keeper in injury time, Sam Smiley raced to the right corner flag and fist pumped to the crowd as his teammates embraced him.
After battling most of the second half in a 1-1 stalemate, Smiley sealed the game with a calm, but crisp shot by the diving keeper, as the UPEI Panthers pulled out a dramatic 2-1 win over the Acadia Axemen.
"We showed a lot of grit to win the ball back," Smiley said. "Moe (Jaber) just kept pushing and pushing and I thought he was going to take it in himself, but he made a great pass and honestly, I had the easy part of just finishing it."
It was an emotional goal for everyone involved, including the fans, who witnessed last year's disappointing season.
"It's a big win for us, especially after last season where we played well but didn't get the results," he said. "Getting those three points is huge for us and a confidence boost moving forward."
The Panthers controlled the pace early and put the pressure on the opponent's backline, but a miscue by Jake Deighan on the other end almost cost UPEI a goal. The ball skipped over his shoe and allowed Acadia's Joe Iatrou to go in alone, but an alert Brett Strba forced him to rush his shot which went wide left.
However, that lead was short-lived as they surrendered the tying goal on a broken play in front of the net six minutes later. The ball managed to find Alec MacKenzie in the flurry and he tapped it home for the easy goal.
Acadia came back strong again in the 40th minute when MacKenzie gathered a pass on the right wing, ran up the field and got a shot off, only to be denied by Strba, who was perfectly positioned for the quick-reaction save.
Last year, a halftime deadlock probably would've ended in a draw or maybe even a loss, but the commitment and energy this team has put in over summer and throughout training camp has given them a renewed sense of confidence.
"It's a great credit to our guys," said head coach Lewis Page. "We talked at halftime about finishing teams off and they played with that urgency in the second half."
The game became more physical in the final 45 minutes, which didn't intimidate the Panthers any, as they countered every punch thrown their way, before Smiley delivered the final haymaker in injury time.
"We've had so many great nights like this over the years and I'm so happy to see these guys have their story to tell," Page said.
The Panthers look to build off this win in Fredericton, where they'll take on the UNB Reds on Sept. 15 at 3:15 p.m.
Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan