Koepplinger the hero in wild OT winner for Carolina

ELMIRA, N.Y.- The Carolina Thunderbirds, proud members of the Federal Prospects Hockey League, defeated the Elmira Enforcers 4-3 in overtime Thursday night logging their first win of the season.

“We gutted that out,” said head coach Andre Niec, “the boys played hard and I’m happy for them.”

Things started out poorly for Carolina as Tyler Gjurich scored on the game’s first powerplay and then Brandon Tucker converted on a partial breakaway in the first period.

“I knew we had to shake things up a little so I moved my lines around at intermission,” said Niec.

The new units raided the Elmira net in the middle frame of play, outshooting the Enforcers 26-4 in the second period.

Jan Salak, the team’s leading scorer from last year beat Enforcer starter Dillon Kelly on the glove side 3:50 into the second to cut the deficit in half.

After Ahmed Mahfouz rallied “Gang Green” at the intermission, the Enforcers squandered two early third period powerplay chances, including a full two minutes of 5-on-3 time.

Nick Modica robbed Tucker on the near goal post with a sprawling save that would keep the game 2-1.

With just 58 seconds remaining in regulation, Josh Koepplinger’s wrist shot from the top of the near faceoff circle was deflected over Kelley’s blocker by Tommy Tsicos for his first goal as a Thunderbird since the 2017-2018 season.

“I didn’t think it went it to be honest,” said Tsicos, “I felt it hit my stick and then saw [Koepplinger] celebrate so I just threw my stick up and was like okay we’re tied.”

Just 11 seconds later, Jon Buttitta beat Kelley five-hole to give Carolina an improbably 3-2 lead.

“I wanted to go there, I wasn’t going to miss high again and that’s a spot I was confident shooting,” said Buttitta who is coming off a season where he scored 15 points in seven games with the Thunderbirds.

In a valiant final thirty seconds, Elmira would tie the game when Gjurich would scoop the puck off the far post and behind Modica after a rolling puck squirted loose on a Thunderbirds defensive-zone faceoff.

In overtime, both goalies traded saves, but with five seconds left, Jiri Pestuka slid the puck through the legs of Dillon Kelly and Josh Koepplinger dove into the crease to knock the puck beyond the goal line, giving the Thunderbirds their first win of the season.

“[Pestuka]’s shot went through his legs and I don’t think [Kelley] knew where it was and by the time he did I already had it in the net,” said Koepplinger, who now leads the team in points with four (2g, 2a)

Carolina improves to 0-0-1-1 with three standings points and will remain in third place in the FPHL. Elmira scrapes away one point in the OT loss and falls to 2-0-2-2, but remains the top of the league.

The Thunderbirds next game is on Wednesday, March 10 in Columbus. Puck drop is slated for 7:05 p.m.