SIJHL Bill Salonen Cup Championship Final Opens Tonight

April 21, 2022

Thunder Bay, ON
Story by: Gary Moskalyk, Special to the SIJHL

An irresistible force meets an immovable object as the two top regular season teams clash in the SIJHL finals beginning Thursday night at Norwest Arena. The first place Kam River Fighting Walleye (.818 points percentage), fresh off their four-game sweep of the reigning SIJHL Champion Thunder Bay North Stars, will take on the second-place Red Lake Miners (.797 pct.), winner of their series against the Dryden Ice Dogs four games to two.

Red Lake went 5-2-2 against Kam River in the regular season series, while the Fighting Walleye forged a 4-3-2 mark against the Miners. Four games went into overtime, one of them ended in a shootout. Red Lake was +2 (37 goals for to 35 goals against) in head-to-head action against the Walleye.

Now, the real fun begins.

Kam River head coach Matt Valley, winner of the SIJHL coach-of-the-year award, sees it as epic series.

“We’re different teams, we approach the game differently,” said Valley. “When we’re moving the puck quick and we’re carrying the puck through the neutral zone and attacking their blue-line with speed . . . that’s when we’re on our game.

“I would say Red Lake has more offensive punch than us. We’re a far better defensive team,” Valley continued. “That’s what’s fun about the series. Goliath meets Goliath. Their offense is strong, our defence is strong. Two good goalies. We have an exceptional penalty kill. They had the second best penalty kill. Both teams scored a ton of short-handed goals. Their power play might be a little more efficient than ours. They have a lot of weapons there, man. They move the puck well. They get pucks to areas where you want goal scorers to have pucks. We have to be aware of that. . .

“Ultimately I think both teams know each other very well. . . At the end of the day it’s just a chess match. It’s back and forth trading goals. I know what (Red Lake head coach Geoff Walker) is going to do, he knows what I’m going to do. It’s going to be a bounce or two that determines every single game.”

Goaltending will be huge and Kam River’s Austin Madge is at the top of his game.

“I would say I am (locked in),” said Madge, who posted a .977 save percentage and a goals against of 0.87 against the North Stars, and was selected top goaltender in the SIJHL for 2021-22. “I’ve got really good coaching in my corner with (goaltending coach) Kari Rikkonen and a really good goalie partner in Eric Vanska. They’ve been pushing me all year. It’s been really good for me to grow as a person and a goalie. I’m definitely at the top right now.”

Madge has committed to Division I University of Oregon of the American Collegiate Hockey Association for next year.

“I think our team has wanted it more than any other team in the league,” said Madge of Kam River’s success in tight games. “Obviously everyone on the team is on the same page in playoffs, too and I think we’ll continue to see success.”

Valley thinks that Vanska, Madge and Red Lake’s Kiev Kineshanko comprise three of the top four goalies in the league.

“Red Lake is a very high scoring team,” added Madge. “They look to put all the momentum in their top two lines. We just have to line match and play our game and not change much. I think we are the better team.”

The Fighting Walleye have played in 19 one-goal games this year (16-1-2), emerging with points in 18 of them. A 4-3 loss to Dryden at home on February 21 is their only one-goal regulation loss of the season. The Miners took two overtime wins (3-2 and 6-5) in Red Lake.

“Actually that was a pretty big winning streak that Dryden snapped of ours and also our unbeaten record at home they also snapped,” said Valley.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been part of a harder working bunch . We’re not always on our game. I don’t know if anyone works harder than us,” offered Valley. “That comes from our General Manager and ownership down through to our volunteers. Everybody here believes we can get it done. When you have a fire in your belly like that and you have a bunch of people willing to put in the effort, the tough hours, the tough plays, I think that’s why we’re successful in games like that. We have a ton of character in our dressing room. . .”

Geoff Walker, Red Lake GM and runner up for coach-of-the-year, offered his thoughts on the finals.

“The two top teams in the league all year long, two nationally ranked in the top ten, I think it’s a fitting final. It should be a good showcase for our league,” he said.

“It’s been even all year long, right from when we played them in November, all the way up ’til the end of the season (March 13, 19). We know they’re a very good team. They’re well built, they work hard, they’re well coached. For us to beat them we’re going to have be at our absolute best.”

Red Lake rebounded from a game-one home defeat (7-4) against Dryden in the semi-finals, winning the next three. After a 4-2 loss in game five, came the “Baranesky game” series clincher in game six (5-1 Miners’ win, Jordan Baranesky four goals, one assist).

“The way the last series went I was really proud of our guys the way they stood up to the physicality. It seemed like we clicked on all cylinders and that’s where our team is at going into the finals,” said Walker.

“It was a really good series. Hats off to Dryden on a good season. At the end of the day I was more proud of how our guys stepped up. We lost game one at home, and then we won three in a row. The response from this group has been there all year. I told them they’re going to have to respond on a championship run over and over and over again. They did that and we’re just looking to continue that and build on it.”

Walker offered his Kam River scouting report.

“When we look at them we see three ‘D’ back there in (Kersey) Reich, (Zach) Fortin and (Kyle) Lamoureux who run their team both offensively and defensively. Those three guys are a big key, to know where they’re at all times, try to take time and space away from those guys. They’ve got four lines also that are very good. They skate really well. They have a lot of depth up front. Obviously their goaltender (Madge) has been very good this year.

“We love our four lines. Our defence has been playing well and (Kiev Kineshanko) is rounding into form as well. I would agree with the assessment that they’re built a little different than we are. Our big guns up front should be very confident going into this series.”

Kineshanko and Madge were tied at Christmas time with .945 save percentages.

“In the overtime game in Dryden (5-4 Red Lake win), they put 60-plus shots on (Kineshanko), he had 58 saves. He won us that game. In the close-out game he was the best I’ve seen him all year. Looks like he’s rounded into form. He’s confident. We’re definitely super excited that we have him in our crease for the finals.”

Red Lake had six players average a point a game in the regular season. Forward of the year Ryan Hunter had 25 goals and 36 assists in just 27 games for a 2.26 ppg rating. Baranesky, Brady Herroun, Ryan Howe, Nic Bolin, and rookie Noah Kramps rounded out the top six, and defenceman Kenyon Nyman chipped in with 36 points in 37 contests.

Howe paced the Miners’ attack with three goals, four assists in six games against Dryden. In the regular season he notched 13 goals, 37 helpers for 50 points with 48 penalty minutes.

“I think they’re going to be a tough opponent. Nothing’s going to come easy with them,” said Howe. “They’re a fast team. They work hard. If we bring our game we’ll have a good chance. We really have to be playing our best.

“When we’re playing our best hockey we’re fast, we’re physical. We really try to push the pace. We’re really good on the penalty kill and power play. Last series we struggled a little bit so we’re looking for a little more success in the next series,” he continued.

Howe is in his age-20 season. The team captain centres R.J. Dickie and Baranesky. He had a goal and three helpers in support of Baranesky in the game six close-out over Dryden.

“I think I’ve been playing well but I think I still have more to give,” he said. “I think with how excited I am for the finals I’ll take it on as a challenge. I’m excited for it. Looking forward to a hard-fought battle series. May the best team win.”