THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO
Article By: Gary Moskalyk, Special to the SIJHL
March 29, 2022
The SIJHL’s second season is upon us, the league’s first playoffs in three years. First-place Kam River Fighting Walleye (35-7-2-0, ranked 7th in the Canadian Junior Hockey League) and second-place Red Lake Miners (28-6-2-1, 8th in the CJHL) received byes into the semi-finals. The league’s two quarter-final series will see third-place Dryden and six-place Fort Frances square off, while fourth-place Thunder Bay and fifth-place Wisconsin duel in the other. Both game ones of the best-of-five-game quarterfinals launch on Tuesday, March 29.
The best-of-five format will have the higher placed teams play two home games, two away games, and a fifth game, if necessary, at home.
The Thunder Bay North Stars (21-16-3-1, 4th seed) start off at home against the Wisconsin Lumberjacks (16-25-1-1, 5th seed) at the Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay on Tuesday night.
“They’ve improved a lot since the beginning of the season, there’s no doubt,” said North Stars head coach Rob DeGagne of Wisconsin. “They’ve got some talented players. We’ll have to play some good hockey. We’re not taking them lightly that’s for sure. They skate well. . . They’re going to be ready so we have to be ready.”
The North Stars defeated the Lumberjacks handily to early in the season, outscoring them 9-1 on October 4th and 5th at Gardens. It’s been a virtual saw-off since then, however. Thunder Bay goes into the series with a 4-2-1 record. Wisconsin has a 3-4-0 log, including a 6-5 shoot-out win in Spooner on March 4.
While Wisconsin has a full roster going into the playoffs, Thunder Bay is hobbling.
Goalie Connor Lemieux and key contributor William Demkiw may be out for the rest of the season. Forward Dylan Winsor’s been out for a month, 23-point man and physical forward Anthony Kuzenko is doubtful, and Nolan Desjardins (10-10-20 with 57 penalty minutes) is a 50-50.
“We’re just (full) of injuries right now. Hopefully we get some of those guys back,” said DeGagne.
Thunder Bay dressed 15 skaters in a weekend series against Kam River, producing a Friday night win and a Saturday night loss. They were physical affairs, too.
Assistant captain and rookie forward Lou Vesperini thought those games served as playoff primers going into the Wisconsin series.
“We just came off that last regular season weekend. We had a great game on Friday. Those are like playoff games,” said Vesperini on Sunday. “I think we’re really dialed in for that. I think we’re already in a playoff mode. We’re going to approach next week as if we’re already in the playoffs. It’s not going to be easy. We’re not taking Wisconsin lightly in any kind of way.”
Vesperini was second in team scoring with 36 points in 37 games. His 14 goals were second to Hunter Foreshew’s 23, and his 22 assists put him behind Foreshew’s team-leading 30. Foreshew finished seventh in league scoring. Six other North Stars registered 20-point plus campaigns.
Number one goalie Jordan Smith is back in the fold, making an impact.
“We’ve got Smith back. He hasn’t played a lot since Christmas. It makes a big difference. . . We’re not really concerned about goaltending. We’re more concerned with having enough guys to field a decent team,” said DeGagne.
Smith finished with 11 wins, nine losses, and two overtime losses, a 3.01 GAA and .921 save percentage. Connor Lemieux was 8-3-1 between the pipes with 3.60 goals against and .913 SV Pct. Trennis Riley sported 2-4-1, 3.75, .899 numbers.
The Stars, reigning SIJHL champions, ranked near the top of the league in power play proficiency at 24.5 per cent, but middle of the pack in penalty kill at 77.0 per cent. Vesperini played a significant role in both areas.
“Personally, honestly, I think we have the team and we’ve proved that many times this season that we can be that team that goes to the end,” said Vesperini. “We just have to go step by step through the playoffs. First step is Wisconsin. We have the team, we have the staff, we have everything in our power to there and beat them, that’s for sure.”
Wisconsin head coach Doug Lein had his squad on a five-game winning streak until a 3-0 loss in Spooner against Dryden on March 25th, followed by a second loss to Dryden (6-4) on Saturday to end the season.
A pair of ugly losses in Red Lake (13-1 and 17-4) preceded the five-game winning streak. Eight days later Wisconsin exacted revenge, defeating the Miners 5-1 at home.
“That was a big-time butt kicking up there in Red Lake. You go up there and take that kind of a beating, you’re going to find out a whole lot about a team’s character, your players, and what they got,” said Lein. “We came back and got back to work. Just got back to doing what we needed to do. We didn’t really let it bother us. We just decided that those losses weren’t going to define our season.”
Lein is looking forward to the Thunder Bay match-up.
“I think it’s a great match-up. The 4/5 match-up always seem to be the better games. Thunder Bay’s got a good team, a lot of veterans. We’re younger. Their ice surface (Fort William Gardens) is comparable to ours (Spooner Civic Center) . . . I think the match-up is really good. Rob (DeGagne) always has his guys ready to go at the right time. Good coach, been around a long time, he’s a wily veteran and he knows how to get the most out of his guys when it counts the most.”
Thunder Bay has the edge in special teams. Wisconsin was 18.8 per cent on the power play and 73.6 per cent on the penalty kill.
“Over the last month or so, I think our power play’s been work at 30-plus per cent,” said Lein. “We’re headed in the right direction in all the areas you need to be headed in to be successful, or at least give yourself a chance in the playoffs.”
Forward Brock Weimer led the Lumberjacks in scoring with 28 goals, 34 assists for 62 points in just 36 games, adding in 52 penalty minutes for good measure.
“We’re feeling confident right now. We were on a six-game win streak. Unfortunately we lost to Dryden twice. We’re in the right direction. We’re going to come out with some fire,” said Weimer. “We’re going to come out with a chip on our shoulder with something to prove to the league. Obviously, our record is not the best. We’ve made some adjustments in our line-up. We’re ready to go.
“Thunder Bay, like Dryden, is a very physical team. We just have to play physical right back,” added the 5-11, 170-lb Weimer. “We’ve got to make hits, make plays. They’re very skilled as well. We match up well because we’re a pretty solid skill team, too. We just have to work hard, work hard in the corners, not be afraid. . . They’re obviously bigger than us. We have to use our speed, make sure we get the puck to the net and crash net.”
Salvatore Poggiali (21-34-55), Ryder McMullen (16-33-49), Jake McCall (7-35-42) and Zach Carlson (9-23-32 with 82 penalty minutes) round out Wisconsin’s top offensive contributors.
Thunder Bay notched 153 goals in 41 games to Wisconsin’s 126 in 43. The North Stars allowed 147 to finish +6 on the season, while Wisconsin allowed a league-leading 221 for an aggregate -95 on the year. Thunder Bay registered 934 penalty minutes behind only Dryden. Wisconsin had 627 penalty minutes on the year.
Kyler Lowden (12-14-1, 4.50 GAA, .895 SV%) will be Wisconsin’s “horse” in goal.
“Lowden’s turned it on in net. It’s been tough this year numbers-wise. At the end of the day I think the puck’s looking pretty big to him right now,” said Lein. “He’s the guy we feel really confident with in net. He can bail you out. . . He’s really good at resetting. With him in net we’ve got a chance to win. Not only a workhorse but a leader.”
Unlike the North Stars, Wisconsin is relatively injury-free.
“We had the playoffs ripped from us in our first year three years ago,” said Lein. “This is the first time we’re going to get to experience it. We’re really excited to be going to Thunder Bay. We love the Kellaway’s and what they do there with the North Stars. I have a lot of respect for Rob and what they do. . . It’s a good match-up for everybody.”