SIJHL Semi-Finals Preview: Kam River (1) vs. Thunder Bay (4)

Thunder Bay, ON
April 6, 2022
Story By: Gary Moskalyk, Special to the SIJHL

The Kam River Fighting Walleye enter their first playoffs in franchise existence with a decided statistical advantage over the current Bill Salonen SIJHL Champion Thunder Bay North Stars. Fighting Walleye head coach Matt Valley (a North Star in 2010-11) saw his club compile a 35-7-2 record, +79 goal differential, a 7th-place finish in the CJHL rankings, secure first place in the SIJHL and take the season series against fourth-place Thunder Bay with six wins in eight games.

A pretty good haul for an expansion team looking to make its mark.

The Fighting Walleye have had a 12-day break as Thunder Bay dispatched the Wisconsin Lumberjacks in three straight.

“I think we benefitted from a little time off, guys are back from injury. . .  I’m not too worried about being rusty. We played almost 50 games,” said Valley, prior to a Tuesday practice at Norwest. “A couple days off here and there is fine, too. . . We need to trust our process, trust what our group is doing.

“This is why you work so hard all year is to get into the playoffs,” he continued. “We were fortunate enough to have a first-round bye. Last week and a bit we’ve been score watching but also trying to prep ourselves as well. Staying in game shape. Keeping that engagement level high. Keep everyone focused. I think it’s been a good week-and-a-half.”

The North Stars finished 5-4-1 in their last ten regular season games, tacking on three playoff victories for good measure.

“Now the real work starts. The North Stars have been one of the stronger teams in the last two months of the season,” offered Valley. “I think they’ve really stepped up their game. They’re on a mission. They’re ready to go.”

The goalie tandem of Austin Madge and Eric Vanska gives the Walleye two capable goalies almost identical in goals against average and save percentage. Madge has a slight edge 2.42 and .932 over Vanska’s 2.51 and .926. Madge logged more minutes and won 20 games to Vanska’s 12.

Up front Trenton Morriseau, Alex Enegren, Ethan Lang, Zach Fortin and Jeremy Dunmore registered 50, 50 ,49, 44, and 42 points respectively. Carson Gorst and Kersey Reich logged nearly a point-per-game. Newcomers Holden Woodcroft had 10 goals in 16 games, while Dayton Clarke had 10 markers in 14 contests.

“It comes down to who wants it more,” said Valley. “I think they (Thunder Bay) want it right now. Our guys need to want it, they need to come together at the right time, do the little things we’ve been preaching all year.

“We’re definitely excited,” he added. “We’ll try to use some of that controlled emotion, be pumped up and ready to go. At the end of the day we have a job to do. We’re worried about ourselves, not necessarily what (Thunder Bay) is going to do. We just need to be ready to go and have to want it. When our team plays that way we play with pace. When we’re doing those things we’re a team to beat. We play with a lot of character, have a lot of resilience in the room and we move our feet well.”

The Fighting Walleye are looking to pack Norwest April 7 and 8 to open the series.

“We’ll see what team shows up Thursday. That’s going to be an exciting night obviously. A night this organization’s been waiting for a long time. Trying to get this ship sailing. First playoff game in franchise history. Let’s make it a good one. That’s going to be the best, Thursday.”

Team captain Zach Fortin knows the playoffs are a different animal.

“We’re a pretty inexperienced team thanks to COVID,” said Fortin. The 5-10, 185-lb Thunder Bay native had 12 goals and 32 assists for 44 points in 42 games for the Walleye, with 54 penalty minutes.

“Playoff hockey is a different breed of the game. Everyone has to buy in in different ways. If you’re not by scoring goals or being physical you have to contribute in a different way. The guys are really excited to finally have a full regular season and now playoffs. Everyone’s pretty dialed in for a playoff series especially against the North Stars in the second round. Pretty much a big rivalry that just started this year, two Thunder Bay teams playing against each other.

“We’ve played tough against each other every game this year,” he continued. “I think that’s the way it’s going to be every single game in the playoffs against those guys. It’s going to be a tough battle and we’ll have to work hard every single night.”

Thursday night’s game will honour Cory Fortin, Zach’s father, who recently received a kidney transplant.

“It’ll be pretty neat for me to play on April 7th,” said Fortin. “It’s been going through my family for a long while with my dad. April 7th is the organ donation/fundraiser foundation game. It’s pretty neat that I get to be playing in it. There’ll be a ceremonial puck drop with my dad dropping the puck.”

Cory Fortin was diagnosed with kidney failure seven or eight years ago and has been on dialysis for four or five years.

“He ended up getting a kidney a year ago June. It’s just something to raise awareness,” said Fortin. “It’s pretty neat that I get to play my final junior ‘A’ hockey season in Thunder Bay in front of my family and friends. It’s even more of an honour to be able to play in a game honouring my dad in my hometown.”

The North Stars topped 1,100 and 1,600 fans at the Fort William Gardens on March 25/26 against the Walleye, and co-owner, President and Governor Derek Geddes is expecting 800+ to pack the Norwest Arena to the rafters come playoff time.

Veteran North Star head coach Rob DeGagne figures the series will go six or seven games.

“We’ve got our hands full. At the same time we’re pretty confident we can win,” said DeGagne. “It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to play our best hockey,  get a few breaks here and there. They’re a good team. They’re not in first place for nothing. They’re good. We played them tough all year, we played them pretty close. I expect a good, close series. The team that makes the least amount of mistakes will probably win.”

William Demkiw will be out for the series for Thunder Bay, but the rest of the team is healthy.

“They’ve established themselves as one of the best teams in the league, or the best team if you go by their record,” said DeGagne of the Walleye. “We had a good season, but we didn’t have a season like we’ve had in the past. We’ve got a young team. We’ve come on strong as of late.

“It’s a great rivalry. It’s good for hockey, it’s good for Thunder Bay, it’s good for our league. I hope it’s like that for many years to come. If we can play like we can play we’ve got a chance. We’re not going to be an easy out. We want to be champions. We’re past champions. We’re not going to hand it to them on a platter.”

The play of  goaltender Jordan Smith, 11-9-3 during the regular season with a 3.01 GAA and .922 SV%, improved to a .952 SV% in the three-game sweep against Wisconsin.

“It’s definitely exciting to go into a series like this, especially in your hometown,” said Smith. “They’ll be good games. We’re ready for it, we’ve been practicing all year for this. It’s in the back of our minds that we’re current champions.”

The play of Smith has helped propel the North Stars of late.

“Smitty’s is probably the same to us as Madge is to them,” said DeGagne. “They’re going to need him and we’re going to need Smitty. He’s played great for us.”

Newcomer Edison Weeks, rookie Lou Vesperini and Dimitri Trahiotis led the point parade in the series against Wisconsin, with seven, six and six points respectively.

“Weeks, Pier-Luc Bellard, game-in game-out Hunter (Foreshew), who works like a dog, (Kyler) Belluz and (Matt) Halushak are playing really good for us. Our defense in general is playing very good,” DeGagne said. “We can’t be more excited. The kids are over the top. They’re ready to go. We expect a good series. Good fan support. I don’t anticipate it going real quick, six or seven games maybe. We’re going to win some games. It might come down to goaltending at the end of it.”