It usually takes Superior International Junior Hockey League graduates a season or two to start making an impact at the university hockey level.
Matt Kaarela accelerated the timetable Friday night, netting a hat trick in his OUA regular-season debut with the Lakehead Thunderwolves, propelling his side to a 5-2 win in a rare Fort William Gardens visit by the RMC Paladins.
Kelin Ainsworth had a goal and assist in his first regular-season contest with LU, the other tally going to veteran Mike Hammond.
Kaarela, awarded a replica wrestling belt by his teammates, their choice for player of the game, couldn’t believe his start.
“There’s probably nothing better than the feeling of being able to do that. The team played good and everyone was working hard. You’re kind of nervous to start a new level of hockey, but you’ve just got to do your best and that’s really all you can do,” said Kaarela.
“I can’t take all the credit for it. I think I was playing with some good guys who were working hard. I just came here to do my best.”
Coach Bill McDonald, a winner in his first official game behind the bench, said the offensive outburst was just what he was hoping for from the former Thunder Bay North Stars sniper.
Having lost plenty of scoring from last year’s team, McDonald wasn’t sure where the goals might come from in 2013-14.
While Kaarela’s game isn’t perfect, McDonald is more than willing to work with him if Friday’s results become a regular thing.
“He’s got a lot of work to do on his whole game, but if you ever followed this guy and his stats … if you go through his bio he’s always scored, whatever division, wherever it was,” McDonald said.
“He had three tonight and he could have had a couple more too. When things get a little rougher out there he might have a harder time, but you’ve got to take your hat off to him and it was a good plus for us tonight.”
None of Kaarela’s goals was more important than his second.
After LU built a 3-0 lead when Hammond pounced on an Ainsworth rebound and beat RMC goalie Paul Dorsey 1:32 in the second, the Paladins responded with a pair of quick tallies. Kyle Phillips beat emergency Lakehead starter Justin McDonald on the glove side at 2:12. Two minutes later Eric Louis-Seize scored on a near-impossible angle from behind the LU redline, banking it off the back of McDonald’s pads.
Kaarela, a Thunder Bay native, went five-hole on Dorsey to restore a two-goal cushion at 12:23 of the second, a goal that halted the RMC comeback bid for good.
“That was a huge goal,” McDonald said.
Kaarela completed the hat trick on the power play in the third, Lakehead’s second man-advantage marker of the night.
More than anything, the win was what mattered said Kaarela, who suffered through three pre-season losses and was glad to get his coach his first OUA victory.
“We knew that pre-season was a tough battle, but the season, this is where it counts. We knew it was important to get a win here.”
Claw marks: Justin McDonald, subbing for injured No. 1 goalie Jeff Bosch, made 28 saves to earn the win. Lakehead fired 45 shots at Dorsey in the RMC net … Wolves forward Carson Dubchak confirmed his knee injury was worse than first suspected and that he’ll miss the entire season … Attendance was 2,772 … The two teams will tangle again on Saturday night ... Lakehead did not play shorthanded once all night ... Forward Trevor Gamache was tossed from the game in the second for hitting from behind, a play the resuluted in six players leaving the ice to serve penalties.
Scoring: 1. Lakehead, Ainsworth 1 (Bruyere, Wilkins) 6:12 pp. 2. Lakehead, Kaarela 1 (Grondin, McIntosh) 16:39. Penalties: Wright RMC (high sticking) 4:45, Gamache LAK, Fone RMC (roughing) 15:45.
Scoring: 3. Lakehead, Hammond 1 (Ainsworth) 1:32. 4. RMC Phillips (Farrow) 2:12. 5. RMC, Louis-Seize (McDonald, Bullen) 4:11. 6. Lakehead, Kaarela 2 (McGill) 12:23. Penalties: Wright RMC (roughing), McDonald (roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct), Quinlin RMC (roughing) Gilbert LAK (roughing), Alcock LAK (roughing), Gamache LAK (roughing, hitting from behind, game misconduct) 4:27, Farrow RMC (hooking) 15:14.
Scoring: 7. Lakehead, Kaarela 3 (Alcock, Grondin) 8:20 pp. Penalties: Domenico RMC (tripping) 7:31,
GAME DATA – SOG – RMC 11-10-9-30, Lakehead 21-16-8-45; Power plays (goals-chances): RMC (0-0), Lakehead (2-3); Goaltenders – RMC: Paul Dorsey:Wayne Savage, Lakehead: Justin McDonald; A: 2,772.
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