A hot goaltender is a valuable commodity come playoff time.
Eric Mann fit the bill for the Thunder Bay North Stars on Friday, allowing them to draw first blood in the opening game of their Superior International Junior Hockey League semifinal series.
Mann turned aside 31 shots to pick up the shutout as the North Stars scored a 2-0 victory over the Minnesota Iron Rangers at the Fort William Gardens.
Thunder Bay takes the 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series against a team that prevailed in six of their 11 regular season matchups.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster getting a shutout in the first game,” said Mann, who was named the league’s top goaltender in the regular season.
Having that kind of steadying presence on the last line of defence sends positive vibes through the rest of the team.
North Stars head coach Jeremy Adduono praised the 18-year-old netminder for his ability to lock in and not get swept away by the playoff atmosphere.
“I think Eric gives our team a lot of confidence,” Adduono said.
“The way Eric is playing right now, he’s playing with poise. One of his strong points is that he’s really calm in the net and his movements are very technical and subtle. He doesn’t overplay any situation.”
Mann set the tone in the opening minute of the game. A ghastly turnover in the Thunder Bay zone allowed Iron Rangers forward Shane Billings an opportunity in close but he was turned aside by the goaltender.
From there the defence solidified and mostly contained the Minnesota attack to the perimeter with Mann conceding few rebounds.
Mann credited his skaters in front of him for keeping shooting lanes clear and sacrificing their bodies to block shots from making it on goal.
He also acknowledged the importance of controlling rebounds and not giving opposing forwards second and third whacks at loose pucks.
“It makes my job a little easier when I’m seeing the shots, especially when they’re clearing the forwards in front of me,” he said.
“I know most goals are scrum goals and there aren’t too many fancy goals but most goals in the playoffs come to the nitty gritty crash the net, garbage goals.”
After Thunder Bay’s top line of Matthias Gardiman, Zach Grzelewski and SIJHL player of the year Daniel Del Paggio dominated headlines throughout the season, it was other lines that got on the score sheet.
They did play a role in creating the first goal however, as a Del Paggio feed that gave Grzelewski a partial break drew a penalty as Grzelewski was slashed before he could get a shot off.
The North Stars opened the scoring on the ensuing power play with Cary Brown unleashing a shot through traffic that beat Iron Rangers goaltender Erick Majerle top shelf.
Thunder Bay doubled the lead a mere 18 seconds into the second period as they took advantage of an early icing call. An initial point shot from Tim Cavar was blocked, but Brett Wolframe spun and fired a shot from the high slot that a screened Majerle never saw.
With their campaigns in crunch time, it’s important to receive production throughout the lineup.
“In any team or any league you need balanced scoring,” Adduono said. “When you get to a playoff series they’re keying on your top guys so you need secondary scoring.”
Mann kept the door firmly shut from there. The North Stars penalty killers kept Minnesota scoreless in six power play opportunities with Mann largely to thank.
It was a chippy and physical contest throughout, with the two teams knowing they were very evenly matched.
Adduono hopes the opening game of the series shows his team how to battle through what could be a lengthy postseason run.
“It was a playoff atmosphere. That was a playoff hockey game,” Adduono said. “Hopefully we got a good taste of what it takes to win. I thought it was a hard fought battle by both sides.”
The two teams square off in Game 2 on Saturday with puck drop scheduled for 8 p.m. at the Fort William Gardens.
Star gazing: Del Paggio, who was only held scoreless in four regular season contests, has yet to record a point in the playoffs including the two game aggregate series against the Fort Frances Lakers...Brandon Wolframe and Kris Kellaway lead the North Stars with three playoff points...Fort Frances opened their semifinal series with a 4-1 win over the English River Miners.
Scoring: 1. Thunder Bay, Brown 1 (Santorelli, Bra. Wolframe) 11:43 pp. Penalties: Grzelewski TBN (slashing) 1:53; Madison MIN (unsportsmanlike conduct) Taylor TBN (cross-checking) 5:06; Bra. Wolframe TBN (slashing) 7:28; Audet MIN (hooking) 11:32; Seiter MIN (cross-checking, check to the head, misconduct) 14:42.
Scoring: 2. Thunder Bay, Bre. Wolframe 1 (Cavar, Kellaway) 0:18. Penalties: Bench minor TBN (too many men) 7:25; Frank MIN (slashing) 12:49; Hynnes TBN (slashing) 15:28; Brown TBN (cross-checking) 17:50.
Scoring: None. Penalties: Hynnes TBN (cross-checking) 13:12; O’Dea MIN (slashing) 15:28; Fazio MIN (slashing, roughing), Bra. Wolframe TBN (cross-checking, roughing) 17:36.
GAME DATA - SOG - Minnesota: (10-13-8-31), Thunder Bay (13-5-7-25); Power plays (goals-chances) - Minnesota (0-6), Thunder Bay (1-5); Goaltenders - Minnesota: Erick Majerle (23 saves, 25 shots), Thunder Bay: Eric Mann (31 saves, 31 shots).
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