Facing elimination, the Thunder Bay North Stars turned in their finest performance of the postseason.
It was enough to earn a stay of execution.
The No. 2 North Stars scored three times in a tour de force second period, paving the way to a 6-3 victory over the No. 3 Minnesota Iron Rangers in Game 5 of their Superior International Junior Hockey League semifinal series at the Fort William Gardens. The Iron Rangers lead 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
“I think the first 15 minutes of the second period quite possibly could have been our most dominant period of the year,” North Stars head coach Jeremy Adduono said.
“I’m very happy with the way the guys responded, obviously facing a tough situation but I couldn’t ask for a better response.”
After dropping three straight contests to their American counterparts following their series opening win, it was now or never for Thunder Bay.
“We knew this game was extra important and we had to win it to keep our season alive. We made sure we stayed calm in the dressing room but we knew we had to be going on all cylinders and we did,” said North Stars forward Kris Kellaway, who registered a goal and a helper in the winning effort.
With their backs up against the wall, Adduono made the decision to roll the dice and switch up the line combinations for his forwards.
That meant breaking up their top line of reigning league player of the year Daniel Del Paggio, Zach Grzelewski and Matthias Gardiman, which had been held pointless as a trio in the postseason, and dispersing them throughout the lineup.
He saw some reward at the end of their last game, where a fresh line of Kris Kellaway and Trevor Hynnes joining Gardiman generated a pair of late goals.
It carried over to Friday, where each member of the line put the puck in the back of the net.
“It was just one of those things where the last couple of games I was trying a few little tweaks and found a few combos in the third period of Game 4 I liked,” Adduono said. “I really liked Gardiman playing with (Kris) Kellaway and (Trevor) Hynnes and thought they were a real catalyst for us and we built around that.”
Things did not look promising early for Thunder Bay, as it was an Iron Rangers squad with conquest on their minds who opened the scoring.
A neutral zone turnover allowed Minnesota forward Sam Mancini to pick up the loose puck, weave through two defenders and beat North Stars goalie Eric Mann on a shot he would like to have back.
Thunder Bay responded before the conclusion of the period, with a power play that has been dormant for much of the playoffs to thank.
An initial point shot by Jesse Taylor got through to the front of the net before Kellaway was able to put a rebound past Iron Rangers goaltender Erick Majerle.
They went ahead just 18 seconds later as Cary Brown beat Majerle blocker side with Del Paggio picking up an assist for his first point of the playoffs.
“Often times that can be deflating for any hockey team but I thought our guys responded really well,” Adduono said of conceding the early goal. “I liked the way we finished the period. We were just looking to build on positives.”
The home side wasted little time adding to the lead after the intermission, although they almost went down. The North Stars spent the first 45 seconds of the period scrambling in their own end before Hynnes picked up the puck and led a two-on-one rush, sniping a shot high glove on Majerle.
After Bryce Maggrah added another for Thunder Bay, the Del Paggio-Brown duo struck, once again with Del Paggio serving as playmaker to his new linemate. Del Paggio provided a feed from behind the net found the big forward in front, who made no mistake.
That fourth goal chased Majerle from the Minnesota net and he was replaced by Alex Reichele.
Adduono was happy to see one of his most snake-bitten players finally find the stats sheet and take the proverbially monkey off his back.
“Although he hasn’t had a lot of success in the playoffs he has still done some good things that have gone unnoticed and it’s been a bit of a learning experience for him,” he said. “He was great for us all year, bailed us out of a lot of games and decided the outcome of a lot of games.”
According to Del Paggio, the different skill sets he and Brown posses make them a natural fit.
“I know he’s a shooter and I’m a little more of a passer so I know where he’s going to be and it worked out tonight,” Del Paggio said.
Minnesota added a goal late in the second to end the run of five straight tallies for Thunder Bay and head to the intermission down three.
Gardiman provided insurance for Thunder Bay, scoring a shorthanded goal early in the period.
Jay Routheau scored the final Minnesota goal.
Game 6 of the series goes Sunday afternoon in Hoyt Lakes, Minn.
Star gazing: Entering the contest, the Thunder Bay power play was 1-34 in the postseason for an abysmal 2.9 per cent...Kellaway leads the Stars with eight playoff points...Gardiman now has three points in his last two games after failing to register any in his first six playoff matches...
Scoring: 1. Minnesota, Mancini 3 (unassisted) 5:36. 2. Thunder Bay, Kellaway 3 (Hynnes, Taylor) 15:19 pp. 3. Thunder Bay, Brown 3 (Del Paggio) 15:37. Penalties: O’Dea MIN (high-sticking) 14:59; Hynnes TB (hooking) 17:43.
Scoring: 4. Thunder Bay, Hynnes 2 (Kellaway, Cavar) 0:57. 5. Thunder Bay, Maggrah 1 (Bre. Wolframe, Turner) 3:21. 6. Thunder Bay, Brown 4 (Del Paggio) 6:40. 7. Minnesota, Erickson 3 (Rupert, Samec) 11:36 pp. Penalties: Kaarela TB (interference) 11:17; Chumley MIN, Brower TB (unsportsmanlike conduct) 11:56; Hynnes TB (cross-checking) 15:05.
Scoring: 8. Thunder Bay, Gardiman 2 (Cavar) 2:40 sh. 9. Minnesota, Routheau 3 (Mancini, Chumley) 5:34. Penalties: MacLean TB (high-sticking) 2:17; Chumley MIN, Hynnes TB (misconduct) 12:49; Madison MIN (unsportsmanlike conduct), Taylor TB (unsportsmanlike conduct), Martyn TB (elbowing) 17:09;
GAME DATA - SOG - Minnesota: (9-11-18-38), Thunder Bay: (12-17-10-39); Power plays (goals-chances) - Minnesota: (1-5), Thunder Bay: (1-1); Goaltenders - Minnesota: Erick Majerle (13 saves, 17 shots), Alex Reichele (20 saves, 22 shots); Thunder Bay: Eric Mann (35 saves, 38 shots).
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