THUNDER BAY – The chances kept coming for St. Croix SC, but Eduardo D'Avinoa was up to the task.
The Thunder Bay Chill goaltender was a game-changer between the posts on Friday night at Chapples Park, turning aside a late-game barrage to preserve a one-goal lead, including a free kick just outside the box in the 62nd taken by St. Croix's Victor Gaulmin.
It wasn't until injury time that the Chill could breathe a sigh of relief.
With St. Croix keeper Jack Morris abandoning his net to help out in the offensive zone, the Chill managed to fire the ball up-field, where striker Osita Obiekwe grabbed hold of it, out-raced a St. Croix defender and buried it in the opposition net to secure a 3-1 win.
“It felt great. Everybody started to hug each other. It was a fantastic feeling because we fought for it. Our defence, our team we fought for it,” D'Avinoa said.
“After the third goal, we understood that it was done. We had won.”
The three points give the Chill complete control over their playoff destiny, albeit with half a season yet to be played.
The win improved the team's record to 3-1-2, a point behind second-place Peoria City with two games in hand.
“It was three essential points,” the Chill keeper said.
“It was important after we lost to Des Moines and tied with Peoria, we had to take advantage of being at home in front of our fans.”
The Chill gave the crowd of 495 plenty to cheer about in the opening 25 minutes of play.
Midfielder Alexander Pechacek opened the scoring in the 11th, blasting the ball to the far side past a diving Morris for a 1-0 Thunder Bay lead.
A handball in the box led to a penalty kick in the 25th and Obiekwe made no mistake, fooling Morris with a low shot to the left side of the St. Croix net to double the home team's lead.
It looked like Thunder Bay would take a 2-0 lead into the half, but St. Croix's Kobby Owu caught a break in the 44th minute, firing what appeared to be a harmless ball at the Chill net, only to have it hit a Thunder Bay player and catch D'Avinoa going the other way.
The goal proved to be a bit of a momentum changer.
Once again, the Chill couldn't figure out how to close a contest, said veteran coach Gio Petraglia.
“Today we had another great first half. I don't believe the score was fair at halftime. We conceded a goal at the very worst time. We're paying for the fact we're very young ... and we're not mature enough and not enough of a team to close these games earlier,” Petraglia said.
“But we showed character at the end. We fought and Eduardo made great saves to keep us up. That's part of our game.”
The Chill had at least two great chances to restore the Chill's two-goal lead. As the first half was winding down he was in alone on Morris, but lifted the ball over the St. Croix net. Then in the 50th Pechacek was in alone, but slammed it off Morris' head.
St. Croix's best chance to even the score came in the 80th, when Telvin Vah blasted it off the Thunder Bay post, D'Avinoa coming up big on an equally dangerous rebound.
The Chill now hit the road for four straight, starting with the first-place Des Moines Menace on Canada Day, the first of four games in a five-day stretch.
They return home to close out the regular season on July 15 and July 16 against FC Manitoba.