THUNDER BAY – It only took 10 seconds to turn around the Thunder Bay North Stars night.
Lou Vesperini and Noah Broughton only needed 10 ticks of the clock between them to turn a 1-0 nail-biter with the visiting Thief River Falls Norskies into a 3-0 cushion, helping the Stars end a two-game slide in their return to Fort William Gardens.
Special teams also played a big role, the North Stars killing eight separate power play chances handed to the Norskies by a whistle-happy officiating crew.
Despite playing shorthanded much of the first and second period, the Stars went on to blank the Norskies 6-0, Conner Lemieux stopping 23 shots to earn his first shutout of the season for Thunder Bay (12-7-3).
It was the fifth straight loss for Thief River Falls, who were coming off a 5-4 defeat a night earlier at the hands of the Superior International Junior Hockey League-leading Kam River Fighting Walleye at the Norwest Arena.
"I think we played great tonight," said the rookie Kuzenko, a graduate of the Vaughn Kings program, one of three players from the 2019-20 under-18 team suiting up for the North Stars this season.
"I think we could have played a lot better as a team, but we'll get back to that tomorrow. We had some good goals."
It helps when your goaltender is turning aside everything directed his way, Kuzenko added.
"We've got great goaltenders, great guys back in the net there, and I think he stood on his head for us tonight too and stopped a lot of shots."
Thunder Bay struggled to find the back of the net in the first, Kuzenko's scoring after being sent in alone on Guerin, making his first SIJHL start for the Norskies after taking over in relief on Thursday night.
After Versperini and Broughton worked their magic in the second, with the pressure of trying to hold a one-goal lead now gone, the floodgates opened in the third. Kuzenko started things off with a low shot along the ice that slipped through a narrow gap between Guerin's left skate and the post. Dawson Nelson made it 5-0 with 3:36 to go in the final stanza, pounding home a Hayden Cattani rebound and Kuzenko completed his hat trick at the 18:16 mark into the empty net, the Norskies looking to break Lemieux's shutout bid.
"It was my first (hat trick) for this league. I was really excited. I didn't know what to do," Kuzenko said.
North Stars coach Rob DeGagne called it one of their best games of the season, an all around effort from front to back, especially from Kuzenko in the offensive zone.
"Truthfully, if he would have shot the puck a little more, he might have had a few more chances," DeGagne said. "He likes to get right on top of the goaltender and make that perfect pass all the time, but I told him just shoot the puck, shoot the puck. It helped that we had to mix the lines up a little bit because we had a few injuries. Sometimes it's good to play with some different guys. He played a little bit with Cattani and the the new guy from Weyburn, (Edison) Weeks.
"That line played really good for us today."
The Stars and Norskies (3-11-0) wrap up their weekend set on Saturday.
Kam River 7, Fort Frances 1: Carson Gorst scored twice and added an assist to lead the Fighting Walleye (16-3-1) to their sixth straight win over the last-place Lakers (2-12-0).
Dryden 8, Wisconsin 2: Brady Frattinger, Maxime Collette and Tristan Takats scored two goals apiece to power the Ice Dogs (12-8-1) to the lopsided win. Jake Smith and Brock Weimer scored for visiting Wisconsin.
Scoring: 1. Thunder Bay, Kuzenko 6 (Trahiotis) 16:20 sh. Penalties: Bellard TB (check to head, misconduct) 3:31, Trahiotis TB (interference) 7:45, Guerin TRF (delay of game, served by Glockner) 12:19, Cattani TB (slashing) 15:05, Kuzenko TB (unsportsmanlike conduct) 16:20.
Scoring: 2. Thunder Bay, Vesperini 10 (Belluz, Davis) 11:37 pp. 3. Thunder Bay, Broughton 3 (unassisted) 11:47. Penalties: Bellard TB (slashing) 1:26, Trahiotis TB (roughing) 5:24, Trahiotis TB (tripping) 7:49, Martin TRF (hooking) 10:36, Meloche TB, Van Gurp TRF (roughing) 12:02; Fortier TB (interference) 12:13, Regina TRF (head contact, misconduct, served by Van Gurp) 15:59.
Scoring: 4. Thunder Bay, Kuzenko 7 (Weeks) 3:00. 5. Thunder Bay, Nelson 3 (Cattani) 16:24. 6. Thunder Bay, Kuzenko 8 (unassisted) 18:16 en. Penalties: Yu TRF (interference) 3:59, Opperude TRF (check from behind, misconduct) 14:20, Broughton TB (misconduct) 18:16.
GAME DATA – SOG – Thief River Falls 8-6-9-23, Thunder Bay 16-12-11-39; Power plays (goals-chances) – Thief River Falls (0-8), Thunder Bay (1-5); Goaltenders – Thief River Falls: Sean Guerin, Thunder Bay: Conner Lemieux; A: 303.