THUNDER BAY – Shorthanded by choice, the Thunder Bay North Stars were content to coast into the playoffs knowing they’ll have home-ice advantage in their opening series.
The Stars, who wrapped up second place earlier in the week, sat four of their top players as healthy scratches on Saturday night, Nicholas Nigro, Joe Newhouse, Brad Thrower and captain Brett Wolframe watching this one from the stands.
It bought the visiting English River Miners an extra week of rest.
The Miners outlasted the North Stars 3-1 in the regular-season finale for both teams, clinching third place and a first-round bye.
Austin Kuhn, Tyrell Bourk and Braedan Pearce scored for English River in what proved to be a semifinal preview, the two teams destined to meet in the postseason in a best-of-seven series scheduled to begin at Fort William Gardens on April 1.
The Miners victory relegated the expansion Thief River Falls Norskies to the play-in round, a best-of-five series against the Fort Frances Lakers for the right to take on the top-ranked Dryden Ice Dogs in the other Superior International Junior Hockey League semifinal series.
“It was definitely a huge game for us,” said English River’s second-year coach Derek Sweet-Coulter. “We knew the importance of it. The break is going to be huge for us. We’ve got a couple of injuries and we’ve got to make sure they get the proper rest and healed up and ready to go.
Despite the advantage on paper, with the Stars missing nearly half their lineup when injured forwards Avery Siau and Brendan Gillis were added into the missing-in-action mix, Sweet-Coulter said the Miners weren’t taking anything for granted, knowing they needed a point to clinch third.
“I find that those games as a player are the toughest to play, especially when you’re playing a team that was in the situation they were in, where they were able to rest top guys because they’d clinched second place,” he said. “To close it out and do it the way we did, I’m pretty proud of the boys.”
The two teams played a scoreless first, English River opening the scoring early in the second when Austin Kuhn ripped a snapshot from the right faceoff circle that eluded North Stars goalie Nathaniel Dupuis.
Affiliate player Garrett Gammond, on loan from the Thunder Bay Kings, evened the score at the 6:49 mark of the second, but the Miners responded quickly, Tyrell Bourk netting what proved to be the winner just 35 seconds later, a bouncing puck trickling past Dupuis for a 2-1 English River lead.
Braedan Pearce added an insurance marker in the third, the North Stars unable to capitalize on a number of chances, including several by veteran forward Jake Robinson.
Robinson said the ability to rest the team’s top player was more important than worrying about a meaningless two points or setting a tone against a possible playoff opponent.
“We rely heavily on those guys and it’s obviously nice for them to get a rest and watch from the stands,” Robinson said.
Jeremy Adduono, coaching with a heavy heart after learning Saturday his grandmother had died, said he set the lineup according to the best playoff interests of his team.
“We were still playing to win,” Adduono said. “We had our reasons for resting certain guys. You never want to take any chances in a situation like this. But overall I’m really happy with the effort.”
Attendance was a season-high 450.
Scoring: No scoring. Penalties: Storm TB (high sticking) 2:13, Raposo ER (unsportsmanlike conduct) 6:46, Robinson TB (tripping) 7:23, Pearce ERM (cross checking), Minoletti TB (roughing) 18:00.
Scoring: 1. English River, Kuhn (Fischer-Kobes, Driedger) 1:33. 2. Thunder Bay, Gammond 1 (Robinson) 6:49. 3. English River, Bourk (McPhee, Johnson) 7:24. Penalties: Schlitt ER (roughing) 1:41, Robinson TB (roughing) 9:10, Driedger ER (tripping) 12:25, Storm TB (cross checking) 14:23.
Scoring: 4. English River, Pierce (Gladue, Janke) 10:18. Penalties: Minoletti TB (cross checking) 11:20, Gladue ER (slashing), Masters TB (cross checking) 12:41.
GAME DATA – SOG – English River 4-12-8-24, Thunder Bay 11-9-11-31; Power plays (goals-chances) – English River (0-6), Thunder Bay (0-4); Goaltenders – English River: Michael Lenko, Thunder Bay: Nathaniel Dupuis; A: 450.