THUNDER BAY – There’s really no other way to describe what happened to the Thunder Bay North Stars on Saturday night than to call it a good old-fashioned playoff whooping.
The Red Lake Miners stormed into Fort William Gardens, scored three times in a 6:17 span in the first period and coasted to a 6-1 triumph to open their best-of-seven Superior International Junior Hockey League championship final in winning fashion.
It was the third straight road win for the Miners against the North Stars, the No. 2 team in the Canadian Junior Hockey League for the vast majority of the season.
The five-goal deficit marked Thunder Bay’s worst loss since Oct. 27, when Dryden blanked them 6-0.
North Stars coach Rob DeGagne said it wasn’t the start his team was looking for, in search of its first Bill Salonen Cup title since 2010.
“We didn’t want pucks. We didn’t want to go to the net. We didn’t want to shoot. We didn’t want to compete. If you don’t want to do any of that stuff, you’re not going to win. It’s simple,” DeGagne said, adding he’s not pressing the panic button yet, knowing the North Stars took seven of 10 meetings between the two teams this season.
“It’s a seven-game series. You don’t want to lose the first game at home. You want a little bit of fight, but we have to regroup. We have no choice. We’ve been a resilient team most of the season, so we have to turn it around and get our heads up and go play some hockey.”
The Miners, on the other hand, were feeling pretty good about their opening-game success.
Goaltender Zach Willms, who lost out to Thunder Bay’s Brock Aiken in the goaltender-of-the-year race, was the better puck-stopper on this night, making 45 saves, including 22 in the second period alone.
Taking Game 1 feels great, he said.
“It’s tough coming off the bus sometimes, but the boys really left everything out there tonight. Road wins can be tough to come by in the playoffs, but it feels good to get the first one out of the way,” said Willms, who led the Miners to a five-game series win over Thief River Falls in the semfinal round.
“I know it was (46) shots, but the boys were keeping those to the outside. They were letting me see the puck. If we’re limiting their prime scoring chances, that’s the main thing.”
It was all Red Lake in the first.
Morgan Venne opened the scoring at 7:03 and the goals just kept coming, at Aiken’s expense. Kyle Uzelman and Stratton Pickett tallied two minutes apart to make it 3-0, and Liam Stalwick chased Aiken early in the second, the North Stars goaltender replaced by back-up Dougie Newhouse after stopping just 16 of 20 shots he faced.
Thunder Bay captain Ryan Mignault finally got his team on the board late in the period, batting a puck out of the air and slipping it past Willms on an ice-level backhand.
It was as close as Thunder Bay would get.
Dante Tisi scored on a one-timer five minutes into the third – the Miners first shot of the period – and Stalwick added his second of the night at 12:24 to cement the win.
“All the guys stepped up tonight. I thought for 60 minutes we had good efforts from everyone, and obviously that’s what it’s going to take to win in the finals,” said Red Lake bench boss Derek Sweet-Coulter, the SIJHL coach-of-the-year.
Scoring in bunches in the first was key.
“Unspectacular preparation led to some spectacular stuff in the first,” he said. “We worked hard on the video and we’ve been preparing hard for this. It wasn’t just this week.”
Thunder Bay defenceman Josh Bryant was ejected early in the third after a late hit on Red Lake’s Michael Di Lullo, who had to be helped to the dressing room. Bryant could face a suspension for the hit, labelled a charge by on-ice officials.
The Stars and Miners play Game 2 on Sunday night. Puck drop is 7:30 p.m.
Scoring: 1. Red Lake, Venne 5 (Pickett, Di Lullo) 7:03. 2. Red Lake, Uzelman 5 (Krawiec) 11:13. 3. Red Lake, Pickett 3 (Venne, Di Lullo) 13:20. Penalties: Stubbs TB (high sticking) 1:42, Stalwick RLM (slashing) 7:51, Mihalcin TB (slashing) 7:51, Nicholas TB (spearing double minors) 13:20, Venne RLM (roughing) 19:00.
Scoring: 4. Red Lake, Stalwick (Evans) 4:30. Thunder Bay, Mignault 3 (Fortin) 16:32. Penalties: Uzelman RLM (tripping) 6:53, Young RLM (holding) 18:53,
Scoring: 6. Red Lake, Tisi (Stuckless, Toews) 5:12 pp. 7. Red Lake, Stalwick (unassisted) 12:24. Penalties: Bryant TB (charging major, game misconduct), Evans RLM (unsportsmanlike conduct) 0:29, A. Erwin TB (roughing) 14:42, Auger TB (roughing), Nicholas TB, Stalwick RLM, Uzleman RLM (unsportsmanlike conduct) 15:56.
GAME DATA – SOG – Red Lake 16-8-7-31, Thunder Bay 12-23-11-46; Power plays (goals-chances) – Red Lake (1-4), Thunder Bay (0-3); Goaltenders – Red Lake: Zach Willms, Thunder Bay: Brock Aiken (20 shot, 16 saves), Dougie Newhouse (4:30 second); A: 1,180.