THUNDER BAY – For the first time in 19 years, a team from the Lakehead has hoisted the Keystone Cup.
The Thunder Bay Northern Hawks on Sunday, powered by a two-goal, two-assist performance by Nicholas Nigro, downed the Manitoba-based Peguis Juniors 5-2 at the Tournament Centre to capture the trophy as the top Junior B team in the western region.
The Fort William Hurricanes were the most recent – and only – local team to win the Keystone Cup, taking the title in 1999. It was also the first medal of any kind for Thunder Bay since the Northern Hawks earned silver in 2012.
What a feeling, said the 22-year-old Nigro, who joined the club this season after three straight 30-goal campaigns with the SIJHL’s Thunder Bay North Stars.
“It feels amazing. We have a heck of a team here, as you can see and I’m so proud of the boys. We’re champs. It’s an awesome feeling,” said Nigro, named the tournament’s top forward, scoring a Keystone Cup high six goals and 10 points.
Nigro gave full credit to his opponents, who call Fisher River, Man. home and finished the regular season with a 27-6-1 record.
“They’re a great hockey team and well coached. But we just stuck to our game plan and we wanted this really bad. Our whole team, we were excited for this match-up and we got the job done.”
Nigro got the Northern Hawks on the board first, firing a quick snap shot past Juniors goalie Luke Penner, who was named the Keystone Cup’s top goaltender, at 8:51 of the opening period. Zach West doubled the lead on the power-play at 12:21, the first of three goals the Hawks would score with the man advantage in the matinee contest.
Christian Cochrane got one back for Peguis, the goal coming just 10 seconds after Thunder Bay’s Jake Baca was sent off for charging and the Hawks led 2-1, but they quickly re-established a two-goal lead, Nigro burying a fantastic feed from Drew Safronuk late in the first for a 3-1 lead after 20 minutes.
Ryan Hron had the only goal of the second and the teams traded goals in the third, Safronuk slamming one home from just in front of Penner at the 10:10 mark and Paul Romano getting one back for the Juniors with 6:26 to go in regulation.
Best said they were playing for their city.
“We know the history behind it. It’s been awhile since we’ve won and we really wanted to come out and try to bring it home for Thunder Bay. We did and it feels great,” West said.
The Northern Hawks outshot the Juniors 42-33, Devin Russell good on 31 shots directed his way.
It’s the end of the line for this year’s Hawks, as there is no national Junior B championship.
What a way to go out, Nigro said, especially for himself, Brad Arabia and Ryan Walsh, teammates with the North Stars last season and beyond.
“You couldn’t ask for anything better than to go out on top as our final year,” he said.
The Thunder Bay Fighting Walleye took bronze, falling 6-3 to Peguis in Saturday's semifinal.
Scoring: 1. Thunder Bay, Nigro (White) 8:51. 2. Thunder Bay, West (Walsh, Nigro) 12:21. 3. Penguis, Cochrane (Romano) 13:28, 4. Thunder Bay, Nigro (Safronuk) 9:13. Penalties: West TB (interference) 5:23, Ross PEG (cross checking) 11:38, Baca TB (charging) 13:18, Flett PEG (slashing) 14:29, Sandberg TB (interference), Npeinak (holding) 16:56, West TB (high sticking) 19:42.
Scoring: 5. Thunder Bay, Hron (West, Safronuk) 8:06. Penalties: Daniels-Webb PEG (roughing) 10:15, Flett PEG (cross checking, unsportsmanlike conduct) 10:33, Sandberg TB (goaltender inferference) 11:32, Lewkoski TB (roughing), Bench minor PEG (cross checking) 15:37, West TB (cross checking) 17:37.
Scoring: 6. Thunder Bay, Safronuk (Balcombe, Nigro) 10:10. 7. Peguis, Romano (Tacan, Daniels-Webb) 13:34. Penalties: Nigro TB (slashing) 1:11, West TB (cross checking), Richard PEG (roughing double minor) 10:03, Balcombe TB (cross checking, unsportsmanlike conduct, Balca TB (unsportsmanlike conduct), Daniels PEG, Cochrane PEG (unsportsmanlike conduct) 12:46, White TB, Daniels-Webb TB (fighting major, game ejection, game misconduct) 18:06.
GAME DATA - SOG - Peguis 9-13-11-33, Thunder Bay 20-13-9-42; Power plays (goals-chances) - Peguis (1-8), Thunder Bay (3-6); Goaltenders - Peguis: Luke Penner, Thunder Bay: Devin Russell.