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T-Wolves clinch playoff spot with win over Lakers

Lakehead will play Windsor in the opening round, but home-ice won't be determined until Saturday night.

THUNDER BAY – A Nick DeGrazia snapshot found more than the back of the net.

It landed the Lakehead Thunderwolves in the OUA men’s hockey playoffs.

DeGrazia, tied for the OUA rookie lead with 13 goals, took a pass from defenceman Colin Van Den Hurk off to the side of Nipissing Lakers goaltender Zach Roy and wasted no time, blasting it high and hard for the third-period winner.

Griffen Fox would add an empty netter in the final minute of the third and the Thunderwolves went on to double up the Lakers 4-2, the win guaranteeing they’d finish no worse than fifth place in the OUA West.

They could still move into fourth, but will need help from the Waterloo Warriors, who would have to beat the Windsor Lancers in regulation on Saturday for the Thunderwolves to claim fourth place and home-ice advantage against the Lancers in the opening round of the playoffs.

The win also ensured the T-Wolves wouldn’t have to take part in Sunday’s play-in game, the sixth and seventh-place teams battling in a one-game, do-or-die match for the final playoff spot.

Instead, Laurier will host the Lakers in that contest.

“I kind of messed up the first shot, didn’t get all I wanted onto it. Lucky enough (Colin) made a great pass and I just put that one in,” DeGrazia said, adding he and his teammates weren’t doing too much standings watching heading into Friday’s game, played in front of a season-high 3,459 at Fort William Gardens.

“I don’t think guys were thinking about it too much. I think we just wanted to go out there, play our game and that’s what we did and we got the result we wanted.”

It was the Lakers (10-13-5) who struck first, though.

Moments after Spencer Blackwell lost the handle going in alone on Roy, the Lakers raced to the other end of the 73-year-old rink, emerging on a three-on-one. Payton Vescio, skating down the right side, kept the puck and fired a wrist shot to the short side of Thunderwolves goaltender Max Wright, giving Nipissing a 1-0 lead at 7:21 of the first.

Rookie Ed McNeill evened things up on the power play just three minutes later and the teams took a 1-1 score into the first intermission.

Keighan Gerrie took care of that in the opening three minutes of the second, firing a low shot on Roy that slipped untouched through the goaltender’s pads.

Jonathan Rees evened the score at 9:22 of the second, and after 40 minutes the two teams were tied again.

Lakehead appeared to be heading to the power play seven minutes into the third, but Noah Massie jumped in the fray and was given an offsetting minor to negate the man advantage. However, the penalty troubles that plagued the Lakers all night long came back to bite them. Mathieu Franche was sent off for roughing 43 seconds later and the Wolves took advantage of some 4-on-3 hockey to take the lead for good.

“It feels good getting the win,” Gerrie said. “We were in a bit of slump at the beginning of the year, but we’re getting hot at the right time and we’ll see if we can keep it going and bring everyone back to the Gardens again.”

Gerrie said the goal after giving up the early lead was to keep things simple.

“We play our game and we’re good team. We just had to keep battling, keep chipping pucks past our D and stick to our game plan. A few bounces here and there and we’re on top,” he said.

Fox’s empty netter came seconds after Nipissing’s Devyn Mayea rang the puck off the post beside Wright, who stopped 30 of 32 shots on the night.

It’s a relief, said LU coach Andrew Wilkins.

“I thought it was touch-and-go there for a while tonight, but obviously the guys pulled through. I thought the power play stepped up with some timely goals and we got some timely saves by Wright. To officially get in the playoffs is nice.”

The Thunderwolves who finished the year at 14-12-2, will start at home in a best-of-three against Windsor if the Lancers pick up at least one point against Waterloo, or if Windsor loses in regulation on Saturday, LU would start on the road and have home-ice advantage in Games 2 and 3, if necessary.

: 1. Nipissing, Vescio 4 (Lieffers) 7:21. 2. Lakehead, McNeill 3 (Fox, Van Den Hurk) 10:22. Penalties: Rees NIP (holding) 9:27, Larsen NIP (interference) 11:33.

: 3. Lakehead, Gerrie 8 (Stiles) 2:19. 4. Nipissing, Vescio () 9:22. Penalties: Lacombe NIP (roughing), Ho LAK (roughing) 5:05, Stewart NIP (high sticking) 13:12

: 5. Lakehead, DeGrazia13 (Van Den Hurk, Pouliot) 8:29 pp. 6. Lakehead, Fox 9 (DeGrazia) 19:31 en. Penalties: Smith LAK (hooking) 4:48, N. Massie LAK (roughing), Farmer NIP (slashing) 7:31, Franche NIP () 8:12, Rees NIP (holding) 10:15, Campbell NIP (high sticking) 15:22.

GAME DATASOG – Nipissing 14-7-11-32, Lakehead 11-10-13-34; Power plays (goals-chances) – Nipissing (0-1), Lakehead (2-5); Goaltenders – Nipissing: Zach Roy, Lakehead: Max Wright; A: 3,459






Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith is Dougall Media's director of news, but still likes to tell your stories too. Wants his Expos back and to see Neil Young at least one more time. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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