THUNDER BAY – Brock Aiken’s seventh shutout of the season wasn’t really the garden-variety kind.
The Dryden Ice Dogs made the Thunder Bay North Stars goaltender work for the 4-0 whitewash win on Tuesday night, peppering him with 29 shots to lead Thunder Bay to its 12th shutout triumph of the season.
For Aiken, it was his third shutout in his last five outings, the 11th straight win for the surging North Stars, who finished the Canadian Junior Hockey League rankings at No. 2 in the country.
“I was seeing the puck really well,” said Aiken, who improved to 21-1-1 with the win.
“My team kept it to the outside and made the shots easy, and when they did get an opportunity, I was there to make the save. I saw pretty much everything, and what I didn’t see wasn’t in the net.”
Knowing they’ve got a tandem like Aiken and his partner between the pipes, Dougie Newhouse, as the last line of defence, makes things a heck of a lot easier for the North Stars blue-liners, allowing a player like Kyle Auger to fight for a league scoring title with a little less pressure to pay attention to the defensive side of things.
“They’ve both stolen a couple of games for us this year, which has really been helpful. We’ve got some pretty offensive d-men, so whenever the defence jumps into the rush and the puck gets turned over we can always count on Brock and Dougie to make the big saves,” said defenceman Matthew Halushak, who has a respectable 28 points in 46 appearances.
He was at his level best in the opening minutes of the first, captain Ryan Mignault having already staked the Stars to a 1-0 lead with his team-leading 43rd goal of the season, the tally coming just 58 seconds into the game, played in front of 375 fans at Fort William Gardens.
Aiken, flat on the ice, stoned Michigan import Brody Nielson with a near-miraculous stop that kept it a 1-0 game. He did it again in the third with the Ice Dogs on the power play, stopping Matthew Huemmert with a left-pad save from point-blank range.
“We have great goaltending, both of them,” North Stars coach Rob DeGagne said. “It was Brock’s night and he played very well, especially in the first period when we came out with no jump – and they did. He made some big saves for us and kept us in the game. Eventually we got our legs and we put a few by them.”
Mignault doubled the Stars lead late in the first, taking a lengthy, pin-point pass up the middle from Halushak and going in alone on Dryden goalie Jacob Anthony, burying his second of the night on the backhand.
“I saw (Ryan) skating up the wall, but then I kind of wanted him to cut in. He did and I made the last-second pass. To be honest, I didn’t think it was going to end up getting through,” Halushak said.
Keighan Gerrie added his 36th goal of the season five minutes into the second and Logan Mihalcin pounced on a loose puck in the slot midway through the fourth, slicing it home to wrap up the scoring.
Anthony made 46 stops for an Ice Dogs team reduced to just 14 skaters because of illness and injury.
The North Stars improved to 45-3-2, while the Ice Dogs, a likely second-round opponent for Thunder Bay, slipped to 27-19-6, three points behind third place Thief River Falls with four games to go.
Star gazing: Thunder Bay went 8-2-1 against Dryden this season, the Ice Dogs responsible for three of the Stars five losses to date ... Gerrie, with 88 points, is two behind Red Lake's Bryce Young, who has 90, to lead the Superior International Junior Hockey League. Auger is three points off the pace.
Scoring: 1. Thunder Bay, Mignault 43 (Willan, Gillis) 0:58. 2. Thunder Bay, Mignault 44 (Halushak) 17:22. Penalties: B. Erwin TB (hooking) 17:05.
Scoring: 3. Thunder Bay, Gerrie 36 (Fortin, Brown) 5:31. Penalties: Brassard TB (hooking) 5:56, Stout DRY (unsportsmanlike conduct) 6:55, Nicholas TB (tripping), Brassard TB, Pakkala DRY (roughing) 13:39.
Scoring: 4. Thunder Bay, Mihalcin 3 (Nicholas, Kilby) 10:31. Penalties: Stubbs TB (slashing) 0:32, Bassi DRY (hooking) 2:47, Turbide TB, (misconduct), Huemert DRY (roughing, misconduct), 6:25, Nicholas TB (roughing), Basaraba DRY (high sticking) 6:49, Shea DRY (tripping) 11:09, Nicholas TB (cross checking) 19:57.
GAME DATA – SOG – Dryden 13-9-7-29, Thunder Bay 15-19-16-50; Power plays (goals-chances) – Dryden (0-3), Thunder Bay (0-4); Goaltenders – Dryden: Jacob Anthony, Thunder Bay: Brock Aiken; A: 375.