THUNDER BAY – The Thunder Bay North Stars started Thursday's game against the Wisconsin Lumberjacks in unfamiliar territory – second place.
Losers of three of their previous five contests, the Stars had slipped behind the charging Red Lake Miners in the Superior International Junior Hockey League standings for the first time since the first week of the 2018-19 campaign.
It was motivation enough for the North Stars (29-13-3), who stormed out to a 3-0 lead in the first, added a fourth straight goal in the early going of the second and held on to edge the visiting Lumberjacks 4-3 at Fort William Gardens, stopping a team that had won seven of its pevious 10 outings.
Cody Bruchkowski, who scored his league-leading 48th goal of the season just 49 seconds after the opening faceoff and added an assist on Nikolas Campbell's first of two on the night, said the Stars would have liked a cleaner finish, but will take the two points any way they can get them.
And while top spot is nice, it’s not the driving force, at least not at the moment.
“At the end of the day everyone makes the playoffs, so it’s just about getting going in time for playoffs to roll around. If you’re hot by the time playoffs roll around, I don’t think it really matters what place you’re in,” said Bruchowski, who needs two goals in his next nine games to join the exclusive 50 goals in 50 games club.
Campbell is taking it a little more personally that Red Lake had passed them, even temporarilty in the standings, though the two teams are now tied with 61 points, the Stars with one more win.
“It matters for sure. We want the home-ice advantage throughout the whole playoffs. We always want to finish first. We won the championship last year and we want to finish in first place this year. It’s huge,” said Campbell, who has 18 goals and an equal number of assists for 36 points in 36 appearances.
The start on Thursday night was key.
After Bruchkowski opened the scoring in the first minute, captain Logan Mihalcin and Campbell scored 33 seconds apart and the North Stars looked like they’d run away with the contest, their lone true home-ice game in February.
“It was huge, a great start,” Campell said. “We just moved our feet, kept it simple, got pucks deep and went to the net and finished out chances.
“We kind of stopped moving our feet. They’re a hard-working team and never quit and we stopped playing a game and we got lucky and came out with the win.
The Lumberjacks started their comeback in earnest at the 6:28 mark of the second on the power play, four minutes after Campbell upped the Thunder Bay lead to 4-0, beating Wisconsin goaltender Hunter Adams.
Tyler Shetland, who finished with two in the game, punched it past Seth McKay, who faced 39 shots on the night.
Joel Matthews cut the North Stars lead to two with 7:40 to go in the period and Thunder Bay took a 4-2 lead into the third.
The North Stars drew three straight penalties in the period, and the final one cost them as Shetland unleashed a wrist shot from the slot that McKay never touched.
“They’re a hardworking team. They work hard and they chip away at things and we’ve got to play better, said Thunder Bay coach Rob DeGagne. “We’ve got to keep the foot on the pedal for three periods and it seems like we’re having hard time doing that right now for whatever reason. So we’ve got to get back to basics and get back to the simple things.”
The North Stars, who next play at home on March 6, head to Dryden on Monday afternoon for a matinee affair with the Ice Dogs.
Scoring: 1. Thunder Bay, Bruchkowski 48 (Brown, Tivers) 0:49. 2. Thunder Bay, Mihalcin 4 (Bruchkowski, Leishman) 7:24. 3. Thunder Bay, Campbell 17 (Willan, Foreshew) 7:57. Penalties:
Scoring: 4. Thunder Bay, Campbell 18 (Basaraba) 2:12. 5. Wisconsin, Shetland 9 (Moreland, Lundgren) 6:28 pp. 6. Wisconsin, Matthews 10 (Green) 12:20. Penalties: Brown TB (high sticking) 5:08, Hunt WIS (holding the stick), Campbell TB (hooking) 5:08, Hunt WIS, Tivers TB (fighting majors, game misconducts) 14:27.
Scoring: 7. Wisconsin, Shetland 10 (unassisted) 13:56 pp. Penalties: A. Erwin TB (boarding) 6:24, Anttonen TB (slashing) 9:31, Leishman TB (unsportsmanlike conduct) 12:57,
GAME DATA – SOG – Wisconsin 8-13-18-39, Thunder Bay 12-10-11-22; Power plays (goals-chances) – Wisconsin (2-4), Thunder Bay (0-0); Goaltenders – Wisconsin: Hunter Adams, Thunder Bay: Seth McKay; A: 195.