By Mike Ebbeling
Dryden, ON – Game #7 of the SIJHL Semi-Final will go down as arguably one of the best deciding games, if not the best game, in league history. The Thunder Bay North Stars and Dryden GM Ice Dogs met at the ‘Dog Pound’ in front over 600 fans who from start and finish did not stop cheering for the nearly 4 hour marathon. A reminder that the two teams were playing their third game in three days with travel going back and forth. Despite being the higher seed the Ice Dogs were handed a blow with captain Brady Frattinger and Landen Stomme (top two scorers on the team) and McLaren Paulson all suspended. Both teams brushed that aside to set up a classic game that will always be remembered.
The fans expected high intensity and plenty of emotion and they weren’t disappointed! The Ice Dogs got the crowd in it early with aggressive and physical play but the visiting Thunder Bay North Stars would hold on until an Easton Glousher high-sticking call only 2:32 into the opening frame. The Ice Dogs had some early chances but success came from an offensive zone faceoff win at the tail end of the man advantage. Ryland Maier won a faceoff back to Kaden Bandura who connected tape-to-tape to a wide open Max Rath on the near wing. The 6’7, 210 pound defenceman was able to walk in and wind up and rifle one past Keenan Marks just inside the far post for his first of the playoffs. Thunder Bay would get a chance to respond just 4 minutes later with a Max Roby high stick. The equalizer came on what ended up being a broken play. An open Matthew Halushak took a shot from the blueline but his stick shattered in two. The puck would land in front of Eric Clark and following a quick puck battle, Jamie Fuchs, surrounded by two Ice Dogs defenders, turned and snapped one through the legs of the Dryden GM goalie for his fifth goal of the playoffs. Thunder Bay would have two more chances on the man advantage and the Ice Dogs one but both teams couldn’t cash in. The best chance for both teams to add to the lead came at 1:58 when Maier was tripped by Colby Feist on a breakaway. The product of Whitewood, Saskatchewan was awarded a penalty shot as a result. Maier attempted to go blocker side but before he was able to make the move Marks executed a perfect poke check to keep it 1-1. Shots were fairly even with Thunder Bay holding an 11-10 advantage.
The second period was fast and hard hitting as the Game #7 intensity continued to swell. Thunder Bay came out flying putting pressure on the Ice Dogs back end but couldn’t beat Eric Clark. Dryden GM responded in the second quarter of the period with several big chances and two arena shaking body checks courtesy of Max Rath on Jamie Fuchs. The home team thought it regained the lead but Keenan Marks would have something to say about that. On a perfectly executed 2-on-1 Kaden Bandura found a wide open Ondrej Bardos. Bardos shot the puck at the seemingly wide open net but the rookie netminder stretched out, his feet post-to-post and he got his glove out to make what could be the save of the year. The North Stars would have a couple more powerplay chances but couldn’t solve Clark. Some bad luck was involved as an open Edison Weeks hit the far post on a close-in opportunity. Thunder Bay outshot Dryden GM 15-12 in the period.
It was a cautious start to the third as both teams didn’t want to make a mistake with a spot in the SIJHL Final on the line. However, the pace quickly changed with the two clubs going back to trading chances and bone crunching hits. The third goal finally came at 8:53 when a calm Edison Weeks waited for two Dryden GM defenders to close in front of Eric Clark and he found an opening with a laser beam goal for his third of the playoffs. Assists were earned by Liam Murdoch and EJ Paddington. The Ice Dogs didn’t panic and less than 3 minutes later Jordan Pfoh would storm in and batted a couple of North Stars and following a great individual effort the forward-turned-defender found Max Roby who beat Keenan Marks with a perfect wrist shot to tie the game at two. That was Roby’s third goal in two games. It went back and forth after that with the raucous crowd involved in every nail biting play. It reached a crescendo with only 11 seconds remaining when leading scorer Nikolas Campbell pulled the puck back and ripped one on net only to hit the post blocker side on Clark. Dryden GM countered quickly going up ice but Marks denied Roby on a last second chance to force overtime. Thunder Bay held a 17-9 advantage in shots.
The first overtime solved nothing with Keenan Marks and Eric Clark stealing the show. Play heated up at the 10:00 mark and that’s when the goaltending clinic started. James Hooton would break in alone on the far side but Marks challenged and came up with a beautiful save to rob the 7-gpal scorer. The North Stars would respond with Nikolas Campbell denied in tight by Clark. The veteran forward would have two more quality chances but was unable to pot the winner. The momentum shifted and that’s when Marks went Hollywood making save after save including a 3-on-1 advantage. The Ice Dogs would pepper 14 shots on the North Stars net while Dryden GM allowed 8.
Bring on the second overtime and Dryden GM continued to press. The aggressive offensive attack continued to press the Thunder Bay defence but again Keenan Marks answered the call. The big opportunity came 5:51 into the fifth period of the game when a North Star player put his hand on the puck during a goal mount scramble resulting in a very rare second penalty shot call for one game. Red hot Max Roby would be tasked with scoring the game winner but Marks didn’t flinch and stood tall to make a game winning save. An undermanned Ice Dogs team still attacked and fired 13 shots on net, resulting in 27 shots in both overtime periods, compared to 13 for the North Stars. However, a tenacious Thunder Bay squad stayed with the program and the turning point came with only 6 minutes remaining when veteran Max Rath reached out on a streaking Dylan Winsor who the officials say was tripped up resulting in a powerplay. It didn’t take long for the North Stars to deliver the final blow as some slick passing resulted in Sam Skillestad finding an open Nickolas Campbell who capitalized on a screened Eric Clark to end the memorable clash between two of the most historic teams in the league.
The North Stars advance to the Bill Salonen Cup against the top ranked Kam River Fighting Walleye setting up the first all Lakehead district final since 2009 when the North Stars defeated the Thunder Bay Bearcats.
1. Keenan Marks (TBAY): 56 saves
2. Max Rath (DRY): 1 goal
3. Max Roby (DRY): 1 goal