Oliver Paipoonge, ON | It was an epic series that had hockey fans in the Lakehead buzzing with excitement. And when the dust settled on the back-and-forth, drama-filled, seven game battle between the two junior hockey powerhouses from the Thunder Bay area, it was the Kam River Fighting Walleye who prevailed at home in Game 7 to earn their first Bill Salonen Cup as SIJHL Playoff Champions. With the win, Kam River receives a birth in the Centennial Cup National Championship tournament, beginning next week in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.
Early on, it looked like things might go differently for the home side. The North Stars got on the board early in the first period, on a goal off the stick of Dylan Bertrand, and carried the play for the first half of the frame. But the Walleye pushed back, getting the equalizer at the 12 minute mark when Riley Borody slammed home a rebound off a Max Leduc shot. Two minutes later it was Leduc who did the damage himself, the reigning SIJHL Rookie of the Year beating North Stars goaltender Keenan Marks with a wrist shot from the top of the circle.
The score would stay 2-1 in favour of the Walleye until 8 minutes into the second period, when Kobe Braham banked the puck in off a Stars defender to give his squad a two goal cushion. Thunder Bay would answer back, as Edison Weeks scored off a beautiful deke and shot to pull the visitors to within one, at the midway mark of the period. The teams traded
chances for the remainder of the frame, but the score remained 3-2 Walleye heading into the second intermission.
Euan Morrison got the Fish going early in the third period, when the puck bounced off of him in front of the net and found it’s way behind Marks. It was the rookie from Victoria, BC’s third goal of the playoffs and it came at the 2:10 mark of the period. Kam River upped the pressure from that point on, stifling the Stars at every turn with a relentless forecheck. The Walleye would only allow the visitors to get 9 shots through to goaltender Eric Vanska in the period, despite a late 4-minute high sticking penalty they were forced to kill. After Ryan Doucette finished off a pretty pass from Jeremy Dunmore by slipping the puck through the legs of Marks with 8 minutes to play, the home team had a 3-goal lead with the clock ticking away. A Nickolas Campbell tally for the North Stars with 4 minutes left made things interesting, but the Fish hung on to clinch the championship to the delight of a capacity crowd of 893 at NorWest Arena.
Eric Vanska was solid in the last SIJHL start of his career, turning aside 34 of 38 shots for his 8th playoff victory, and his 50th in a Walleye jersey.
Jack Cook was named the SIJHL Playoffs MVP, after the defenseman dominated both ends of the ice while posting 19 points in just 12 games.
The Fighting Walleye play their first game of the Centennial Cup on Thursday, May 11th against the SJHL Champions, the Battlefords North Stars.
The tournament will also see them match up against the host Portage Terriers, the MJHL Champion Steinbach Pistons, and the OJHL Champions, the Collingwood Blues.