Special teams came to the fore as the Thunder Bay North Stars hosted its long-awaited home opener in style, defeating the Thief River Falls Norskies 3-1 at Fort William Gardens.
Newcomer Cody Bruchowski broke loose at the Norskies blue line to score the game-winner short-handed at 17:38 of the second period. Ben Erwin sniped on the power play at 9:12 of the third for an insurance tally. Thunder Bay killed off a late four-minute double minor to improve to 4-1-0 on the new season.
Jordan Smith stopped 31 of 32 shots to pick up the win on Bill Salonen Championship Banner Night to celebrate last year’s Superior International Junior Hockey League title.
Both teams meet again tonight at the Gardens.
Thief River Falls’ Seth Purcilly was solid in the loss, allowing three goals of 39 North Stars’ shots.
Bruchowski wasted no time to make an impact for Thunder Bay.
“Just was out there on the penalty kill. The D-man was having trouble with the puck at the blue line,” said Bruchowski, a graduate of the AAA Kings program. “Pressured him, poked the puck off him, he dove for the puck and I was lucky enough to get around him and get a breakaway for myself and I saw an opening low glove and ripped her in.”
After a scoreless first period in which the North Stars pelted Purcilly with 20 shots, the teams exchanged goals 29 seconds apart early in the second session.
Nick Harder’s wrist shot from the slot beat Smith high glove side. Michael Vecchio capitalized on a rebound at 3:15 to tie the affair. Thief River outshot the Stars 14-9 in the second, but Thunder Bay held the upper hand in the latter stages of the game.
“As the game went on we got better, the team got better. Our defence got better, I thought (Smith) played a heck of a game,” said North Stars head coach Rob DeGagne. “He looked rock solid. He didn’t look like anything was going to get by him. The one that did get by him, nobody could have stopped that. . . . Thought we had a good effort from a lot of our younger guys. Overall, I was really happy with the way we played tonight.”
Bruchowski joined Kyler Belluz, Dawson Lampi and Tom Young as new recruits. Gone from the line-up was goaltending stalwart Dougie Newhouse.
“We had to cut down to eight 20-year-olds,” said DeGagne. “That was really was hard for us to do that. We lost a really good warrior for us, a good soldier in Dougie. . . . (We had) low numbers on defence (five defence through the first four games). . . . Those are really hard things to do.”
Logan Mihalcin was named team captain as part of the pre-game ceremonies. Jacob Brown, Evan Nicholas and Joel Willan were named assistants.
Smith was tested early in third. Dan Paseschnikoff was stopped in the blue paint as the rookie netminder closed the gates. Mason McIntosh ripped one off the post later in the period for Thief River but the puck stayed out.
“I think it was good game for everyone tonight,” said Smith. “All the boys were going, first game of the season. Made a good first impression for everyone in Thunder Bay.”
Erwin rifled home a Nikolas Campbell centering pass to put Thunder Bay up by two. Mihalcin collected the secondary assist power play.
From there, the North Stars kept the Norskies at bay. Norskies head coach Wilson Housley pulled Purcilly with 1:48 to go.
A late Norskie penalty sabotaged any thought of a two-goal comeback.