Sunday November 23, 2014

Do you believe?

Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League
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Photo by Trent Cey

Battlefords North Stars coach Kevin Hasselberg gives a fist pump as the seconds tick off the clock in Nipawin and the North Stars force a game seven on home ice Tuesday.

The idea that it is the first team to four wins, not three, has been echoed throughout the Battlefords North Stars’ dressing room last weekend, as the North Stars faced elimination twice.

The North Stars fell 3-1 in the series and, Friday on home ice, they were in a do-or-die situation. In a somewhat surprising move, the North Stars’ coaching staff elected to go with Connor Creech between the pipes and shake up some of the line combinations in order to extend their season.

Friday, in front of 2,315 fans, the North Stars played perhaps one of their best games of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season and skated to a 4-1 win.

After the first 20 minutes, the teams were tied and it looked like the North Stars’ offence was still handcuffed by Nipawin’s goaltender Davis Jones.

In the second period, the North Stars’ offence broke out for three goals and scored the ever-important first goal of the game. Woody Klassen scored his first of the playoffs with a blast from the point that beat Jones’ blocker. Robbie Newton and Ryne Keller assisted on the goal.

Nipawin responded less than a minute later, as former North Star Justin Waskewitch tapped in a cross crease pass.

The North Stars continued to pressure the Hawks in the second period and caught a break offensively. Braeden Johnson tried to centre the puck as he skated behind the net off the rush, His pass deflected off a Hawks’ defender and up and over Jones to give the North Stars the 2-1 lead. Blake Tatchell drew the assist on the goal.

Nipawin had a glorious scoring chance with five minutes remaining in the second, but Creech made a glove save on the point blank opportunity and the North Stars eventually scored to increase their lead. The line of Tatchell, Johnson and Boyd Wakelin struck again, as Johnson centred the puck to Tatchell. He found Wakelin near the net and uncovered. Wakelin fired one shot and scooped up the rebound to beat Jones to make it 3-1 with his second goal of the playoffs.

Kyle Hall sealed the win with an empty net goal from Tim Rollins and Brody Luhning and the North Stars turned their attention to game six in Nipawin.

“All the credit goes to them,” said Creech of his teammates in front of him after making his first playoff start in the SJHL. “We played strong defensively all series, everyone has taken a lot of responsibly in the d-zone and that helps tremendously. All you have to do back there is stop what you have to and you’re not asked to do anything spectacular.”

Creech made 23 saves for the win and earned the start in game six in Nipawin Sunday. The crowd there was about a third of the size it was in the Civic Centre Friday, but perhaps it had a bigger impact, as the North Stars had nearly 100 supporters with jerseys and noisemakers ready to support the team and help force a game seven.

“When both teams came on the ice to start that hockey game, you could hear the roar of our fans,” said coach Kevin Hasselberg. “It sent shivers down my spine and got my heart rate going when they introduced us. It is amazing and we sure appreciate it.”

The North Stars rallied off their fans’ enthusiasm and scored twice in the first period. First it was Tatchell scoring his third of the series. After missing on a partial breakaway, he stuck with the puck and jammed it by Jones. Mitch Berg drew the assist on the game’s first goal.

The North Stars’ added to their lead 1:03 later, as Hall cut through the slot and beat Jones with a quick wrist shot. Roger Tagoona drew the assist, and after 20 minutes the North Stars were up 2-0.

Nipawin refused to roll over and outscored the North Stars in the second period.

Jeff Datoff and Stuart Holland both scored for the Hawks, while Brody Luhning answered on the power play for the North Stars, as Creech drew the assist.

In the third period, Nipawin drew a power play and Eric Peterson scored to tie the game.

With the game tied, the fans chanted their team’s name in the third period and every play and every shot was magnified with excitement and anticipation. Finally the North Stars were given an opportunity to go ahead, as Klassen drew a slashing penalty and the North Stars went on the power play with just over six minutes left.

Nine seconds after the power play began Mitch Berg scored his biggest goal as a Battlefords North Star. Berg wristed a point shot by a partially screened Jones for his first of the playoffs. Berg’s goal would hold up as the game-winner, as Klay Kachur and Jordan Ethier, who along with Berg were mid-season acquisitions, combined for the biggest goal of the season for the North Stars.

“We went up 2-0 in that game because of our fans,” said Hasselberg after the win. “It was a well-deserved victory.”

It was a victory that forced a game seven Tuesday night at the Civic Centre.

Creech made 26 saves while Jones turned away 24 shots in the loss. Both teams had two power play goals and now, more importantly, both teams have three wins in the series.

The teams entered the do-or-die game with similar stats. The North Stars entered game seven having scored 16 goals and allowing 14. Both teams are 2-1 at home this series. Nipawin’s Jones entered the game with a .926 save percentage while his counterpart Creech had a .921 mark. In the previous six games, the team that scores first has gone on to win the game. Also the North Stars were 4/17 on the power play while the Hawks were 4/19.

It doesn’t get much closer.

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