With tears in their eyes and players hugging one another as the final buzzer sounded, it was easy to see the emotions that the Battlefords North Stars were going through Thursday at the Civic Centre.
Their defence of the Canalta Cup championship came to an end on home ice as the Estevan Bruins skated away with a 6-2 victory and won the best-of-seven semifinal series in five games.
“It was tough to walk in the dressing room after the game, but the biggest message I wanted to give to the guys was just how proud I was of them,” North Stars head coach and general manager Brandon Heck said.
“Not only are they great players, but they are also great people and they are all going to contribute to society going forward both on and off the ice.”
Having suffered a 7-2 setback last Saturday in the second game of the series, the North Stars were determined to return to the Civic Centre and have a chance to redeem themselves in front of their fans.
They accomplished that goal with a 9-6 win Tuesday in Estevan and turned in a strong showing Thursday in a scoreline that was slightly skewed in the Bruins’ favour thanks to a pair of late empty-netters.
“When we went into game four, all we wanted was the chance to come back here,” North Stars captain Layne Young said. “We wanted to put on a show for our fans and we played well, but it just wasn’t good enough.”
“I thought we deserved a bit of a better fate tonight with how well we played,” Heck said. “We hit a couple of posts and missed some chances, so we were definitely snake bitten a bit.”
Down the hall, it was a celebratory mood for the Bruins as they punched their ticket to the SJHL final for the first time since they won the league in 1999.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the community right now,” Bruins head coach and general manager Chris Lewgood said. “We had around 3,700 fans for the last two games against the North Stars, which was the biggest crowds we’ve had for a Bruins game since moving to Affinity Place, so we’re eager to build off of that and have even more buzz for the final.”
“Having grown up in Estevan and watched the Bruins play, to be a part of the team now is unbelievable,” forward Kaelan Holt added. “It’s been an unreal ride and it’s hard to put in the words just how much it means to be a part of it.”
Holt was stellar Thursday as he potted two goals and two assists for the Bruins, who clawed their way back from an early 2-0 deficit.
With the game tied up and both teams trading chances in the final frame, Holt fired a shot that was stopped by Taryn Kotchorek before Jake Fletcher banged home a rebound at the 11:11 mark to give the Bruins the lead.
Holt would seal the deal a couple of minutes later with a gorgeous top-shelf snipe before rounding out his evening with an empty-net goal.
“He’s really developed into one of the best two-way centremen in the SJHL,” Lewgood said.
“Kaelan always finds a way to exceed the expectations that people have for him and we’re hoping that he’ll be given a chance elsewhere soon by a post-secondary program.”
There was a mix of emotions for Holt as the teams exchanged handshakes following the series, as he suited up for the Battlefords Stars in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League during the 2014-15 season and played alongside a number of current North Stars players.
“I was teammates with Troy [Gerein], [Owen] Lamb, [Connor] Manegre and Layne that year and they are all great guys,” Holt said.
“It was a little sad to see them out on the ice there as the clock was winding down, especially for those guys that are graduating, as it’s something that will happen to me here soon.”
Another strong performer for the Bruins Thursday was netminder Matt Lukacs, as he made 31 saves to help his team earn the win.
It was the first start for the Coalhurst, Alta. product since Feb. 23, as he came in and replaced an injured Bo Didur late in the second period of Tuesday’s 9-6 loss in Estevan.
“I haven’t been on the ice for a playoff series win in a long time and it’s a lot nicer than sitting on the bench that’s for sure,” Lukacs said.
“I think going in and playing a bit on Tuesday helped me out a lot as I wasn’t absolutely cold coming into tonight. I was focussed on playing my game and I felt like I did a good job of that once I got my rhythm back. The guys in front of me did a really good job of helping me out as well, as they did whatever it took to block shots all night long.”
Fletcher and Hayden Guilderson, who had been sidelined with an injury for the first four games of the series, had a goal and assist each in the victory.
Tanner Manz and Zach Goberis also found the back of the net for the visitors.
Keith Anderson had a goal and an assist to pace the North Stars on offence, while Dakota Hubener dished out a pair of helpers.
Young had the other goal for the hosts, who received a 23-save showing from Kotchorek.
Thursday’s game marked the end of the junior careers for Anderson, Chaseton Braid, Gerein, Conor Jensen, Kotchorek, Garan Magnes, Manegre and Young as they will all age out of the SJHL.
“It’s been an unreal experience,” Young said. “I can’t thank the fans and the community here enough for the last three years with the North Stars and the two years before that with the Midget AAA Stars.”
It was also the potential final appearance in a North Stars uniform for third year blueliner Levi Kleiboer, as he’s expected to forego his last season of junior eligibility to suit up for the Maine Black Bears in the NCAA ranks next year.
Meanwhile, the Bruins are now gearing up for the best-of-seven battle for the Canalta Cup, which is expected to get underway next weekend.
In the other semifinal matchup, the league-leading Nipawin Hawks currently hold a 3-1 advantage over the Humboldt Broncos and can clinch a sport in the SJHL final for the first time since 2001 with a win at home Friday night.
The two sides last squared off Wednesday in Humboldt as the Hawks came away with a 6-5 victory in the league’s first triple overtime game since the Yorkton Terriers picked up a 2-1 win over the Broncos in game five of the 2013 championship series.
Brandan Arnold led the way with two goals, one of which was the game-winner, and an assist.
Austin Mikesch dished out three helpers for the Hawks, while Logan Casavant had a pair of goals.
Jordan Simoneau and Gage Misskey had a goal and an assist each in the win, which saw Declan Hobbs make 57 saves.
The Broncos had a spread out offensive attack Wednesday, as Conner Lukan, Logan Schatz, Nick Shumlanski and Logan Boulet all had a goal and an assist each.
Kaleb Dahlgren also scored in the loss, which saw Jacob Wasserman turn aside 53 shots.