Bill Salonen Cup Finals Preview

Thunder Bay at Kam River finals preview April 2023

By Gary Moskalyk

Fresh off a dramatic four-games-to-three series win over Dryden, the Thunder Bay North Stars take on the Kam River Fighting Walleye in the SIJHL finals. 

Thunder Bay’s 3-2 victory in double overtime was a classic.

“The team won’t really realize it until they look back at it someday,” said North Stars’ head coach Rob DeGagne Friday morning, prior to boarding the team bus heading back to Thunder Bay. “You just came in, you won three of four games in the other team’s barn in a seven-game series. You go into a double-overtime game in game seven. You look down the bench and everybody is just really exhausted. Your goaltender makes two penalty shot saves. He played fantastic. The other goaltender did, too.”

Keenan Marks made 56 saves in the Thunder Bay net, including a perfect 27 for 27 in overtime. Eric Clark stopped 53 of 56 in the Dryden cage.

“It was really one of those games where you hated to see someone lose,” DeGagne added. “It was such a classic game. We were fortunate to come out on top. We’ve had a little bit of time to enjoy it. Now you recharge for the other series.”

Game one of the SIJHL finals begins Sunday night in Kam River. Game two is Monday. Thunder Bay will entertain the Walleye Thursday and Friday at the Gardens. Game five, if necessary, will be back at Norwest on Saturday. May 1st and May 3rd are games six and seven.

Despite the heavy game load recently the Stars are relatively injury free. The Fighting Walleye are in good shape. Dax Lang is day-to-day.

Nikolas Campbell scored the game-winner for Thunder Bay. He leads all SIJHL playoff scorers with 19 points and 11 goals in 12 games. Marks has six wins, 2.00 goals against average and .948 save percentage.

The Walleye have a dynamic pair of their own. Defenceman Jack Cook has eight goals in five games, and Eric Vanska leads playoff goaltenders with 1.86 GAA, with a .931 SV%.

On Thunder Bay’s side Jamie Fuchs has 13 points (5G-8A), tied with Colby Feist (4-9). Defenceman Sam Skillestad is averaging a point a game (4-8-12 in 12 games), EJ Paddington has three goals and seven assists, and Edison Weeks has three goals and five assists. Easton Glousher and defenceman Matt Halushak have seven points each. Paddington and Glousher are ’05 players, and Halushak is a minutes-eater on defence.

Kam River has seven players besides Cook averaging over a point per game. Jeremy Dunmore has nine points in four games with three goals. Ethan Lang and Noah Kramps have seven points each. Defenceman Kyle Lamoureux has dished out six helpers. Rookie Max Leduc, an ’06 player, has three goals and two assists. Kobe Braham has five points and Anthony Oviedo has two goals and two assists in four games played.

Kam River will have had a week off heading into their series with Thunder Bay. No stranger to downtime, the Walleye had 20 days of it heading into their series with Wisconsin. They came out hot, scoring two goals early against the Lumberjacks en route to a 10-2 first game victory. The series went five games.

“I feel really good about where we’re at,” said Kam River Geoff Walker. “Been practicing, excited about how we played in the first round against a good Wisconsin team. Did what we wanted for the most part. We dropped that one in double-overtime there (3-2 April 13 in Spooner, WI). That’s hockey, right? I think it was a good thing for us to lose that, to feel that. 

“We didn’t get home until six in the morning. We just reset, come out the next day at home very sharp,” Walker continued. “I think we had 22 shots (in the game five 4-1 Kam River series clincher at home). That’s just those players in the room. That’s not a coaching thing. That’s a leadership thing in there that they were able to put the loss behind them and close out a team.” 

Walker believes the finals will a tight battle.

“Credit to Thunder Bay for getting to the final and beating a very, very good Dryden team. We expect a long series here. We want to make sure we start the series fast. . .  Those first five, ten minutes of that game on Sunday are going to be crucial.” 

Norwest Arena and Fort William Gardens will be electric.

“It’s going to be a treat,” said Walker. “It’s going to be a real treat to be able to play Thunder Bay in a final with everything on the line. You can’t really write it any better than that. It’ll be must-watch hockey.”

Coach DeGagne weighed in on the upcoming series.

“They’ve got a good hockey team. They had a great regular season. This series is going to be a little different than the one we just finished. They’re dynamic. Dryden played a gritty hard-nosed style of hockey, that’s what they do. The Walleye will be a little bit more speed, a little more skill. They’re still gritty. There are two teams out there wanting to win.

“We’re looking forward to the series,” DeGagne continued. “It’s going to be good for the communities. It’ll be good for Thunder Bay; it’ll be good for Stanley. Our area is well represented here. It’s going to be exciting hockey.”