Thunder gracious in season-ending sweep

There was a moment in the best-of-seven SIJHL final last week which captured the Borderland Thunder’s frustration.
During the latter stages of Game 3 in Dryden, the Thunder—trailing 4-1 and facing the possibility of an 0-3 series deficit—earned a rare scoring chance against the Ice Dogs but were whistled for a retaliation penalty.
Amid the loud cheers and music, all Thunder head coach Wayne Strachan could do was glance behind the players’ bench at general manager Brent Tookenay, shrug, and shake his head.
It was that kind of week.
The local Junior ‘A’ squad ended its inaugural season with a tough four-game sweep to the Ice Dogs, losing both games here to open the series and then falling 4-1 last Wednesday night in Dryden and 6-4 there Thursday.
Dryden now advances on to the best-of-three Dudley Hewitt Cup showdown against the winner of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey Association final between the Soo Thunderbirds and Rayside Balfour Sabrecats.
Stifled by the Dryden trap and the victims of timely scoring (including first-period outbursts by the Ice Dogs in both games up there), the Thunder camp remained optimistic about the season.
“You hate to see the season end, but it’s been a great season,” said Strachan, whose team went a league-best 28-11-9 during the regular season.
“You can’t take that away from the team. It’s unfortunate we never finished it off in the playoffs,” he noted. “Now we look forward to next year.”
“We can’t complain about the season but that was a tough way to end the playoffs,” echoed Thunder captain Josh Baxter.
“The team came together unbelievably the last couple months of the [season]. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s sad to see it end,” he added.
Strachan added the team will have most of the 22 faces back next season except for starting goalie Rob Hrabec, forward Ryan Hilfer, and defencemen Boomer Redford and Troy Arnold, all who played their final year of junior eligibility.
“It’s hard to lose guys like that,” he said. “There’s going to be changes made. We need to get bigger on defence, tougher on defence.
“There’ll be some things we’ll have to do this summer and be ready for next year.”
Meanwhile, the Ice Dogs, who finished third overall in the regular season with a 25-5-8 mark, turned it up after Larry Wintoneak took over as head coach, going 8-2-1 to finish the season and then 8-0 in the playoffs (they had swept the second-place Feathermen Hawks in the semi-finals).
“I would never think that we’d go eight-straight in the playoffs,” said Wintoneak. “[But] we played the system and the kids believed in each other.
“These last few weeks, we were on a roll and it’s hard to stop a team when they’re on a roll,” he added.
The Thunder had opened the series here March 30 with a 4-3 loss when Dryden’s Tyler McDonald scored in the last minute of play. Then in Game 2, they were held to 21 shots in a tight 3-0 loss.
The pattern repeated itself in Game 3 last Wednesday. The Thunder scored first, but then surrendered three goals in a four-minute span to see their 1-0 lead turn to a 4-1 loss.
“We came out flying in the first game and didn’t get the breaks. In the second and third game, we just didn’t come out at all and it cost us the series,” said Thunder centre Kevin Webb, who led all playoffs scorers with 14 points (seven goals/seven assists).
The Thunder came out with some bite in Game 4, scoring first and then battling back from another 3-1 hole to tie the game at 4-4. But late-game heroics came courtesy of Dryden’s Konrad Bruetsch, who scored the game-winner with 2:20 to go in the third.
They added an empty-netter to make the final 6-4.
The Thunder also found themselves juggling their offensive lines during the last two games as centre Matt Johnson suffered a separated shoulder before Game 3 and linemate Chad Baldwin missed that one with strept throat.
“[Johnson’s absence] was a big loss,” said Strachan. “He’s been our most consistent players all year. He comes to play every game.”
Strachan admitted the heightened intensity of the playoffs may have been something his team wasn’t ready for after its strong regular-season finish.
They were extended to seven games by the fourth-place Thunder Bay KC Bulldogs in the semi-finals before bowing out to Dryden.
“It seemed like we played only when we needed to,” Strachan said. “I don’t know why but that’s part of the experience for both coaches and players.”