By Gary Moskalyk
The Fighting Walleye haven’t played since March 18. Head coach Geoff Walker has kept the boys engaged, saw the North Stars play at home against Red Lake in the Gardens, and enjoyed watching the playoffs on SIJHL.TV while taking notes.
“We’ve been good. Boys are chomping at the bit to get rolling,” said Walker. “I think the time off is getting a little bit long now. The preparation as a whole has been pretty good. It’s been a long lay off.”
Wisconsin is game-ready, if not nursing the odd playoff bump and bruise. They’ve got Thursday and Friday to recuperate after their thrilling seven-game win over Sioux Lookout. They’ll hit the ice ready to play. Kam River will have a little rust to knock off.
“I think it’s natural to be a little bit concerned. We’ve done some different things. We did our best to kind of shake it up,” said Walker of his team’s three-week hiatus from game action. “We’ve had some scrimmages. Nothing’s the same as a playoff game. We got a couple guys healthy during this time. We’re hoping in the long run it’s going to pay off. First ten minutes of that first game, we’ll try to keep it pretty simple. Get through that first ten and start executing what we want to do.”
Dax Lang is the only injured player to report on the Kam River squad, and he’s close to playing.
The Walleye would have already played Thunder Bay Thursday and Friday had the Bombers won against Wisconsin. Now they’ll start Saturday against a jacked Wisconsin team.
“For us, we don’t really care who we play. . . Wisconsin, they have some weapons. Really like the McClure twins (Connor and Cooper). (Ryder) McMillen led the league in scoring (71 points). (Zach) Carson, really good defenceman. (Kyler) Lowden, very good goalie.
“They play a little bit different style than Thunder Bay. A little bit quicker team than Thunder Bay,” continued Walker. “It just comes back to us. I comes down to us executing our game plan and playing the way we want to play. It’ll be an interesting series. I think, probably, it’s going to be a long series. When you get to this point you’re playing a good hockey team. They’ve won a series, knows what it takes. We just want to go. They’ll be coming off a pretty good high.”
The Walleye are 7-2-0 against the Lumberjacks this year.
“Obviously, I believe in our group. When we’re firing on all cylinders and we’re playing the way we want to play I like our chances,” said Walker.
Eric Vanska will be the main man in net for Kam River.
“I think Eric is the best goalie in the league. He’ll be a huge piece to what we want to do,” said Walker. “He’ll be the biggest piece to what we want to do. It’s a huge moment in Eric’s career.”
Three Walleye hit the 50-point plateau in the regular season. Jeremy Dunmore led the team in scoring with 58 points (19G-39A). Ethan Lang had 54, and defenceman Jack Cook had 21 markers to lead the Walleye in goals (while adding 29 assists). Rookies Max Leduc (18-27-45 in 46 games) and Euan Morrison (11-26-37) were next in points. Captain Anthony Oviedo (15-17-32) and Ryan Doucette (11-21-32 in 36 games) round out the top producers.
Logan Gallagher, back from injury, will provide a physical presence with 112 penalty minutes in just 21 games.
The Walleye finished the regular season in first place, with a 40-11-2 record, .778 winning percentage, and a goal differential of +82.
The Lumberjacks, fresh off their 3-2 overtime game-seven win over Sioux Lookout, lost a trademark in the process. They were 1-11 in one-goal games at one point this year.
Sal Poggiali put an emphatic end to that thinking with his overtime winner–his 5th playoff goal in seven games. He added two helpers.
Dillon Phillips (3G-4A) and Connor McClure (2G-5A) joined Poggiali with seven points. Cooper McClure had three goals and three helpers, Zach Johnson had five points, and Simon Davidson, Drake Flynn, Ryder McMillen and Zach Carson had four points each in the series against Sioux Lookout.
Kyler Lowden played all seven games, compiling a 3.45 goals against average and .900 save percentage.
The Lumberjacks were 2-6-1 against Kam River this year. Among the six losses was a 4-3 decision on Nov. 2, a 5-3 set-back Nov. 9, and a 3-2 at Norwest on Feb. 18.
Their worst loss was a 5-0 shutout in November. The Lumberjacks overall were -11 in goal differential against the Walleye, including the 5-0 shutout. In the regular season Wisconsin finished 6th with a 18-28-6 record, .404 winning percentage and a -28 goal differential.
All of those numbers include their improbable 3-14 final regular season record in one-goal games. Head coach Doug Lein asked his team to buy in to a tighter defensive system around mid-season. And he brought in Cooper McClure and Simon Davidson for the end of the season run. McClure secured 20 points in 20 regular season games with 11 goals, and Davidson had seven goals and four helpers in 14 regular season games. Both were key playoff performers.
The Lumberjacks also have the one-two punch of the SIJHL’s leading scorer Ryder McMillen (71 points), and number two gunner defenceman Zach Carson (58 points). Sal Poggiali and Dillon Phillips had 16 goals and 29 assists each. Scoring was never the issue for Wisconsin.
The series begins April 8 and 10 at Norwest Arena in Oliver-Paipoonge, and continues April 12 and 13 at the Spooner Civic Center.