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Thunderbirds take 1st game of NOJHL division finals

Marc Capancioni for local2 sault ste. marie
March 20th, 2012 at 10:03am

tbirds team

In a rematch of last season’s Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League Western Division championship, there’s no shortage of hype surrounding this year’s Soo Thunderbirds/Soo Eagles series. Beginning last night at the Essar Centre, the matchup certainly lived up to the high expectations. The back-and-forth game ended with the home team on the winning end of a 4-2 score.

Given the Thunderbirds’ less than triumphant finish in the 2010-11 division finals, a series they lost to their cross-border rival in game six, the club is looking for a little redemption this time around.

“The guys from last year's team are looking to settle the score,” said Jake Wright, in his second season with the Thunderbirds. “Our plan is to battle hard and take the series this year.”

The Thunderbirds opened up the scoring last night seven minutes into regulation. In a two-on-one, forward Matt Amadio found linemate Greg Sartoretto, who slipped one past Eagles goalie Chris Truehl. The Michigan squad answered about four minutes later. The Thunderbirds, who finished a penalty kill just seconds earlier, gave the puck away in their zone, and Eagle winger Travis Payne capitalized on the opportunity.

Meanwhile, Thunderbirds goalie John Kleinhans, who made 19 saves throughout the 60 minutes, was a deciding factor in keeping the game close, particularly in the first period. At the eight-minute mark of the opening frame, for instance, the 21-year-old made a sprawling grab to keep the score tied a one each. About three minutes later, Kleinhans made another key save, this one coming off a winding glove catch.

“Johnnie wasn’t overly busy, but he was sharp when he needed to be,” said Thunderbirds head coach Preston Mizzi. “He made a few huge saves early on, and that really set the tone for the rest of the game.”

The Thunderbirds pulled ahead in the second with a pair of unanswered goals. The first came at the hands of Wright, who netted one midway through the period. The second came following an innocent-looking shot from captain Micky Sartoretto. The puck trickled in, and the Thunderbirds went into the intermission with a 3-1 lead.

With the Thunderbirds controlling much of the third, including a pair of successful penalty kills – one was a five-minute major given to Darcy Casola for kneeing – it appeared the home team was sailing smoothly to a win. The Eagles scored, though, with Gavin Burbach netting one at the three-minute mark, putting the game within reach. However, an empty net goal with less than a minute to go from Nick Romano, on a pass from Amadio, put the Thunderbirds up 4-2. And that’s how it ended.

“Everyone worked hard,” said Mizzi, in his second year as bench boss of the Sault, Ont. Junior A club. “The chemistry was there. Things just seemed to click for us.”

The Sault squads play game two of the division championship Wednesday night at Michigan’s Pullar Stadium. Then it’s back to the Essar Centre Friday night, followed by another trip to the Pullar on Saturday. All three games are scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

“Tonight set the tone for the series,” Wright said following the win. “We're going to head into the Pullar on Wednesday looking to carry this momentum and get another win.”

More information on the Thunderbirds, including playoff schedules and updated news, is available online at www.tbirdhockey.ca.


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