It was by far the closest game of the series: a 1-1 tie after 20 minutes and a 3-3 tie after 40.
When the final buzzer went at Crescent Point Place in Weyburn on Tuesday night, it was the visiting North Stars who had struck last, giving them a 4-3 win, and with it, a 4-0 sweep of Weyburn in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League quarter-finals.
“We got the best of them tonight…and either team could have won,” North Stars head coach Nate Bedford said after the win. “Obviously not our best effort. I don’t think there’s any question about that but perseverance and fighting right until the last draw is important so we’ll take the positive here and know that we won our first round and we’ll move on.”
Given that the season series was 2-2 and each team had scored eight goals in those four head-to-head matches, many expected a tighter series, including Bedford.
“It wasn’t something we expected to do but…it’s good to get out of here in four,” Bedford said. “I really liked their game tonight. They were blocking shots as usual and [they’re] a pretty gutsy team over there and I think if they didn’t have such a hard series with Kindersley, I think we’re probably in for it a little bit more.”
After posting back-to-back eight goal efforts in games two and three, the North Stars put half that many past giant goaltender Jake MacLennan on Tuesday, who stands 6’8”.
Troy Gerein scored on a juicy rebound in the first, Keaton Holinaty snuck one by five-hole in the second, Connor Sych launched one from the point that went off the post and in, and Ben Allen netted the game-winner with a quick release in the third.
Allen's goal was his sixth of the series, which leads all players in the playoffs so far, despite playing less games than those who played in the survivor series. Linemates Coby Downs and Layne Young are also currently first and second in the SJHL in playoff points, with nine and eight, respectively.
Despite the North Stars’ continued offensive excellence (six goals per game in the series), the turning point in game four may very well have been a goaltending change in the second.
After Joel Grzybowski allowed a third Red Wing goal halfway through the middle frame that gave the home side a 3-2 lead, Bedford decided to pull his rookie netminder and put in Taryn Kotchorek, who won all three of his starts in the series.
“[I wanted to] change the pace a little bit – slow it down a little bit. I didn’t think he played poorly at all,” Bedford said. “There’s probably one he wants back but I don’t think that game is close because of him. I think that we just wanted to change the pace and it was working for the first three or four minutes so we kept with it.
“Tough little stretch there for him but we’ve been through this before where we’ve pulled goalies and they’ve bounced back so he’ll bounce back.”
Kotchorek looked sharp the moment he took the net and would go on to get the win while stopping all 12 shots he faced in the final period and a half.
Another bright spot for Battlefords was their third line, made up of Logan Nachtegaele, Troy Gerein, and MacGregor Sinclair.
“I think they’ve been the most consistent over the four games here,” Bedford said of the trio. “They do everything the right way. [With] Sinclair in the middle – that’s why we have him out in the last minute, [because] he’s just so smart and he supports the puck so well, he’s got a good stick, and he’s a competitive kid. And you’ve got Nachtegaele and Gerein who would block a bus if it meant they got a win. So really happy with that line defensively and certainly happy when they get a goal.”
Although it the win in game four resulted in a sweep, it was also the second straight game with a subpar performance in the first period.
Bedford believes that was mostly because of the mental part of the game.
“I just think it was one of those things like last night where we knew we had a bunch of chances at one win and chances are we’ll probably get it so let’s try to do it the easy way,” he said of his team’s bad opening 20. “These guys, they’re such a skilled and smart, and at times, great team, that sometimes they take themselves for granted and I think you saw that tonight. I think they wanted to play a kind of off the boards, middle of the ice, stay away from stuff type game in the first period and after the first period I think they realized they’d rather win than do it the easy way.”
With the first series now wrapped up, it will be a long wait for the semifinals.
Although the schedule has not been finalized, it looks as if the team will have over a week off before their next round.
“It looks like we start next Friday at home but nothing is set in stone,” Bedford said. “We’re going to see what the league wants to do and what our opponent wants to do so there’s a few steps there but I think rest right now for some guys is important.”
The team will take Wednesday off after a long trip home but they will practice as usual on Thursday and Friday.
“If you win a series as quickly as we did, or sweep a series, you’ve got to reward them a little bit with time off and let them heal their wounds,” Bedford said. “They deserve some time off. They worked for it and we’ll give it to them but we also know we have eight more wins that we’re concentrating on so we’re going to get back to work.”
Right now, the other three SJHL series are all at 3-0 for the higher seed.
Flin Flon leads Notre Dame 3-0, Estevan leads Yorkton 3-0, and Nipawin leads Humboldt 3-0.
If all of those series keep going the way they are, it will be the Bruins who meet the North Stars in the semifinals, while Nipawin would draw Flin Flon.
If an upset happens, the North Stars would play whoever pulls that off, as they get to face the lowest remaining seed.