A small-market franchise in only its second season of existence — with a town population of about 5,000 — the Hearst Lumberjacks are the champions of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
Overcoming a 2-0 deficit at a jam-packed, overflowing John Rhodes Community Centre in Sault Ste. Marie tonight, the Lumberjacks rode the clutch goal-tending of regular season and playoffs most valuable player Nick Tallarico to a stunning 6-3 road decision over the Soo Thunderbirds.
The victory gives Hearst the best-of-seven NOJHL championship series four games to three.
The East Division regular-season champion Lumberjacks had finished 16 points behind the West Division regular-season champion Thunderbirds in the overall standings.
Hearst will now move on to meet the Oakville Blades of the Ontario Jr. Hockey League, the Thunder Bay North Stars of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League and the host Cochrane Crunch of the NOJHL at the Dudley-Hewitt Cup, provincial championship tournament that is slated for April 30 through May 4.
As for this NOJHL championship series, it was a see-saw set.
The Thunderbirds won the series opener only to have the Lumberjacks win the next three. But the Soo then forced Game 7 by winning Game 5 and Game 6 to extend the series to the limit.
Of note, the Thunderbirds were without head coach John Parco for Game 6 and Game 7 due to a league-imposed suspension from Game 5.
On to tonight’s title tilt, the Thunderbirds came out flying and took a 2-0 lead into the late stages of the first period before the visiting Lumberjacks finally scored.
Lucas Theriault and Nick Smith staked the Soo to the 2-0 lead before Jake Desando scored for Hearst.
The Lumberjacks then seized control of the match in the second period, firing four goals past Thunderbirds goalie William Anderson in a six-minute span to take a 5-2 lead.
Alec Johnson, Max Johnson, George Young and the always-hustling Dawson Waddell found range on the four-goal Hearst barrage.
The Soo got a spark towards the end of the second stanza, however, when Theriault dented the twine for his second goal of the match to make the score 5-3.
A free-wheeling third period was highlighted by a number of highlight-reel stops by Tallarico in the Hearst crease before high-energy forward Bradley Golant scored in the empty net to seal the championship deal for coach Marc Lafleur’s Lumberjacks.
The Hearst organization had dedicated the series to the memory of one of its biggest fans, Raymond Lafleur, who is the father of the Lumberjacks coach.
Mr. Lafleur passed away during this spring’s playoffs.