One team had to win. One team had to lose. One team did win. Barely. One team did lose. Barely.
The Twin Soo border battle more than lived up to advance billing as a thriller of a Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League playoff series.
A see-saw set that went to the wire of a Game 7 showdown. A Game 7 triumph by the Soo Thunderbirds over the Soo Eagles that was decided by one goal, as if by pre-arranged script.
Seven games. Four wins for the Thunderbirds. Three wins for the Eagles.
The Thunderbirds won the first game and the last game of the series. In between, the Eagles won three of five games, which was just one short of series victory.
A seven game sizzler it was.
Highs and lows for both teams. Peaks and valleys for both teams.
Very little difference to choose from between the two teams. Except that in a best-of-seven series, one team won one more game than the other.
There was really good goaltending, from Eric Schuch of the Thunderbirds and Carter McPhail of the Eagles.
There were good coaching match-ups, with John Parco of the Thunderbirds and Bruno Bragagnolo of the Eagles — a pair of good, old Italian boys — matching wits and matching lines.
No team was out-coached in this series. No team was out-performed or out-hustled in this series.
But it was the Thunderbirds — not the Eagles — who got the winning goal in the deciding game.
There was good team play from both sides. There was some obvious, noteworthy play by individuals from both teams, besides the aforementioned goalies.
A pair of 16-year old, Ontario Hockey League, third-round draft picks from 2017 stood out for the Thunderbirds. Centre Camaryn Baber (Saginaw Spirit) and defenseman Rob Calisti (Soo Greyhounds) both played like seasoned veterans rather than the 16-year old rookies that they are.
Another 16-year old, defenseman Tristan Cicchello of the Thunderbirds, scored the overtime winner in Game 1 and continued to play well after.
Third-year forward Mark Tassone of the Thunderbirds shrugged off an injury that might have sidelined others, and played well. So too did fellow forwards Kaidan McDonald and Spencer Van Tiem elevate their game for the seven-game playoff.
Then there is second-year Thunderbirds forward Nick Smith. Ah yes, Nick.
Smart and shifty with plenty of skill and deceptive speed, Smith led the Thunderbirds with 35 regular season goals. But he saved his biggest goal of the season to break a 1-1 tie in the latter stages of the third period to give the Thunderbirds the Game 7 victory — and series.
On the Eagles side, captain Jake Palmerio was a crusading warrior befitting the ‘C’ on the front of his jersey.
Skate. Pass. Shoot. Score. Defend. Battle. That would be Palmerio, as good of a player and as good of a kid, rolled into one, as there is out there.
Another Eagles forward, Austin Rowe, also showed up and competed hard throughout the series. So did defenseman Kellen Tharaldson.
One team won. One team lost.
They weren’t playing for a league championship. Or even a division championship. This was a semi-final series — but what a series it was.
There was plenty of excitement on the ice. There was an atmosphere of passion — that included cold beer and good behaviour — among big crowds of spectators and supporters (and even a mystical sportswriter.)
There were moms and dads and grandmothers and grandfathers and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and more who watched and cheered and waved and smiled.
In victory and defeat.
PHOTO: End-of-game, end-of-series handshake. (Photo by Jim Egan.)