The Battlefords North Stars displayed their best defensive performance of the year in front of 2,450 fans at the Civic Centre on Friday night, shutting out the Flin Flon Bombers 3-0 in game one of the Canalta Cup Finals.
The visitors only managed 19 shots on goal all game long, while the North Stars fired 40 pucks on goaltender Brenden Newton, who was beaten once in each period.
"We really wanted to focus on making sure we had five guys back in our zone before they had four," said North Stars head coach Nate Bedford following the team's impressive win. "Not just having a high F-3. We wanted to make sure we were all committed to coming back in to our own zone...and I thought that was the best we've played in a while, defensively.
"When Owen Lamb is blocking a shot with his foot with a minute left in a 3-0 game – those kinds of things are what make us successful."
It was a tentative start for both, as only three shots were registered from both teams combined in the first 10 minutes of the game.
But North Stars captain Kendall Fransoo scored near the end of the opening frame in his first game back since Feb. 22 due to a knee injury. His goal gave the home side a one-goal advantage heading into the intermission.
"He's a mean guy that doesn't like to make friends on the ice, that's for sure," Bedford said of his captain. "He was pretty vicious with guys – with his mouth mostly – so it was good to see that coming back. I like that competitiveness...and it looked like he hadn't missed a beat.
"He does everything for us and when he was injured, he still did everything for us. He's been great in the dressing room. Like I always say, if you ever ask him to do something, he'll do it."
Fransoo's goal was his third career playoff goal and his first since March 9, 2015.
The 20-year-old veteran of over 270 career games said the sacrifice from his club was oustanding.
"We sacrificed a s**t–ton," Fransoo said. "We had guys out there blocking shots with a minute left, laying down. No one really cared where the puck was going to hit them, as long as it wasn't hitting our goalie.
"We just focused on the d-zone and not [letting] them have any chances because our offence is firing 100 per cent right now so just limit their chances and we're going to score when the time comes."
Very early in the second period that time came yet again.
Keaton Holinaty found the scoreboard for a league-leading 8th time in these playoffs when he potted home a Ben Allen pass just 46 seconds into the middle frame.
Before the second period was done, North Stars winger Troy Gerein was given a five-minute major for a hit to the head when he lined up Nate Hooper just inside the North Stars blueline. Hooper left immediately and did not return.
"Obviously [Hooper] didn't see him coming and that's obviously tough," Bedford said. "My theory has always been if you take a penalty from being physical or playing tough, we usually kill those off. We don't kill the ones that are selfish and are soft penalties."
The North Stars killed off the penalty and finished the night a perfect 3-for-3 on the penalty kill.
"I thought our penalty kill was real good," Bedford said. "Bad rebounds and soft goals are what seperates a real good penalty kill to a real bad one. Our goalies don't tend to let in too many soft goals and the next thing is our 'D' are great. They read plays really well and they've got good sticks. For whatever reason, they're so much better shorthanded at getting pucks off the glass and out into the neutral zone than they are 5-on-5, probably because they don't want to 5-on-5."
Several minutes after killing off the major, Connor Sych scored off a lucky deflection, as his shot was redirected by a defender's stick and went over goaltender Newton, landing perfectly in the top corner.
Not to be forgotten in the team's solid defensive was hometown goaltender Taryn Kotchorek, who picked up the first shutout for the North Stars in these playoffs, as well as the first of his career.
He improved his record to 7-0 in the post-season in front of dozens of family and friends, who were visiting from out of town.
"I've been ready for 10 days now," Kotchorek said of the long lay-off between series. "The team played great. I didn't thave to make that many big saves. They blocked a ton of shots and that helps a goalie out a lot. [I was] able to see the point shots easily too."
"He made two real big saves in the first period that could have altered the outcome of the game," Bedford added. "He was really consistent. He was smart when he froze the puck and I was really happy with his game."
Game two is set for the Civic Centre on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., where Bedford expects the Bombers to be better and for both teams to start quicker.
"They're going to come back – Mike Reagan is a good coach, he's as good as it gets in this league," Bedford said. "This time I promise you if you come to the rink, it'll be a real good start. They're going to be a little more physical and I think tomorrow is going to be an even better game. For us, we just have to make sure we're committed to coming back into our zone like we did today. That's the best I've seen us."
The Ultra Print pre-game show will get you all set for the action beginning at 7:15 p.m. on CJNB/CJNS.
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