NA3HL Hockey: WarHawks open season with victory
For a moment, the Willmar WarHawks' faithful that made the two-and-a-half hour drive to Breezy Point Saturday night might have thought the 2017-2018 season would start with a disappointing loss just like last season. But then the third period started.
Trailing 2-0 after two periods, the WarHawks scored four goals, including a game-winner from Cameron Pries with 28 seconds left to play, to defeat Breezy Point 4-3 and start the new season off with three points.
"It was a good way to start the year," said WarHawks head coach Chris Blaisuis. "It shows who we are as a team. Our veterans were able to stay the course and get the win."
Breezy Point scored a pair of goals in the second period in what Blaisuis called "one of the worst periods of hockey" he's seen but Willmar goaltender Luke Fry came up with a few big saves to keep the damage to only two goals.
The turning point came with 13:36 remaining in the game when Tate Steffan and Danny Wieber were sent to the penalty box for unsportsmanlike conduct and kneeing minors, respectively, giving the WarHawks a 5-on-3 opportunity for two minutes. The WarHawks went scoreless for a minute before Zach Martin was booked for a high sticking double minor, leaving the visiting team with a 4-on-3 advantage. Riley Dixon made the most of that advantage, skating in Willmar's offensive zone with a bit of stickhandling and rifling a shot past North Star goaltender Lucas Ehrlich for the first goal of the WarHawks' season. Captain Braden Shea earned an assist on the effort, one of his three assists Saturday night.
Now a 4-on-4 situation, Blaisuis sent out three forwards and a defenseman to try and tie things up and Peyton Bolstad made sure that happened with a goal just 21 seconds later.
Both teams traded goals with shots just 18 seconds apart to make the game 3-3, allowing Pries an opportunity to net the game-winner 19:32 into the period.
"I was ready to go to overtime," Blaisuis said. "They played the night before so we were fresh and I thought the momentum was on our side. But that line just did exactly what we do in practice, Pries trailed in and scored on a great shot."
The win gives Willmar three points over a fellow West Division competitor but it also provides a bit of confidence for Blaisuis and this year's squad. The WarHawks lost last year's season opener 5-3 on the road to Breezy Point following a third period collapse.
"Last year with all the rookies we had, we lose this game," Blaisuis said. 'I loved the way we responded (from trailing 2-0). It was fun to watch. During the second intermission Eli Slagter was saying '2-0 is the worst lead in hockey.' That's a rookie saying that. The fact that we were able to come back shows there's something different with this team."
Willmar 4, Breezy Point 3
Willmar 0 0 4 — 4
Breezy Point 0 2 1 — 3
FIRST PERIOD — No scoring
SECOND PERIOD — BP: Jakob Parisien (Dylan Borseth, Larsen Tubbs) 11:33 ... BP: Josh Maucieri (Andrew Heckaman) 15:40
THIRD PERIOD — W: Riley Dixon (Braden Shea, Peyton Bolstad) PP 7:52 ... W: Bolstad (Shea, Wyatt Toll) 8:13 ... W: Zach Martin (Shea, Jacob Takashima) 12:17 ... BP: Dawson Kram (Maucieri, Heckaman) 12:35 ... W: Cameron Pries (Dixon, Jonathan Koester) 19:32
GOALIE SAVES — Willmar: Luke Fry 24 ... Breezy Point: Lucas Ehrlich 29