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NA3HL Hockey: WarHawks hang on in home opener

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WILLMAR—The Willmar WarHawks didn't let a late controversial goal ruin a perfectly good home opener Saturday night.

Willmar goaltender Luke Fry stopped 35 of 36 shots he faced as he guided the pink-clad WarHawks to a 2-1 victory over Granite City. The controversy came with 3:30 remaining in the game when the Lumberjacks pried a puck from under Fry's blocker, skated away and scored into an open net for the team's only goal of the game. WarHawk players and fans alike thought a whistle was incoming but the referees allowed the goal.

"I mean, I had it covered under my blocker but most refs look for it under the glove from underneath me, play wasn't over and they just got an empty guy out and put it in the net," Fry said.

"I saw he had it covered," Willmar head coach Chris Blaisuis said. "The ref, in our conversation, said he saw the puck. Ok, fair enough. But then (Fry) was interfered with. He wasn't given a fair chance to play his position. The ref said he didn't see any contact. I didn't agree with it but, you know what, we held our nerve. We didn't let it get to us. The last 3:30, we didn't really give them anything. It's a good bounceback effort after last night, the guys showed a lot of heart."

Unlike Friday night, when the WarHawks relinquished a 4-2 lead in the third period, Willmar held on to preserve the 2-1 victory over the reigning NA3HL Silver Cup champions. The win also ends a four game winless streak for the WarHawks while also handing their West Division foes the first loss of the season.

"In a 2-1 game with three minutes left against the reigning Silver Cup champions, you need to keep your cool," said Fry, who celebrated in front of a large cheering section after the final buzzer. "I got upset but you have to flush it out of your system."

Jacob Berkowitz scored his third goal of the weekend and team-high fifth of the season in front of a packed crowd 11:57 into the second period to give the home team a 1-0 lead and the momentum. Just 1:58 later, Keegan Bauman took a quick pass from Cameron Pries on the power play and sent it into the back of the net to make it a 2-0 game.

"I picked my head up for a minute and saw short side open," Berkowitz said. "I just went for it and hoped for the best. It was awesome playing at home tonight. The crowd was way louder this year (compared to last year). It was definitely fun playing in front of them."

Berkowitz, who was named the game's third star, has been one of the team's go-to scorers early in the season.

"I couldn't be more proud of Jacob," Blaisuis said. "He was my project last year. He didn't play a lot last year but put a ton of time in during the season and in the offseason. For him to come back and be this guy, I couldn't be more proud. I put a lot of time in with him but for him to buy in and put the work in is pretty special.

Fry has split time with teammate Brady Anderson so far this season and Saturday's performance is not only the highlight in the pipes for the WarHawks eight games in, but it's one of his career highlights as well.

"I can't say it's the biggest game of my life," said Fry, a goaltender who played in three-straight state tournaments in Indiana. "But that's a huge game for me. When you get a chance to play the national champions it's awesome when you win."

Special teams have been up and down all season for the WarHawks but Saturday night was all up. Bauman scored on the only full power play of the night for Willmar and his team was equally strong killing their own penalties. The Lumberjacks helped out, however, by taking two separate man advantages with penalties of their own.

"Our penalty kill was way better tonight," Blaisuis said. "We scored a power play goal and that's exactly what you want to do; kill a penalty and score goals. We took advantage of our opportunities and the couple of opportunities they had on the power play we shut that down."

Defensively, Wyatt Toll and newcomer Andrew Gilbert towed a strong blue line in front of the home crowd. Toll, who Blaisuis has called "the best defenseman in the (West) division, maybe all of NA3HL," was particularly strong, clearing pucks from the crease and breaking up two-on-one situations.

Pries played a physical game for the WarHawks as well as a playmaking one with his one assist. Teammate Max Oelkers didn't make it onto the scoresheet but his presence was felt on both ends of the ice. Near the end of the second period he provided a sustained attacking effort only to break up a counterattack on the other end just moments later.

Willmar itself played on the counter, registering multiple shots in the first and second inning after turnovers in their defensive zone.

Fry's netminding was a constant throughout the net, as was the crowd noise from the Willmar Civic Center. Berkowitz said the atmosphere of the crowd was "definitely even better than last year," and after seven straight road games to start the season, Blaisuis said it was nice to finally be home.

"We needed our fans," Blaisuis said. "Having been on the road for seven straight games, it's not easy. We proved that we're going to be a threat this season and to do that at home was special. We were just comfortable here. Being on the road gets old. We're glad to be home and get that support. That helps the guys a lot to have this crowd."

The WarHawks wore pink sweaters Saturday night for breast cancer awareness. The sweaters were up for silent auction during the game as well to raise money for cancer research. Oelkers and the WarHawks honored his mother, who is battling breast cancer, by giving her the chance the drop the puck in the honorary opening faceoff.

Willmar 2, Granite City 1

Granite City 0 0 1 — 1

Willmar 0 2 0 — 2

FIRST PERIOD — No goals scored

SECOND PERIOD — Willmar: Jacob Berkowitz (Riley Dixon, Peyton Bolstad) 11:57 ... Willmar: Keegan Bauman (Cameron Pries, Zach Martin) PP 13:55

THIRD PERIOD — Granite City: Chase DiBari (Braden Altena, Jordan Olson) 16:30

GOALIE SAVES — Granite City: Ridge Gerads 23 ... Willmar: Luke Fry 35

Jake Schultz

Jake Schultz is a sports reporter and photographer for the West Central Tribune, working his first job out of college. He graduated from St. John's University (CSB/SJU) in 2016 and is a baseball fanatic. You can follow him on Twitter @StJake29. 

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