WILLMAR — One night after its first-ever postseason win, the Willmar WarHawks created more history in front of a raucous home crowd on Friday night.
Isaiah Thomas delivered the game-winner with 51 seconds remaining to propel the WarHawks to their first home playoff win. They captured a 3-1 victory over Granite City in Game Two of the NA3HL West Division semifinals from the Willmar Civic Center.
Coupled with its 4-3 triumph over the Lumberjacks on Thursday in Sauk Rapids, Willmar earned a 2-0 sweep and its first playoff series victory since entering the league in the 2011-12 season.
“I think it’s definitely the biggest victory in the franchise’s history,” head coach Kirk Olimb said. “First home playoff win, first series playoff win. We had the first playoff victory period last night. And to come back and win in a tight playoff battle is huge.... It sure is fun to win and the boys worked hard to earn that victory.”
Willmar is the third seed in the West while Granite City was the No. 2 seed. The WarHawks will play either top seed North Iowa or No. 4 Alexandria in the division finals next week.
Entering the final minute of regulation with the game tied 1-1, Thomas received a lead pass from center Lewis Rowan and skated up the right side of the ice. As he entered the right circle, the right winger from Bismarck, N.D. could opted for a center pass. Instead, Thomas fired a bullet over the left shoulder of Granite City goaltender Bailey Huber.
Thomas, a mid-season acquisition at the season restart, has scored 10 goals in 24 games with the team, but none bigger than his snipe Friday night.
“I.T. has stepped up,” Olimb said. “We know he has all the talent in the world and when he’s going 100%, he’s really tough to stop. It came off of a turnover and we moved the puck into the right spot. He did a good job finding himself in some time and space. We got it on his stick and he put a good shot home.”
Soon after the ensuing faceoff, the Lumberjacks pulled Huber for a 6-on-5 advantage. Granite City’s best chance for an equalizer came moments later when left winger Hanson O’Leary tried to stuff in a rebound, but Lukas Haugen made the save before play was stopped.
Following a Lumberjacks timeout with 25 seconds remaining, the WarHawks fended off the pressure and closed the game with an empty net goal from Dylan Gajewski.
The netminder from Excelsior finished with 31 saves to pick up the win. Like Thomas, Haugen joined the team at the restart. After playing for the WarHawks last season, the goalie signed to play at Division III St. Olaf College in Northfield.
“We’ve got to give huge credit to the fans,” Haugen said. “The place was packed today and they were super into it. Obviously, it’s a huge honor and such a big win for the WarHawks organization. ... I’m really thankful for the owner, Coach Olimb and Coach (Conner) White for the opportunity to be here and it’s the best decision of my life to be here.
“When St. Olaf decided to cancel the season, I got a call from coach Olimb. It was a pretty quick call; I said ‘yup, I’ll be back.’ And ever since then, it’s been quite the ride. I’m loving it.”
Ben Johnson gave Willmar a 1-0 lead 6:13 into the first period after helpers from Alex Kupka and Jonah Jangula. The Lumberjacks equalized on a goal from Troy Dahlheimer 2:56 into the second. From there, Haugen settled in. He stopped 13 shots in the second period and seven more in the third.
“Lukas Haugen played phenomenally well for us in net,” Olimb said.