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GALLERY: NOJHL final is going the distance

Photos: Marc Johnson

HEARST, Ont. – A Russell Oldham deflection goal, 6:11 into overtime, lifted the Soo Thunderbirds to 4-3 victory over the Hearst Lumberjacks Tuesday evening in a boisterous Game 6 of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League’s championship series at Claude Larose Recreation Centre.

With the result, the Thunderbirds have roared back from a 3-0 deficit to knot the best-of-seven affair at three games apiece and have forced a seventh and deciding game, to determine the NOJHL champion, Thursday evening at John Rhodes Community Centre in Sault Ste. Marie at 7 p.m.

A big save by Thunderbirds’ starter Noah Metivier, while his side was shorthanded, kept Hearst from striking first, as he thwarted Mathieu Comeau from point-blank range, nearly eight minutes into the match-up.

On the power play themselves late in the opening frame, it was Lumberjacks’ netminder Liam Oxner’s turn to shine as he flashed the leather and made a solid glove save, in denying the Soo’s Kelsey Ouellet’s wrist shot from the slot that was labelled for the right corner.

Heading to the second stanza, the Soo collected the game’s initial goal, two minutes in, when Kyle Trottier whipped one in past a partially screened Oxner from between the circles.

Using some crisp passing and cycle work, the visitors tacked on another, a few shifts later, and saw Dharan Cup set-up Brock Santa Maria, who calmly corralled the puck, then buried a low attempt to give him tallies in three straight playoff outings.

Coming out hard to begin the third, Hearst connected 94 seconds into the session as Robbie Rutledge neatly redirected a Dylan Ford point shot while parked in front of Metivier to bring the crowd to life.

It was more from Rutledge, just over two minutes later, as he capitalized off an errant puck that slid out from behind the net and shovelled it into the left side to knot the affair at 2-2.

Taking advantage after picking off a Hearst clearing attempt, the Soo regained the lead when defenceman Zane Burleigh let one go from the left point that sailed past Oxner at 7:24.

Answering back, the Lumberjacks drew level once more with 7:22 remaining in regulation, thanks to Tyren Grimsdale slamming one in while sitting alone at the top of the crease to force extra time.

In OT, Oldham initially started the play on the game-winner, as he cleared the play from in front, off a Metivier stop.

He then eventually joined the rush and got himself in front of Oxner where he deftly chipped the puck off a Burleigh chance from the left side and chipped it over the Lumberjacks’ goaltender’s shoulder to end it and send it back to the Soo for Game 7, Thursday.

The NOJHL winner will advance to represent the league at the Centennial Cup, presented by Tim Hortons, May 19-29, in Estevan, Sask.

NOJHL championship series schedule
Soo Thunderbirds vs. Hearst Lumberjacks
Best-of-seven series tied 3-3

Game 1: Lumberjacks 6 Thunderbirds 4
Game 2: Lumberjacks 3 Thunderbirds 2
Game 3: Lumberjacks 5 Thunderbirds 4 (OT)
Game 4: Thunderbirds 4 Lumberjacks 2
Game 5: Thunderbirds 3 Lumberjacks 2
Game 6: Thunderbirds 4 Lumberjacks 3 (OT)
Game 7: Thursday, May 12 @ Soo 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)