Three months ago, Rob Scales didn’t know if he’d ever put on a Borderland Thunder jersey again.
Today, three months ago seems like a different lifetime.
Scales capped a remarkable comeback story by scoring the game-winning goal in the Thunder’s 2-0 shutout over the Thunder Bay KC Bulldogs in Game 5 of the best-of-seven SIJHL final last night to give the home team a 4-1 series victory, its first league title, and a truckload of momentum heading into the Dudley Hewitt Cup here April 22-26.
The Philadelphia native was released at the Jan. 10 signing deadline, but his effort during his time in purple and white impressed Thunder management enough that he was brought back in February for the stretch drive and the playoffs.
There wasn’t an ounce of ill will to be found in him when last night’s final buzzer sounded.
“Did I think I would be standing here back in January? No,” he said with a mile-wide grin on his face. “But I kept working to get back here, and it paid off.
“And I did it with a great bunch of teammates.”
Scales remained in a complimentary mood when discussing his tally at 1:41 of the second period against Bulldogs goalie Bill Gerry.
“We had a good forecheck going and Stoops [Kyle Prystupa] gave me a beautiful pass right on the tape,” said Scales, who originally joined the Thunder on Oct. 1 after coming over from the Dryden Ice Dogs with since-departed blueliner Mark Morin for defenceman Terry Parisien.
“If I didn’t score on that one, I should have been booed out of the building.”
Matt Johnson scored unassisted at 6:08 of the third for an insurance goal that put an already excited full house at the Ice for Kids Arena into a celebratory frenzy.
Thunder captain Josh Baxter, who took the first sip of champagne from the SIJHL trophy in the hallway near the Thunder dressing room, expected the Bulldogs to bring everything—including the kitchen sink—in an attempt to stay alive in the series.
“We knew with a desperate team like them, they were going to come out and play like they did,” said Baxter, who missed the entire semi-final against Dryden and Game 1 of this series with a knee injury.
“We didn’t get overconfident after Rob scored because we knew we had to bring it for the entire 60 minutes,” he added. “They fought until the end, but we had four solid lines that could match up well with them.”
For Thunder head coach Dave Allison, a Fort Frances native, it was one for the history books.
“This was a great win for our town,” he said. “[Mayor] Glenn Witherspoon was in here the other day and told us that this would be the first time that a Fort Frances team had beat a Thunder Bay team for a junior title, and he would know because he coached for many years here.”
The deciding factor of the series was the Thunder’s defence harassing the top Bulldogs’ line of Trevor Karasiewicz, Brian Dzijak, and Rylan Vesa into a mere 15 points in five games after the trio came into the final with 31 points combined after their five-game semi-final against the Fort William First Nation Wolves.
“The plan was to force them to go to the outside,” said Thunder blueliner Kurt Hogard, who was stellar in the post-season in leading his team in points with 10.
“We knew if we could shut down that line, the rest of their lines were just checking units.”
Hogard said winning the title also establishes the Thunder as legitimate Dudley Hewitt Cup contenders. “We were going to be in it, anyway, but now we can say that we’ve earned it,” he declared.
Goalie Dan Hoehne, whose shutout capped off a brilliant playoff for himself (8-1, 2.44 goals against average), tipped his hat to his Bulldogs’ counterpart.
“Gerry’s an incredible goaltender,” said the Duluth native, who was signed by the Thunder in late October and went on to lead the SIJHL in regular season wins (17) and G.A.A. (2.60).
“Night after night, he kept them in it. We must have fired 40 shots a game at him, and he kept hanging in there.”
On this night, though, Scales would have the last word.
“We’re going for the Dudley Hewitt Cup, and we’ve got a great chance with these fans behind us,” said Scales. “They really get us psyched up to play.”
Because the Thunder have an automatic berth to the Dudley Hewitt as the host team, the Bulldogs—despite losing the league final—also qualified as the SIJHL rep.