HUNDER BAY, Ont. – The diminutive John Kleinhans came up big when his club needed him most.
Only five-foot-eight in stature the 21-year-old netminder played like a giant Saturday evening, turning in a stellar 44-save performance to backstop the Soo Thunderbirds to a 5-3 victory over the Stouffville Spirit in the championship game of the Dudley-Hewitt Cup Central Canada Junior A Hockey tournament staged at the Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay.
With the win the Thunderbirds will now move on to represent the Central region at the Royal Bank Cup, May 5-13, in Humboldt, Sask.
It was Stouffville who got off to a quick start as defenceman Paul Geiger snapped a shot from the high slot through Kleinhans notching a power play marker at 1:51.
The Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League champion Thunderbirds knotted the affair midway through the opening session taking advantage of a turnover that resulted in Nick Romano sliding the puck through the legs of Jonathon Hall in the Spirit net.
Drake Caggiula’s second goal of the tourney put the Ontario Junior Hockey League title holders back on top at 15:44, but the Soo answered right back just 10 seconds later as Greg Sartoretto stuffed in a rebound from in close.
The Thunderbirds’ Jake Wright gave the T-Birds their first lead in the second as he swiped the puck from a Stouffville defenceman at the blueline and raced in chipping one over the blocker of Hall at 5:28.
It was the Kleinhans show the rest of the way as time and time again he thwarted Spirit shooters from every angle.
Romano finished off the work of Brett Campbell with the eventual game-winner at 17:32 as he knocked in a loose puck inches from the goal line.
The Spirit pulled netminder in favour of an extra attacker in the late stages and were rewarded with an Alex Botten effort with just over a minute to go.
They then pressed for the equalizer swarming the Soo net, but blocked shots and Kleinhans kept them at bay.
Micky Sartoretto would then ice it scoring into the empty net in the final seconds to send the Soo to the RBC.
DHC NOTES: The Dudley-Hewitt Cup triumph marked the first time since 2002 that the NOJHL has won the award. The Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats took home the DHC that year. … Shots on goal favoured Stouffville 47-16. … RBK player of the game laurels went to Kleinhans of the Thunderbirds and Geiger of the Spirit. … Prior to the presentation of the Dudley-Hewitt Cup, the tournament awards for the top goaltender, defenceman and forward at the event were announced. Garnering the accolades was Tanner Milliron of the Wisconsin Wilderness picking up top goalkeeper honours, Stouffville’s Geiger taking home the best defenceman award and T-Birds Matt Amadio earning top forward laurels. … Kirk Lamb, chairman of the Canadian Junior Hockey League, was in attendance to take it in the semifinal and finale.
(Nathan can be reached at email@example.com)