Thunderbirds crowned 2022 NOJHL champions

By Matt Stefano

A series is never over until it’s over!

Just ask your 2022 NOJHL champion Soo Thunderbirds.

After starting the NOJHL final series down 3-games-to-none against the Hearst Lumberjacks, the Soo Thunderbirds came all the way back to win their fourth game in a row on Thursday night in game 7, as they defeated the Lumberjacks by a score of 3-2 in overtime in front of 625 fans at the John Rhodes Community Centre in Sault Ste. Marie.

The win also gave the Thunderbirds their 5th Copeland Cup McNamara Trophy in franchise history and their first one since 2016.

“It feels surreal right now,” said Soo Thunderbirds head coach Cole Jarrett, who won a Copeland Cup McNamara Trophy in just his first season behind the bench. “I’m just so proud of this group. We had a great playoff season and regular season, but it wasn’t easy near the end. We were down and out after game 3 in Hearst, but I just can’t say enough great things about the character of our team. It’s not just one guy, it’s every guy, and I’m glad for them that they can enjoy this moment and it’s something they will never forget.”

After skating scoreless after twenty minutes of play, it would then be the Thunderbirds getting the opening goal of the game almost three minutes into the second period.

With the second period almost three minutes old, the Thunderbirds struck first at the 2:55 mark, as rookie defenceman Michael Beltrano notched his first career playoff goal from Mason Chitaroni and Cole Delarosbil, which put the Thunderbirds up by a score of 1-0.

Beltrano, who scored his first career playoff goal on Thursday night, also found the back of the net for just the second time this season.

The last time Beltrano found the back of the net, was back on November 6, 2021, in a 5-4 overtime victory against the Blind River Beavers in Blind River.

“It wasn’t just about Belly (Beltrano) out there, because we had our whole fourth line on the ice during that shift when he scored,” Jarrett said. “Delarosbil won a clean face-off and Chitaroni made a great heads up play and we’ve been asking those guys all series long to move the puck quick. When you look at Belly (Beltrano) tonight, he got his head up, found a lane and that was a great to see tonight.”

With the game tied 2-2 after sixty minutes of play, the Thunderbirds would then lift the roof off the John Rhodes just over three minutes into the first overtime period, as soon as they got a goal from their captain.

At the 3:26 mark of the overtime period, it would be Thunderbirds captain Brock Santa Maria getting his 5th goal of the playoffs and first career overtime tally from Andrew Gibson, which made the score 3-2 for the Thunderbirds.

Santa Maria, who scored his 5th goal of the playoffs in overtime on Thursday night, also gave himself his team-leading 3rd game-winning goal of the playoffs.

“It was just pure joy to see Santa get that overtime tally,” Jarrett said. “He’s come really far this season not just as a player, but as a person and as a leader. He deserves it and we’re so happy for him.”

“That was by far the biggest goal I’ve ever scored in my life,” added Soo Thunderbirds captain Brock Santa Maria. “As soon as the puck left my stick, I saw it go in the back of the net, and it’s just a relief to getting us ready for the Centennial Cup now in Saskatchewan.”

On Thursday night, the Thunderbirds also got a solid performance from their rookie netminder Noah Metivier as he finished the game with a season-high 53 saves, along with being named first star of the game.

Metivier, who made 53 saves on Thursday night in game 7, was also named the 2022 NOJHL playoff MVP.

“Tives was awesome tonight,” Jarrett said about Metivier. “That’s all I have to say about him. He was awesome.”

“I have no words right now,” Metivier added. “We battled back in this series from being down 3-games-to-none, we knew our backs were against the wall and we just fought and fought and fought every single game day-in and day-out. All twenty-two of us came together and we did it.”

Metivier, who was named the 2022 NOJHL playoff MVP, also became just the fifth player in Soo Thunderbirds history to win the playoff MVP Award, joining Michael Caruso (2016), Owen Headrick (2015), Micky Sartoretto (2012) and Ryan Dube (2009).

“The playoff MVP means nothing to me, because I just try and do my best every game and get the job done,” Metivier said.

Youssef Chaouachi had the other goal for the Thunderbirds on Thursday night while Michael Chaffay and Cooper Foster also got on the scoresheet with one assist each.

Chaouachi’s tally, came at the 14:49 mark of the second period, which at that time put the Thunderbirds ahead by a score of 2-1.

Jaxon Holmes and Raphael Lajeunesse had a goal each for the Lumberjacks on Thursday night while Robbie Rutledge, Owen Porter, Jaden Raad and Zachary Demers all chipped in with one assist each.

Demers, who had an assist in Thursday night’s game 7 loss to the Soo Thunderbirds, also gave himself his 15th career playoff assist, which set the new team record for most career playoff assists by a Lumberjack player, passing Max Johnson (2017-2019) and Bradley Golant (2017-2019), who both held the previous record with 14.

“If feels really good to set a new team record, but I’m also happy I got to play on a great team this year,” Demers said. “It just didn’t go well for us at the end, but it was still a fun season.”

Lumberjacks netminder Matteo Gennaro gave up 3 goals on 41 shots in the loss.

The Thunderbirds, who have now been crowned NOJHL champions for the 5th time in franchise history, will now get set to prepare for the Centennial Cup (Presented by Tim Hortons), which will take place this year in Estevan, Saskatchewan from May 19 – 29.

(Photo credit to Matt Stefano)

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