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Junior Hockey: WarHawks Make History

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Isaiah Thomas provided the match winner with 51 seconds to go to propel the WarHawks to their first home game victory. They achieved a 3-1 win over Granite City in Game Two of the NA3HL West Division Semifinals at the Willmar Civic Center.

Coupled with his 4-3 win over the Lumberjacks on Thursday at Sauk Rapids, Willmar took a 2-0 sweep and his first win in the playoff series since entering the league in the 2011-12 season.

I think it’s definitely the biggest win in franchise history, said head coach Kirk Olimb. First home playoff win, first series playoff win. We had the first victory period in the playoffs last night. And to come back and win in a tight playoff battle is huge … It sure is fun to win and the guys worked hard to get that win.

Willmar players celebrate taking a 3-1 win over Granite City in Game Two of their NA3HL West Division playoff series on Friday, April 2, 2021 from the Willmar Civic Center.  Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Willmar players celebrate taking a 3-1 win over Granite City in Game Two of their NA3HL West Division playoff series on Friday, April 2, 2021 from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

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Willmar is the third seed in the West, while Granite City was the number 2 seed. The WarHawks will play in the division finals next week in Northern Iowa or No. 4 Alexandria.

Going into the final minute of regulation with a 1-1 draw, Thomas got ahead of center Lewis Rowan and skated up the right side of the ice. When he got into the right circle, the right winger of Bismarck, ND was able to opt for a center pass. Instead, Thomas fired a bullet over the left shoulder of Granite City goalkeeper Bailey Huber.

Thomas, a mid-season asset at the season’s restart, scored 10 goals in 24 games with the team, but none greater than his snipe Friday night.

IT has ramped up, said Olimb. We know he has all the talent in the world and when he goes 100% it’s really hard to stop. It came from sales and we put the puck in the right place. He’s done a good job of finding himself in some time and space. We have it on his stick and he put in a good shot at the house.

Willmar right winger Alex Kupka tries to bury the puck past Granite City goalkeeper Bailey Huber during Game Two of their NA3HL West Division playoff series on Friday, April 2, 2021 from the Willmar Civic Center.  Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Willmar right winger Alex Kupka tries to bury the puck past Granite City goalkeeper Bailey Huber during Game Two of their NA3HL West Division playoff series on Friday, April 2, 2021 from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Shortly after the ensuing showdown, 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 OLeary tried to stop a rebound, but Lukas Haugen saved before the game was interrupted.

After the Lumberjacks time-out with 25 seconds to go, the WarHawks took the pressure off and ended the game with an empty goal from Dylan Gajewski.

Excelsior’s net lesser finished with 31 saves to take the win. Like Thomas, Haugen joined the team at the restart. After playing for the WarHawks last season, the goalkeeper signed a contract with Division III St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Willmar left winger Jonah Jangula brings the puck into the offensive zone during Game Two of the NA3HL West Division playoff series against Granite City on Friday, April 2, 2021 from the Willmar Civic Center.  Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Willmar left winger Jonah Jangula brings the puck into the offensive zone during Game Two of the NA3HL West Division playoff series against Granite City on Friday, April 2, 2021 from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

We have to give huge praise to the fans, said Haugen. The place was packed today and they were great at it. Obviously, it is a huge honor and such a big win for the WarHawks organization. … I am very grateful to the owner, Coach Olimb and Coach (Conner) White for the opportunity to be here and it has been 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 fairly quick phone call; I said yes, I’ll be back. And since then it has been quite a journey. I love it.

Willmar left winger Ethan Light brings the puck into the offensive zone during Game Two of the NA3HL West Division playoff series against Granite City on Friday, April 2, 2021 from the Willmar Civic Center.  Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Willmar left winger Ethan Light brings the puck into the offensive zone during Game Two of the NA3HL West Division playoff series against Granite City on Friday, April 2, 2021 from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Ben Johnson gave Willmar a 1-0 lead of 6:13 in the first period after helpers from Alex Kupka and Jonah Jangula. The Lumberjacks equalized a goal from Troy Dahlheimer 2:56 in the second. From there Haugen settled. He stopped 13 shots in the second period and a further seven in the third.

Lukas Haugen played phenomenally well for us in the net, said Olimb.

Granite City (27-14-0-1) 0 1 0 1
Willmar (24-18-0-0) 1 0 2 3
FIRST PERIOD (1) W: Ben Johnson (Alex Kupka, Jonah Jangula) 13:47 PENALTIES: (1) W: Johnson (charge minor, 2 min) 7:16.
SECOND PERIOD (2) GC: Troy Dahlheimer (Cody Dias) 2:56 … PENALTIES: (2) GC: Sean Davidson (roughing minor, 2 min) 15:22 (3) GC: Bjorn Jorgenson (roughing minor, 2 min) 4:56 PM (4) W: Dylan Gajewski (roughing-minor, 2 min) 4:56 PM.
THIRD PERIOD (3) In: Isaiah Thomas (Lewis Rowan, Gajewski) 7:09 PM (4) In: Gajewski (Austin Jozwick, Rowan) 7:57 PM, AND … PENALTIES: None.
GOALIE SAVES / SHOTS GC: Bailey Huber 33/35 W: Lukas Haugen 31/32

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