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‘The George – there’s something in this building. It’s in the walls’

‘The George – there’s something in this building. It’s in the walls’
08 May
5:46
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The Shreveport Mudbugs defeated the defending NAHL champion Lone Star Brahmas, 3-2, in Game 5 of the South Division Final on Sunday at George’s Pond. Veteran Cameron Cook led a victory lap around The George. Roy Lang III

Sunday night was magical.

For the second time in two weeks, the Shreveport Mudbugs were on the brink of disaster, but the historic building — packed with more than 2,500 fans, despite late notice – on the Fairgrounds came through again.

Shreveport raced to a two-goal lead with tallies 9 seconds apart during the first period and withstood an expected surge by the Lone Star Brahmas to win 3-2 on George’s Pond at Hirsch Coliseum and clinch their first North American Hockey League Robertson Cup semifinal berth in their short tenure as a junior hockey club.

“It’s The George – there’s something in this building,” said Shreveport head coach Karlis Zirnis, whose team owned the best home record in the league for 2017-18 and finished undefeated at home (6-0) in the postseason. “It’s in the walls — that’s why you play the whole season, every point matters; to get home-ice advantage.”

The Mudbugs will face Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in a best-of-3 semifinal series beginning Friday (7:30 p.m.) at Fogerty Arena South in Blaine, Minnesota. The teams aren’t strangers. Shreveport defeated the Knights, 2-1, during the NAHL Showcase on Sept. 21.

Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday at 7:30 p.m. If needed, Game 3 will take place Sunday.

To understand the wizardry the Mudbugs pulled off en route to a South Division Final championship against the defending NAHL champion Brahmas, move beyond the scoresheet.

Sunday, Shreveport received two goals — the opener and game-winner in the second period – by Big Game Bob, Roberts Baranovskis.

Before Game 2’s game-winner with 3:18 remaining in regulation against Lone Star, Baranovskis hadn’t scored in 23 games (Feb. 10, at Amarillo). Sunday’s goals by the 20-year-old Latvian sandwiched a tally by Jack Jaunich.

Jaunich’s previous goal drought made Baranovski’s look tame. The 19-year-old White Bear Lake, Minnesota, product hadn’t scored in nearly seven months (Oct. 14 vs. Corpus Christi) and has spent much of the playoffs watching from the stands – often next to his mother — as a healthy scratch.

Jaunich saw his first postseason action this season in Game 4 at Corpus Christi, but saw limited action after early struggles. Saturday, Jaunich was inserted into the lineup for Game 4 against the Brahmas, and was one of the team’s best players over the next 27 hours.

“It’s sticking with it all season – helping out the guys, whether you’re playing or not playing,” Jaunich said. “Having a positive attitude pushed me over the hump. You have to take advantage of the opportunities.”

Jaunich received the traditional Mardi Gras hat and necklace of massive purple, gold and green beads signifying the team’s player of the game.

Mudbugs captain Dominick Procopio has been impressed with Jaunich’s journey, since he was that guy a couple of years ago with the Brookings Blizzard.

“(Going in and out of the lineup) is mentally draining,” Procopio said. “He’s the ultimate teammate; never complained one time. You want 25 guys in the room like Jack Jaunich. He’s earned that moment through the last seven months.”

It just so happens Jaunich’s jersey number is 25.

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Sunday, the Shreveport Mudbugs advanced to the NAHL semifinals in front of more than 2,500 fans on George’s Pond at Hirsch Coliseum. Head coach Karlis Zirnis says there’s something special about the historic building. Roy Lang III

“We talked to him a lot (this season),” Zirnis said. “He was the player of the game today. I want to say how much he meant — a role model for the guys to just stick to the process, grinding it through.

“Despite not playing a whole lot this year, he was an unbelievable teammate, unbelievable guy to be around. We don’t have a huge staff, so when the guys need something, he’s the first guy to bring something, fill up water bottles or take pucks to the ice.”

Zirnis said Jaunich transformed frustrations about the content of nightly lineup cards into hard work.

“It’s well-deserved. I’m so happy for him,” Zirnis said. “He stayed patient. He did everything a great teammate does.”

Jaunich’s speed was a factor in Saturday’s chaotic loss at Lone Star. Trailing 1-0 in the first period, Jaunich blew past Brahmas defenders and had a breakaway opportunity on Lone Star’s elite goalie, Mitchell Gibson.

Gibson stuffed a nifty back-handed attempt by Jaunich.

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Shreveport forward Jack Jaunich has often been a healthy scratch down the stretch. Head coach Karlis Zirnis put him in the lineup for the final two games of the NAHL South Division Final, and Jaunich came up huge. Roy Lang III

“My teammates kept giving me crap for it,” Jaunich said. “I felt like it was going to break (Sunday). It’s been a while. It was good to get it today.”

Jaunich’s go-to spot is the top-right corner – and that’s right where he beat one of the league’s best netminders. The moment was worth all the prior frustration.

“It’s sticking with it all season – helping out the guys, whether you’re playing or not playing,” Jaunich said. “Having a positive attitude pushed me over the hump. You have to take advantage of the opportunities.”

Considering what was at stake, and the fact it had been nearly seven months since he found the back of the net, were the exhalating subsequent seconds the most exciting of his career?

“Celebrating with my teammates was,” Jaunich said. “The goal was exciting, but teammates are important and I love them all.”

Sunday was the first time Shreveport scored more than two goals against Lone Star in 13 matchups this season.

Then there was the fortitude on display in the form of No. 1 in white. Goaltender Jaxon Castor made 25 saves, just 24 hours after he was yanked from the net midway through Game 4.

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Shreveport goaltender Jaxon Castor stopped 25 shots in a Game 5 victory Sunday night, 24 hours after he was pulled in Game 4. Wochit

“He’s a veteran guy, understands what it takes,” Procopio said. “He’s a mental giant. I can’t imagine being pulled out of a game as a goaltender and then knowing the next night you have to start in a game that’s defining your season. He’s been dynamite.”

Sunday marked the second time this postseason Castor recovered from being pulled to help the Mudbugs win an all-or-nothing Game 5.

“I had to do the same thing as last series,” Castor said. “I didn’t play my best game tonight, and it was awesome to have the guys come out and start like that.”

Hockey is a funny game. Castor was spectacular in Game 3 at Lone Star, but was the hard-luck loser of a 2-1 overtime affair.

Maybe it is The George, named for the late George Cloutier, a young Mudbugs fan and blossoming hockey star who passed 10 years ago.

Cloutier must have been smiling from above while wearing his trademark No. 34 jersey. On a school night, a couple of thousand fans showed up without much warning to a 64-year-old building – antiquated, but full of life — to pull the Mudbugs through.

“This city is amazing. The fans are amazing. Everyone here is so supportive of the Mudbugs,” said Jaunich, who has one more year of eligibility in junior hockey. “I couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be to return. Let’s go win a Cup.”

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The Shreveport Mudbugs defeated the Lone Star Brahmas in Game 5 of the NAHL South Division Final on Sunday to advance to the Robertson Cup semifinals this week in Minnesota. Mudbugs captain Dominick Procopio, who played his last game in Shreveport, describes what his time in the South has meant. Roy Lang III

Twitter: @RoyLangIII

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