SAULT STE. MARIE - The Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League semifinals kicked off Friday night in Kirkland Lake with Game 1 of the best-of-seven series between the Gold Miners and the Espanola Rivermen.
And Game 1 of the best-of-seven series between the Abitibi Eskimos and the Soo Thunderbirds will get underway at the Essar Centre Saturday night.
Given that the semifinals feature the Top 4 teams in the eight-team league, one might surmise that the quarterfinals produced no surprises.
To some extent, that might be true, but before the playoffs began few people — if any — would have predicted that the Blind River Beavers would have been able to take a game from the powerful Thunderbirds and force overtime in another contest.
And in doing so, the Beavers held the NOJHL’s leading scorer, Gavin Burbach, to one goal in five games.
Unfortunately for Blind River, the Thunderbirds have many offensive weapons and shutting them all down is next to impossible.
The other three quarter-final series were pretty much as advertised, with the Gold Miners sweeping the North Bay Trappers and the Rivermen doing the same to the Sudbury Nickel Barons, while the Eskimos and the Elliot Lake Bobcats went toe-to-toe for the full seven games.
On paper it appeared the series between the Eskimos and the Bobcats would be the best match-up of the opening round of the playoffs and neither team disappointed.
From Game 1 to Game 7, it was an emotional roller coaster ride for fans, players and coaches.
Each team won two games in their opponent’s rink and home-ice advantage was exchanged back and forth numerous times throughout the series.
Just how evenly matched were these two teams?
After playing seven games only one goal separated the two teams — Ryan Kerr’s game-winning goal from the last contest on Wednesday night.
If these is any kind of indication of what the rivalry between the Eskimos and the Crunch (formerly the Bobcats) is going to be like, fans in Iroquois Falls and Cochrane will be in for a real treat in the coming years.
The semi-final series between the Gold Miners and the Rivermen that got underway Friday night could equal the quarter-final series between the Eskimos and the Bobcats for excitement, however.
Three of the eight regular-season games played between the two teams were decided in double overtime — and were all won by the Rivermen.
Over all, the Gold Miners had the edge in the season series, with four wins and three double-overtime losses.
I would have to give a slight edge to the Rivermen up front, but both teams are quite capable of putting the puck in the net.
The Gold Miners get the nod on the blue line, in goal and behind the bench, however.
I am taking the Gold Miners to win in six games.
Take a quick look at the regular-season series between the Thunderbirds and the Eskimos and most people would expect the Soo to crush Abitibi in four, or five games.
After all, how much can they have left in the tank after the battle they just completed against the Bobcats?
The Thunderbirds dominated the Eskimos during the regular season, winning seven of the eight games and suffering their lone loss in overtime.
During those eight games, the Thunderbirds outscored the Eskimos 37-13 — a total that includes a 9-0 drubbing in their final meeting of the regular season, at the Essar Centre.
The Thunderbirds were the No. 1 ranked team in Canada this season and they dominated both the NOJHL all-star teams and award selections.
No matter how you break it down, it appears to be advantage Thunderbirds right across the board.
The Eskimos tandem of Brody Wagner and Sylvain Miron is good, very, very good.
The Thunderbirds duo of Joel Horodziejczyk and Brian Kment, however, had more wins, more shutouts, a better goals against average and a better save percentage.
Oh sure, you can argue that if they were playing on different teams things would be different, but they are not playing on different teams in this series, they are playing for the Thunderbirds.
Well, the Thunderbirds have first-team all-star Tyler Jones, who also won the NOJHL Trophy as the league’s best defenceman.
They also have Owen Headrick, who won the John Grignon Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year over Eskimos forward Brenden Locke.
Headrick (5, 1-5-6, 0) by the way is the Thunderbirds leading scorer during the playoffs, but if I had a vote I would still vote for Locke (7, 2-7-9, 4) second on the Eskimos in playoff scoring.
The Eskimos blue line is solid — especially when its members can avoid getting suspended for hits to the head, or instigating fights — but they don’t have a Jones, or a Headrick.
When it comes to firepower, the Eskimos are capable of matching the Thunderbirds goal for goal and like, the Soo, they can roll out three lines that can put the puck in the net.
Ryan Tront (7, 5-5-10, 8), Locke (7, 2-7-9, 4), Erik Robichaud (7, 4-4-8, 6), Landon Hiebert (7, 3-4-7,2), Brady Clouthier (5, 4-2-6, 4) and Ryan Wildman (7, 1-3-4, 9) have all picked up in the playoffs where they left off in the regular season.
For the Soo, Burbach (48), Anthony Miller (29), Darcy Haines (21) and Joey Miller (20) all topped the 20-goal plateau during the regular season, while Nicolas Tassone (18) and Eric Hillock (14) were not too far off the pace.
Hillock and Haines, by the way, each had a pair of game-winning goals against the Eskimos during the regular season.
When it comes to coaching, the Eskimos’ Paul Gagne and the Thunderbirds’ Jordan Smith appear to be complete opposites.
Gagne has been around forever, although there is no truth to the rumour he was behind the bench coaching when the game was first invented, and he played in the NHL.
Smith is young and played in the OHL, with his home-town Greyhounds, and then in the AHL.
Both coaches, however, teach an effective system that maximizes the talent of the players they have to work with and have been successful in getting those players to buy into their programs.
They have both coached teams to first-place finishes in the NOJHL and they have both led their teams into the semifinals this season.
So, logically I should predict that the Thunderbirds will defeat the Eskimos and in how many games.
Even though the Eskimos, on paper, are a better team than the Beavers who managed one victory in the quarterfinals, there is no way they can upset the Thunderbirds.
Oh sure, they might be able to win two, or even three games, but not four.
Not so fast.
Back on Nov. 6 after learning that the Eskimos No. 1 centre, Robichaud, had signed with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting and that their No. 2 centre, Wildman, was out with an injury, I emailed Eskimos president Scott Marshall to say that while it made no sense I felt the Eskimos would beat the Thunderbirds 3-2 on the coming Saturday night.
It was a gut feeling, plain and simple. All the facts pointed to an Eskimos loss and maybe even a blowout loss.
The score of that game?
Eskimos 3 Thunderbirds 2, in overtime.
Before everyone starts phoning, or emailing for assistance finding their lost remote control for the TV, let me stress one thing: I am not a psychic and I have no great skill at predicting the outcome of sporting events — other than forecasting that the Maple Leafs will lose most games the rest of this season when somebody not named Jonathan Bernier is playing goal for them.
Okay, enough stalling.
Prediction: Eskimos in six games.