With less than three weeks to go before the final buzzer sounds on the NOJHL’s 2018-19 regular season, we know which five East Division teams will advance to the playoffs.
What remains to be determined, however, is the order of finish for the Hearst Lumberjacks (29-15-5-1), the Cochrane Crunch (29-18-1-4), the Timmins Rock (29-17-3-0), the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (28-16-2-2) and the Powassan Voodoos (27-19-1-1).
The first four of those teams have all occupied top spot in the division since the start of the NOJHL’s Christmas break back on Dec. 22.
For the most part, the final position of those five teams will be determined by head-to-head match-ups, as most of them have no games left against West Division competition.
With a record of 8-1-1-0 in their past 10 games, the Lumberjacks are clearly the hottest of those five teams heading into the final portion of their schedule.
They are followed by the Voodoos (7-3-0-0), the Rock (6-3-1-0), the Crunch (5-4-0-1) and the Gold Miners (2-6-0-2).
The Gold Miners and the Voodoos both have eight games remaining on their regular-season schedules, while the Rock have seven, the Lumberjacks six and the Crunch just four.
Let’s first look at what the final eight games will hold for the Gold Miners, who will play their next six games on the road before finishing up at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex.
Unlike their four East Division rivals, the Gold Miners still have three games left against West Division foes.
This weekend, the Gold Miners will travel to Powassan for a game against the Voodoos Friday night and the move on to play the Rapids in French River Saturday night.
The following weekend, they will be take on the West Division-leading Thunderbirds in Sault Ste. Marie Friday night, the Eagles in the Sault, Mich., Saturday night and the Beavers in Blind River Sunday afternoon.
On Friday, March 1, they will make the trek up the highway to play the Lumberjacks in Hearst, before returning home to entertain the Rock at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex on Saturday, March 2.
They will then close out the regular season on home ice against the Rapids on Wednesday, March 6.
Meanwhile, the Voodoos will also play six of their remaining eight games on the road, including their final four.
Friday night, the Voodoos will entertain the Gold Miners before heading off to take on the Wildcats in Elliot Lake Saturday night.
Then, on Friday, Feb. 22, the Voodoos will entertain the Rock at the Powassan Sportsplex.
On Wednesday, Feb. 27, the Voodoos will travel to French River for a game against the Rapids.
A three-game swing through the North will then wrap things up for the Voodoos, as they take on the Crunch in Cochrane on Friday, March 1, the Lumberjacks in Hearst on Saturday, March 2, and the Rock in Timmins on Sunday, March 3.
Speaking of the Rock, they will play five of their remaining seven games on the road.
They will begin with a home-and-home series with the Lumberjacks that will see them travel to the Claude Larose Arena Friday night, they host their East Division rivals at the McIntyre Arena on Monday, at 3 p.m.
A three-game road trip will then see them take on the Voodoos in Powassan Friday, Feb. 22, the Rapids in French River on Saturday, Feb. 23, and the Rapids in French River on Sunday, Feb. 24.
They will then travel to Kirkland Lake for a game against the Gold Miners on Saturday, March 2, before returning home to close out their schedule against the Voodoos on Sunday, March 3.
Unlike their East Division rivals, the Lumberjacks will actually play four of their final six games on home ice.
The will host the Rock on Friday night, before travelling to Timmins the second half of the home-and-home series at the McIntyre Arena Monday afternoon.
They will then play a home-and-home series with the Crunch, entertaining them at the Claude Larose Arena on Friday, Feb. 22, before travelling to Cochrane for the rematch on Saturday, Feb. 23.
The Lumberjacks will then host the Gold Miners at the Claude Larose Arena on Friday, March 1, before entertaining the Voodoos on home ice on Saturday, March 2.
With only four games remaining on their schedule, the Crunch will be looking to make the most of every opportunity as they play a pair of games on the road and two at the Tim Horton Event Centre.
They are off this weekend to prepare for their final push for top spot in the East Division, but they will play a home-and-home series with the Lumberjacks the following weekend, with the two sides facing off in Hearst on Friday, Feb. 22, and then back in Cochrane on Saturday, Feb. 23.
The Crunch will then entertain the Voodoos at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Friday, March 1, before travelling to Rayside-Balfour take on the West Division’s Canadians to close out their schedule.
The East Division race is so close it could come down to the final game of the regular season before we know which teams will face off in the best-of-three playoff series between the fourth- and fifth-place finishers and which teams will get a bye.
The only thing for certain at this point, is the sixth-place Rapids (14-33-2-1) will be on the outside looking in, even though they have already eclipsed 2017-18’s 13 wins.
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Every other team in the NOJHL except the Rock has experience at least one shootout loss so far this season.
The Rock have played four shootout games, so far this season — beating the Canadians 4-3 on home ice Sept. 22, the Wildcats 3-2 at the NOJHL Showcase on Oct. 10, the Gold Miners 4-3 on home ice Feb. 1 and the Crunch 7-6 on home ice Feb. 12.
Rock goaltenders Tyler Masternak (10 saves) and Nicholas Dicks (three saves), who is no longer with the team, have not been beaten in a shootout yet this season.
On the opposite side of the puck, Rock captain Derek Seguin has scored on two of his four attempts, 16-year-old rookie forward Keegan McMullen has scored on one of his three attempts and Josh Dickson has scored on one of his four attempts.
Mahingan Decontie and Matt Capisciolto have each been denied on their lone shootout attempts.
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Seguin (45, 28-29-57, 44) ranks sixth in the NOJHL scoring race, trailing Noah Boman (44, 21-47-68, 23), of the Thunderbirds, Jake Desando (49, 26-41-67 , 26), of the Lumberjacks, Lucas Theriault (43, 34-31-65, 29), of the Thunderbirds, Brendan Young (45, 24-36-60, 42) of the Beavers, and Max Griffioen (50, 24-36-60, 22) of the Lumberjacks.
Seguin’s 28 goals rank him third behind Theriault’s 34 and the 29 scored by the Crunch’s Austin Whelan.
His 11 power-play goals rank him second to the 15 scored by Theriault this season.
McMullen (47, 13-13-26, 28) is tied for sixth spot with four game-winning goals to date.
Masternak continues to lead the NOJHL in minutes played this season, with 2,258 spent in the crease, while the Lumberjacks Nicholas Tallarico is second with 2,114.
Masternak’s 26 wins on the season have him well ahead of the Thunderbirds Colin Ahern (20).
And his six shutouts on the season still have him at No. 1 in that category, ahead of the Gold Miners Dawson Rodin (four).
When it comes to goals against average, however, Masternak — at 2.39 — has fallen behind the Crunch’s Zach Wickson’s 2.34.
That is likely due to the fact Wickson was tucked safely on the bench during Tuesday’s 7-6 shootout loss to the Rock, while Masternak was in the Timmins crease.
Despite dominating just about every other goaltending category, Masternak has never ranked near the league leaders when it comes to saves percentage.
After Tuesday’s shootout victory, his .911 has him ranked 13th, with Timmins native Sebastien Plamondon, of the Canadians, leading that category with a .927 mark.
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In terms of team statistics, the Rock enter play this weekend with the NOJHL’s second-best penalty kill (86.4 per cent), trailing only the Thunderbirds (86.7 per cent)
And that is likely a good thing given the Rock (701 minutes) rank second only to the Lumberjacks (712 minutes) in terms of time spent in the sin bin this season and let’s not forget Timmins has played one fewer game than their East Division rivals.
At the other end of the ice, the Rock and most of the other top teams in the East Division have struggled with the man advantage.
The Rock (15.6 per cent) have the eighth-best power play in the NOJHL, followed by the Gold Miners (ninth at 15.5 per cent), the Voodoos (11th at 14.9 per cent) and the Crunch (12th at 14.4 per cent).
In fact, of the five teams competing for the East Division title, only the Lumberjacks (second at 21.5 per cent) have excelled with the man advantage this season.
Could that be the deciding factor when the East Division champion is crowned?