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NOJHL first round playoff predictions

TIMMINS - Brenden Locke is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League.

Like the late comedian who passed away in 2004, the 17-year-old Iroquois Falls native who plays for the Abitibi Eskimos just doesn’t get any respect.

Last season Locke lost out to Soo Thunderbirds talented defenceman Owen Headrick in rookie of the year voting.

This year the sophomore centre failed to make either the NOJHL’s first or second all-star teams — even though he finished fourth in the league in scoring with 81 points.

I know, I know there is more to being an all-star than filling opposition nets with pucks, but Locke is as solid in his own end of the rink as he is in the offensive zone.

The two centres chosen ahead of Locke — Cody Gratton, of the Cochrane Crunch on the first team, and Brady Clouthier of the Eskimos on the second team — both finished ahead of him in the scoring race.

Clouthier, with 93 points, was second, while Gratton, with 87 points was third.

Sorry, but that argument just doesn’t hold water.

Gratton spent as much, if not more, time playing wing with Josh Racek at centre for the Crunch as he did in the middle this season.

And Locke, not Clouthier, is the centre on the Eskimos Killer Bs line that also features Brennan Roy on the other wing.

The first all-star team, as announced by the NOJHL, features Spencer MacLean, of the Elliot Lake Wildcats, at left wing, Gratton at centre and Steve Harland, of the Powassan Voodoos, at right wing.

Instead, it should have featured Clouthier at left wing, Gratton at centre and Harland at right wing.

MacLean is a very, very good hockey player, but he was only the third-leading scorer on his own team this year — behind Adam Baxter and Cole Hepler.

The second all-star team consists of Luc Soares of the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners at left wing, Clouthier at centre and Dustin Cordeiro of the Crunch at right wing.

It should, however, have been made up of MacLean at left wing, Locke at centre and Cordeiro at right wing — although he played as much left wing as right wing in the games I saw the Crunch play this season.

I know I might as well be talking to a wall when presenting my argument about Locke, but it has to be said.

And somehow in the back of my mind I know I am going to be writing a similar column next season when the NOJHL announces somebody other than Locke is the MVP for the 2015-16 season.

On defence, the first all-star team consists of the Gold Miners duo of Jeremy Picard-Fiset and Ethan Strong.

Some people might argue against having two players from the same team selected to the first team, but those people obviously have not seen Picard-Fiset and Strong play more than a handful of games.

They both deserve the honour.

The blue-line for the second all-star team features David Radke, of the Thunderbirds, and Nathan Campbell, of the Wildcats.

Again, I find it hard to argue with either choice, although Cochrane’s Captain Crunch, Max Glashauser would have been a solid choice, as well.

Josh Erickson, of the Gold Miners, is the goalie on the first all-star team and a very deserving choice. He leads most important goaltending categories and is as calm, cool and collected as any goaltender I have seen in the NOJHL this season.

A.J. Smith, of the Wildcats, got the nod on the second all-star team and I can’t argue with his selection. I have only had a chance to see him play twice in person, but I was impressed both times — even though he lost one of those starts.

Mario Culina, of the Thunderbirds, would not have been out of place in that spot either.

It is hard to argue with the Thunderbirds coach/manager tandem of Jordan Smith and Kevin Cain being chosen for those roles on the first all-star team. That combination has been as effective as any in Junior ‘A’ hockey over the past two years.

The duo of Nathan Hewitt and Todd Stencill have not had quite as long a track record as their rivals from Sault Ste. Marie, but I don’t know of anybody who has not been impressed with the success of that franchise — on and off the ice — this season.

In terms of coaching, the Nickel Barons Jason Young, the Gold Miners Marc Lafleur and the Eskimos Paul Gagne were also worthy of consideration this year.

The same can be said for Lafleur and Ryan Leonard, of the Crunch, in their capacities as general managers.

The all-star trainers this year are Lisa Parise, of the Nickel Barons, on the first team and Jeff Pulvermacher, of the Wildcats, on the second team.

Given that the regular season is now over, I will dispense with the Tom’s Top 9 NOJHL power rankings other than to indicate how the teams finished and how I predicted they would finish.

No. 1 — Soo Thunderbirds (38-7-1-6, 83 points). I predicted they would finish second overall.

No. 2 — Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (38-10-2-2, 80 points). I predicted they would finish third overall.

No. 3 — Elliot Lake Wildcats (38-11-2-1, 79 points). I predicted they would finish eighth overall. Ouch!

No. 4 — Sudbury Nickel Barons (30-16-1-4, 65 points). I predicted they would finish sixth overall.

No. 5 — Cochrane Crunch (29-21-0-2, 60 points). I predicted they would finish first overall.

No. 6 — Abitibi Eskimos (28-20-0-4, 60 points). I predicted they would finish fourth overall.

No. 7 — Powassan Voodoos (16-28-0-8, 40 points). I predicted they would finish seventh overall. Yeah, I got one right!!!!

No. 8 — Mattawa Blackhawks (13-35-0-4, 30 points). I predicted they would finish fifth overall.

No. 9 — Blind River Beavers (0-50-0-1, 1 point). I predicted they would finish ninth overall — but not that they would be the train wreck they became.

Playoff predictions:

East Division

Blackhawks (5th) vs Voodoos (4th) — The Voodoos won 10 of the 13 games the two teams played this season. The Blackhawks are banged up. The Blackhawks played four games on the road last week. Prediction: Voodoos 2-0.

Voodoos (4th) vs Gold Miners (1st) — The Gold Miners can be vulnerable on the road, but they have home-ice advantage in this series. The Gold Miners won consistently down the stretch without some of their better offensive players in the lineup. The Gold Miners have a decided edge in goal. The Gold Miners have an even bigger edge on defence. The Gold Miners have three balanced lines that can put the puck in the net. After a nice first season this is where the Voodoos crash and burn. Prediction: Gold Miners 4-0.

Eskimos (3rd) vs Crunch (2nd) — You would be hard-pressed to find two teams more evenly matched than these two. The Crunch are known for playing run-and-gun hockey, but the Eskimos scored 17 more goals during the regular season. The Crunch were plagued by inconsistent goaltending, but they surrendered 45 fewer goals than the Eskimos. With Logan Ferrington out with a six-game suspension, can Chet Tooker backstop the Eskimos to an upset? This series will likely go the full seven games either way, but … Prediction: Eskimos 4-3.

West Divison

Beavers (4th) vs Thunderbirds (1st) — Seriously? A team that fails to win a game during the regular season is going to make the playoffs? I am pretty sure the Great North Midget League Thunderbirds could beat this Blind River squad. The Junior ‘A’ version — the only squad to allow the Beavers a point this season — has better goaltending, better defence, better offence and better uniforms — not that the latter matters all that much. Prediction: Thunderbirds 4-0.

Nickel Barons (3rd) vs Wildcats (2nd) — The Wildcats won nine of their 12 meetings with the Nickel Barons this season and another ended in a tie. The Wildcats have an advantage in goal — even before the Nickel Barons lost Kevin Labelle to suspension. They have a slight advantage on defence. They have a decided advantage up front. Elliot Lake’s forwards are big, fast and offensively gifted. The Nickel Barons are fast. Prediction: Wildcats 4-1.