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Opening round playoff opponents almost set

SUDBURY – With just nine regular season games remaining in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League’s regular season, each team’s opponents are just about set for the first round of the playoffs, which will get underway next week.

Two of the opening postseason match-ups are set while the other pair could be determined as early as tonight.

With a victory this evening in Sudbury against the Nickel Baron, the Espanola Rivermen would secure themselves the No. 3 seed in the playoffs.

Should Sudbury prevail tonight, Espanola will still have three other opportunities to finish in third place in the standings with wins in either of their two remaining games or a loss by Abitibi in their final regular season encounter.

If the Rivermen and Eskimos finished tied for third, Abitibi would prevail as the higher seed by virtue of their 5-2-0-1 head-to-head record against Espanola during the 2013-14 campaign.

WHAT WE KNOW: The only item left to be decided in the final overall standings this season is who will finish third and who will end up in fourth.

Espanola has the inside track to end in in third sport over Abitibi, but either way both clubs will have home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The No. 1 club in the NOJHL as well as the 128-team Canadian Junior Hockey League are the Soo Thunderbirds.

They have a first round date with the No. 8 seed Blind River Beavers in a best-of-seven affair that will commence at Essar Centre in Sault Ste. Marie.

The Thunderbirds owned the season series against the Beavers winning all eight games between the two squads outscoring Blind River by a 46-13 margin.

Of note, two of the contests however were decided by one goal, including an overtime game. Also, seven of the eight meetings were played before Christmas.

We also know the No. 2 Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (13th-CJHL) will take on the No. 7 North Bay Trappers in another quarter-final series.

This season set was all Gold Miners as they won each of the eight meetings scoring 33 times while giving up only 13 against.

Three of the contests were decided by one goal, including a double overtime match-up on Oct. 11.

Awaiting the third place finisher will the Sudbury Nickel Barons, who will end up in sixth place while the No. 5 Elliot Lake Bobcats will take on the No. 4 side.

In head-to-head play this season Espanola has gone 6-0 to date vs. Sudbury heading into tonight’s contest before they meet again Friday.

The Rivermen also boasted a winning record against Elliot Lake as well going 5-2-0-1 with each of the last three get togethers decided by one goal, including the last two in OT.

As for Abitibi, they had four one-goal games against the Bobcats during the season, but came out on top winning six of the eight meetings.

The Eskimos had a tougher time, results wise, against the Nickel Barons with each team winning times.

WRAPPING UP: Along with this evening’s game at 7:30 p.m. between Espanola and Sudbury at McClelland Arena in Copper Cliff, there are eight other contests this week to wrap-up regular season play.

Friday has North Bay taking on Blind River at 7 p.m. while Elliot Lake hosts Kirkland Lake and Espanola finishes off a home-and-home with Sudbury in a pair of 7:30 p.m. starts.

Saturday’s slate sees Kirkland Lake visiting Blind River, North Bay heading to Iroquois Falls to take on Abitibi and Sudbury visiting Sault Ste. Marie in a trio of 7:30 p.m. face-offs.

The week and the regular season are then set to conclude with a pair of matinees Sunday as the Gold Miners and Rivermen square off at 2 p.m. at the Espanola Regional Recreation Complex while Elliot Lake travels to Essar Centre to take on the Thunderbirds at 3 p.m.

PLAYOFF TIMELINE: The dates of which each NOJHL playoff series will be contested between.

Quarter-finals
March 14-26

Best-of-seven series
1 Soo vs. 8 Blind River
2 Kirkland Lake vs. 7 North Bay
3 Espanola or Abitibi vs. 6 Sudbury
4 Abitibi or Espanola vs. 5 Elliot Lake

Semifinals
March 28-April 9

Best-of-seven series
Highest remaining seed vs. Lowest remaining seed
2nd seed vs. 3rd seed

Final
April 11-24

Best-of-seven series for the Copeland Cup – McNamara Trophy

Dudley-Hewitt Cup Central Canada Jr. A Championship
April 29 – May 3

Wellington, Ont.

Competing teams
NOJHL champion

OJHL champion
SIJHL champion
Wellington Dukes (Host – OJHL)

RBC Cup Canadian Jr. A Championship
May 10-18

Vernon, B.C.  

Competing teams
Dudley-Hewitt Cup champion

Fred Page Cup champion
Western Canada Cup champion
Western Canada Cup finalist
Vernon Vipers (Host – BCHL)  

DUDLEY-HEWITT DRIVE: The eventual NOJHL playoff champion will advance to represent the league at the Dudley-Hewitt Cup Central Region event, April 29 through May 3, in Wellington, Ont.

Joining the NOJHL will be the host Wellington Dukes of the Ontario Junior Hockey League along with the title holders of both the OJHL and the Superior International Junior Hockey League.

The OJHL playoffs are already underway and Wellington is on the ropes in their first round series against the Cobourg Cougars as they trail that best-of-seven affair 3-1 heading to game 5 Friday in Cobourg.

The top two seeds in each conference have yet to taste defeat in conference quarter-final play going a combined 13-0 so far.

In the OJHL South-West Toronto Lakeshore (17th-CJHL) swept the Toronto Jr. Canadiens in four straight while the Buffalo Jr. Sabres are up 2-0 on the Mississauga Chargers.

Over in the OJHL North-East the top ranked Kingston Voyageurs (7th-CJHL) hold a 3-0 series lead on the Pickering Panthers and Aurora Tigers (9th-CJHL) put the broom to the Newmarket Hurricanes sweeping that match-up.

As for the SIJHL, they have one week to go in regular season play.

Entering the postseason the Fort Frances Lakers, tabbed fifth in the final CJHL rankings, are the regular season winners there while the Thunder Bay North Stars (15th-CJHL) are second.

TEAM-BY-TEAM

ABITIBI ESKIMOS – Abitibi will need to win or pick up a point in their last game and hope that Espanola loses their final three games in order to finish third in the standings. If not they’ll end up fourth and meet Elliot Lake in the quarter-finals. … They’ll meet North Bay in their final regular season game, which goes Saturday at Jus Jordan Arena. … The Eskimos sit fifth overall on the power play at 17.9%. They are seventh on the penalty kill at 78%.

BLIND RIVER BEAVERS – The Beavers will take on the role of underdog as they meet top ranked Sault Ste. Marie in the opening round of the NOJHL playoffs. … They’ll have games vs. North Bay Friday and Kirkland Lake Saturday to round out regular season play. … Blind River is eighth in the league on both the power play and penalty kill 13% and 73.7% respectively.

ELLIOT LAKE BOBCATS – The Bobcats will have a stiff test in their final two regular season match-ups before the playoffs as they are at home to No. 2 Kirkland Lake Friday before taking on the No. 1 Soo Thunderbirds at Essar Centre Sunday afternoon. … Elliot Lake will meet either Abitibi or Espanola in round one of the playoffs. … Firing at 14% the Bobcats are seventh in the NOJHL on the P.P. and fourth on the P.K. at 81.9%.

ESPANOLA RIVERMEN – Espanola holds their own fate needing only one win in their final three games or a loss by Abitibi in their last contest to secure the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. … Two of their last three contests will be vs. Sudbury, who they will meet in the playoffs should they end up third. … The club sits third overall in power play success at 20.2% and are sixth on the penalty kill at 80.5%

KIRKLAND LAKE GOLD MINERS – Kirkland Lake was listed 13th overall in the final CJHL top 20 rankings of the season. … They will wrap-up the regular season with a three-game road trip with stops in Elliot Lake, Blind River and Espanola. … The Gold Miners lead the NOJHL in both power play proficiency, at 26.3%, and the penalty kill at 90.3%. … Kirkland Lake is poised to meet North Bay in round one of the postseason having tamed the Trappers in all eight of their regular season get togethers.

NORTH BAY TRAPPERS – The Trappers are struggling as they near the playoffs having dropped seven straight and have gone 3-16-0-1 in their past 20. … Their final two regular season contests are against Blind River and Abitibi. … They know they’ll take on Kirkland Lake in the first round of the playoffs. … A 17.3% success rate has the Trappers sixth on the power play. They are third best on the P.K. however at 82.2%.

SOO THUNDERBIRDS – Sault Ste. Marie will be at home twice to close out the regular season as they welcome Sudbury to Essar Centre Saturday night and Elliot Lake Sunday afternoon. … The Thunderbirds were rated the No. 1 club in the 128-team CJHL in their final top 20 rankings of the season. … They were No. 1 the last five weeks of the rankings. … Having wrapped up top spot in the overall standings The T-Birds are second overall in both the power play and penalty kill firing at 21.3% on the P.P. and going 85.9% on the P.K.

SUDBURY NICKEL BARONS – Sudbury, who will finish sixth overall in the NOJHL standings, awaits either Espanola or Abitibi in the first round of the playoffs. … Two of their final three games before the postseason are against the Rivermen in what could very well be a first round preview. … They also play the Soo Thunderbirds this week. … The Nickel Barons are fourth overall on the power play at 18% and fifth while killing penalties at 80.7%.