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T-Birds visit Crunch, Eskis

TIMMINS - Local NOJHL fans will get their second and final look at the Soo Thunderbirds this weekend unless either the Cochrane Crunch or the Abitibi Eskimos advance to the championship series.

The Thunderbirds will take on the Crunch at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane Saturday night and the Eskimos at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls Sunday afternoon.

Heading into the weekend, the Thunderbirds sit atop the West Division standings with 28 wins and 62 points — second only to the East Division-leading Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (30 and 64) in both categories.

That accomplishment is even more amazing when you consider that at one point earlier this season the Thunderbirds played 12-straight games on the road.

The Soo is also the 14th-ranked team in Canada according to the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s Pointstreak Top 20 rankings, released on Monday.

All is not rosy in Thunderbirds land, however, as — pending the outcome of Friday night’s game against the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake — they have just one win in their past four starts.

Even good teams — and make no mistake about it, the Soo Thunderbirds are a very good team — are bound to hit a few rough patches over the course of a 52-game regular season.

Prior to their current slump, if you can call it that, the Thunderbirds had won four-straight games and seven of their previous eight starts.

Goaltending remains a strength of the Thunderbirds.

The duo of Mario Culina (1322:02, 1, 2.36, .911) and Brian Kment (1073:30, 0, 2.79, .899) has allowed the fewest goals in the NOJHL this season.

Putting the puck in the net has not been a problem for the 2014-15 edition of the Thunderbirds, either, as the squad has 11 players with 10 or more goals this season.

Nicolas Tassone (38, 24-31-55, 4), Jaren Bellini (36, 20-20-40, 10), Joey Miller (34, 12-25-37, 54), Nicolas Sicoly (37, 14-22-36, 16), Anthony Miller (35, 18-17-35, 44), Nathan Hebert (33, 12-19-31, 10), Eric Hillock (35, 16-14-30, 8), Matt Pinder (34, 14-16-30, 15), Brett Jeffries (39, 11-18-29, 17), Matt Caruso (31, 10-15-25, 22), Joey Ogden (19, 11-13-24, 8) have all scored in double figures this season, making it difficult for opponents to focus on shutting down one line.

The Thunderbirds have actually done better against the Crunch at the Tim Horton Event Centre this season than they have on their home ice.

Back on Nov. 7, the Thunderbirds blanked the Crunch 4-0 in Cochrane, with Culina making 33 saves to record the shutout. Current backup Ben Auger and former Crunch goalie Troy Paquette split the goaltending duties for Cochrane.

Joey Miller had a goal and an assist in that contest, while Ogden netted what would prove to be the game-winning goal midway through the first period.

The Crunch, meanwhile, won both games played between the two teams at the John Rhodes Arena — 3-2 on Dec. 5 and 5-2 on Jan. 29.

Kment was in goal for the 3-2 loss, while Brett Young was the winning goalie for the Crunch that night.

NOJHL scoring leader Cody Gratton had the game-winning goal for the Crunch.

Culina, meanwhile, was beaten four times during the 5-2 setback, with the final goal being scored into the empty net, and Young again picking up the win for the Crunch

Aviv Milner had the game-winning goal for the Crunch.

The Thunderbirds have won all three games they have played against the Eskimos so far this season — 5-4 in double overtime in Sault Ste. Marie on Oct. 10, 7-3 at the Jus Jordan Arena on Nov. 1 and 6-3 in Sault Ste. Marie on Jan. 11.

Hillock had two goals and an assist in the Thunderbirds win at the Jus Jordan Arena on Oct. 10. Pinder’s goal, scored late in the second period, proved to be the game-winner.

The goaltending matchup that night saw Kment beat Chet Tooker, of the Eskimos.

The Eskimos lone point against the Thunderbirds came in their 5-4 loss at the John Rhodes Arena on Oct. 10.

Hillock was the overtime hero that night, beating Tooker with the game-winning goal 2:20 into the second overtime period. Bellini had a goal and two assists in that contest for the Soo.

Kment made 31 saves to earn the victory for the Thunderbirds.

Tassone had a pair of goals to pace the attack for the Soo in their most recent victory over the Eskimos, the 6-3 decision.

Culina needed to make just 21 saves to pick up the victory, while Logan Ferrington stopped 40 of the 45 shots he faced and was tagged with the loss.