TIMMINS - The NOJHL’s regular season is nearing its conclusion, with teams having between six and 12 games left on their schedules.
And as it does, we are starting to develop a clearer picture of which teams will face each other in the playoffs.
With the NOJHL having an uneven number of teams in its two divisions, the opening round of the playoffs will see the fourth- and fifth-place teams in the East Division face each other in a three-game series.
Barring a total collapse by the Abitibi Eskimos, that series should feature a match-up of the Powassan Voodoos and the Mattawa Blackhawks, two teams that have developed a natural rivalry in the first season for both squads.
But given the dismal performance of the Blind River Beavers this season — their 0-43-0-1 record tells the tale — maybe the Voodoos and the Blackhawks should petition the NOJHL to adapt a playoff format similar to the Canadian Football League, which also has nine teams and unbalanced divisions.
Of course in the CFL, only the Top 3 teams in each division advance to the playoffs, with the fourth-place team in the West Division getting to bump the third-place team in the East Division if it has a better record.
Using that kind of format, the Beavers would be bumped from the playoffs and the Blackhawks would take their place, with no need for a three-game playoff.
I know, I know, you can’t change the rules in mid-season just because one team has not won a game all year.
And there is no guarantee that the league will have the same number of teams next season, as new franchises might be added or old ones deleted before play begins in the 2015-16 campaign.
It was just a thought.
Before we get too far side-tracked, lets get back to how things are shaping up in this year’s playoff race.
It is looking more and more like the NOJHL’s defending champions, the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, will finish first in the East Division. They have a 12-point lead over the second-place Cochrane Crunch.
The Crunch, in turn, have a five-point lead over their Highway 11 rivals, the Abitibi Eskimos, who are entrenched in third place.
Cochrane has two games in hand, but even if the Eskimos were to catch them, the opening-round matchup would still be Abitibi versus Cochrane, with only home ice switching.
That would leave the Gold Miners to take on the winner of the three-game series between the Voodoos and the Blackhawks.
Over in the West Division, things are a little tighter at the top of the standings.
The Thunderbirds advantage over the second-place Elliot Lake Wildcats is just five points, although the Soo does have a game in hand.
Meanwhile, the Sudbury Nickel Barons, who have played the fewest games in the league so far, are nine points behind the Wildcats.
The Wildcats and the Nickel Barons have been two of the hottest teams in the NOJHL in recent weeks, so it’s possible changes will occur at the top of the West Division before the final buzzer sounds on the last regular-season game.
As things stand right now, however, the Thunderbirds would take on the Beavers and the Wildcats would do battle with the Nickel Barons.
Seriously, though, can a team really make the playoffs if it goes an entire season without winning one hockey game?
Has it ever happened before, in any league, in any sport?
Enough about the playoffs, for now, the Thunderbirds have regained their spot atop Tom’s Top 9 NOJHL power rankings for this week, after a three-game road trip saw them earn three wins — including a 4-0 decision against the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake Friday night.
As with previous columns, the first number in the brackets represents the team’s ranking last week, while the second refers to their ranking before the start of the season.
1. (2-2) Soo Thunderbirds (31-5-1-5) — The Thunderbirds regained top spot in this week’s ranking thanks to their 4-0 win over the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake Friday, followed by a 5-2 win over the Crunch in Cochrane Saturday night and an 8-3 victory over the Abitibi Eskimos in Iroquois Falls Sunday afternoon. Brian Kment (1193:30, 1, 2.61, .906) earned the shutout in Friday night’s win. Boris Katchouk (23, 12-18-30, 18) scored twice for the Thunderbirds, while lineman Nicolas Sicoly (40, 15-27-42, 16) earned three assists. Jaren Bellini (39, 24-20-44, 10) scored twice to pace the attack the following night against the Crunch. Katchouk had a pair of goals and two helpers as Thunderbirds wrapped up their three-game road trip with a win against the Eskimos. Defenceman David Radke (34, 2-22-24, 38), with a goal and two assists, had a three-point afternoon in Iroquois Falls. The Thunderbirds hosted the Blind River Beavers at the Essar Centre Tuesday night, will travel to Elliot Lake for a game with the second-place Wildcats Friday night and will host the Sudbury Nickel Barons at the John Rhodes Community Centre Monday afternoon, Family Day.
2. (1-3) Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (31-8-2-2) — The Gold Miners lost two of the three games they played this past week, dropping them out of top spot in the rankings, but they still have the second best record in the NOJHL and lead the East Division by 12 points over the Cochrane Crunch. Hearst native Ryan Aubertin (29, 24-20-44, 6) had the Gold Miners lone goal in a 2-1 loss to the Eskimos in Iroquois Falls on Tuesday night. The offensive drought continued Friday night when the Thunderbirds blanked the Gold Miners 4-0. Bryan Lubin (11, 5-9-14, 10) scored twice to help jump start the Kirkland Lake attack Saturday night as they gain some revenge with a 6-1 win over the Eskimos on home ice. Former Eskimo defenceman Jamey Lauzon (35, 2-13-15, 40) earned a pair of assists in that contest. Fellow blue-liner Jeremy Picard-Fiset (43, 5-41-46, 28) also had a pair of helpers in that game. After taking on the Crunch in Cochrane Tuesday night the Gold Miners will travel to Powassan for a game with the Voodoos on Friday night and to Mattawa for a game with the Blackhawks Saturday night.
3. (3-8) Elliot Lake Wildcats (30-10-2-1) — The Nickel Barons cooled off the Wildcats slightly during a 7-2 triumph in Sudbury on Wednesday night, but still Elliot Lake has nine wins, one loss and one tie in its past 11 games. Devyn Martel (2, 2-1-3, 0) had both Wildcats goals against the Nickel Barons. Defenceman David Chiarelli (43, 6-18-24, 31) had a goal and three assists in the Wildcats 9-2 win over the Blind River Beavers Friday night. Tristan Hanna (180:00, 0, 1.33, .925) needed to make just 11 saves to pick up the victory for Elliot Lake. Cole Hepler (43, 26-36-62, 10) had two goals and five assists as the Wildcats crushed the Beavers 11-1 in the second half of the home-and-home series on Saturday night. The week ahead will see the Wildcats host the West Division-leading Soo Thunderbirds at the Centennial Arena Friday night and then travel to Blind River for another game with the Beavers Saturday night.
4. (4-6) Sudbury Nickel Barons (25-11-1-3) — After earning three victories this week, the Nickel Barons now have six wins in their past seven games. Danny Lepage (36, 14-8-22, 16) scored three goals to pace the attack as the Nickel Barons knocked off the Wildcats Wednesday night. Joel Lemay (38, 8-18-26, 18) had two goals and two assists to lead the way during Friday night’s 8-7 overtime win over the Voodoos in Powassan. Defenceman Ryan Mooney (38, 5-17-22, 22) netted the game-winning goal in overtime. Ryan Theriault (22, 13-7-20, 14) had a hat-trick and added an assist in Saturday night’s 5-1 win over the Beavers in Blind River. Goalie Kevin Labelle (1302:30, 0, 3.13, .912) had another storng week in goal, earning one of the three NOJHL stars of the week. The Nickel Barons will host the Blackhawks at the McClelland Arena Wednesday night and then travel to Sault Ste. Marie for a Family Day game against the Thunderbirds Monday night.
5. (5-1) Cochrane Crunch (26-16-0-2) — NOJHL scoring leader Cody Gratton (42, 50-35-85, 33) scored his 50th goal of the season and added a pair of assists as the Crunch held on to edge the Blackhawks 5-4 in Mattawa Friday night. Henry Berger (22, 11-14-25, 26) also had a pair of goals in that contest, while Dylan Sakatch (8, 1-2-3, 6) added a goal and an assist. Dustin Cordeiro (38, 39-17-56, 38) had both Crunch goals in Saturday night’s 5-2 loss to the Thunderbirds. Goalie Brett Young (951:38, 0, 3.91, .903) was solid in both games this week. The lone game for the Crunch this week has them hosting the Gold Miners at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Friday night.
6. (6-4) Abitibi Eskimos (23-20-0-3) — Given that the Abitibi Eskimos played two games against the East Division-leading Gold Miners and one against the West Division-leading Thunderbirds this week, they did well to gain one victory in those contests — especially since starting goalie Logan Ferrington (664:22, 0, 3.52, .915) was under the weather, couldn’t finish Saturday night’s game in Kirkland Lake and was not able to dress for Sunday afternoon’s contest against the Thunderbirds. Defenceman Joe Olson (8, 1-2-3, 6) scored his first goal as an Eskimo in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Gold Miners. Brenden Locke (40, 32-32-64, 21) had the Eskimos only goal during a 6-1 loss to the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake Saturday night. Locke and Brady Clouthier (40, 37-38-75, 63) each had a goal and two assists during Sunday’s 8-3 loss to the Thunderbirds. Chet Tooker (1476:38, 1, 4.75, .877), once the workhorse of the Eskimos goalie rotation, made a rare start Sunday with Ferrington not feeling well. The Eskimos will travel to Powassan for a game with the Voodoos Saturday night and then to Mattawa to take on the Blackhawks Sunday afternoon.
7. (7-7) Powassan Voodoos (14-19-0-8) — A pair of wins and an overtime loss this week comes as welcome news for Voodoos fans who have watched their favourite team struggle in the new year. Matt Young (1577:4, 2, 3.76, .901) made 38 saves to backstop the Voodoos to a 4-1 win over the Blackhawks on home ice Wednesday night. Great North Midget League scoring champion Jeff Jordan (4, 1-3-4, 4) had a goal and an assist in that contest. Steve Hardland (41, 37-40-77, 6) and Kyle Moore (36, 19-27-46, 30) both had two goals and five assists in the Voodoos 8-7 overtime loss to the Nickel Barons Friday night, while David Sherman (7, 6-4-10, 4) scored three goals. Harland and Michael Silveri (35, 11-18-29, 17) each had two goals in the Voodoos 4-2 win over the Blackhawks on Saturday night. After hosting the Blackhawks at the Powassan Sportsplex Monday night, the Voodoos will entertain the Gold Miners Friday night at the Eskimos Saturday night.
8. (8-5) Mattawa Blackhawks (9-29-0-3) — After starting to turn things around early in the new year, the Blackhawks have now lost five-straight games and seven of their past eight. Josh Horner (714:58, 0, 6.55, .837) got a rare start in goal during Mattawa’s 4-1 loss to the Voodoos Wednesday night. Andy Williams (40, 16-20-36, 37) had the Blackhawks’ lone goal in that contest. Reed Gregory (43, 11-11-22, 12), Brett Ouderkirk (28, 7-10-17, 10) and C.J. Nicholson (39, 15-15-30, 44) each had a goal and an assist in Friday night’s 5-4 loss to the Crunch. Nicholson and Tyler Brodersen (41, 16-21-37, 20) had the goals in the Blackhawks 4-2 loss to the Voodoos Saturday night. The Blackhawks kicked off a busy week with a game in Powassan against the Voodoos Monday night. They follow that up with a trip to Sudbury to take on the Nickel Barons Wednesday night, then return home to face the Gold Miners at the Mike Rodden Arena on Saturday night and the Eskimos on Sunday afternoon.
9. (9-9) Blind River Beavers (0-43-0-1) — The Beavers scored just four goals in three games this week and you are not going to win too many hockey games that way — especially when your goalies are giving up 25 at the other end of the rink. The Beavers management team realizes that no matter how many games they lose they are not going to make their way into the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, don’t they? Nathan Hans (43, 11-9-20, 46) had both Blind River goals in a 9-2 loss to the Wildcats Friday night. Defenceman Austin Lamont (32, 6-9-15, 18) had the lone goal in the Beavers 5-1 loss to the Nickel Barons Saturday night, but far Blind River’s best game of the week. Zach Zanville (22, 2-2-4, 6) scored to keep the home side from being shutout in an 11-1 loss to the Wildcats on home ice Sunday. The Beavers quest for their first victory of the 2014-15 NOJHL campaign will take them to Sault Ste. Marie for a game with the Thunderbirds Tuesday night. They will then return home to host the Wildcats at the Blind River Community Centre Saturday night.