TIMMINS - There are a lot of positive things that can be said about the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League’s unbalanced schedule.
For example, having teams in the same conference, like the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, the Cochrane Crunch and the Abitibi Eskimos, play each other 10 times — five at home and five on the road — takes natural geographical rivalries to a whole new level.
All you have to do is check out the attendance at games involving any two of those three teams this season to see what a positive impact it has had on those franchises.
The same can be said, to a lesser extent, about the rivalry that has developed between two of the league’s newest teams, the Powassan Voodoos and the Mattawa Blackhawks.
In addition to boosting rivalries, the unbalanced schedule also helps keep the cost of operating a franchise down, since it reduces travel costs.
The only drawback, of course, is that fans of teams in the East Division only get to see West Division teams visit their arena twice a season and vise versa.
For example, we are nearing the last leg of the regular season and the Elliot Lake Wildcats have only made one swing through Kirkland Lake, Cochrane and Timmins.
Fans in Iroquois Falls have yet to get a chance to see the Wildcats in action, unless they travelled to Timmins to watch them play the Eskimos at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex.
It is too bad the NOJHL couldn’t find a way to add a few more games to the schedule so that fans in the East Division could see the teams in the West Division a few more times a season, without reducing the number of rivalry games.
There are only a few minor changes with Tom’s Top 9 NOJHL power rankings for this week.
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. (1-2) Soo Thunderbirds (28-4-1-5) — Joey Miller (33, 12-25-37, 52) and defenceman Caleb Boman (35, 5-15-20, 30) each scored a pair of goals, as the Thunderbirds doubled up the Powassan Voodoos 6-3 on home ice Friday night. Matt Pinder (33, 14-16-30, 15) and Brett Jeffries (38, 10-18-28, 17) each added a goal and an assist in that victory. Boris Katchouk (19, 8-14-22, 18), for the second-straight game, had a pair of assists as the Thunderbirds held on to register a 3-3 tie against the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners on Saturday night in a battle of division leaders. The Thunderbirds held 2-0 and 3-2 leads against the Gold Miners. The Thunderbirds only have one game this week, but it will not be an easy one, as they host the Cochrane Crunch at the John Rhodes Community Centre on Thursday night. After getting spanked by the Sudbury Nickel Barons Friday night and the Abitibi Eskimos Saturday night, the Crunch are likely to be in a nasty mood as they start off a three-game road trip.
2. (2-3) Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (29-6-2-2) — If you are a glass is half empty kind of person you would lament that fact that the Gold Miners were only able to secure one victory in their three-game weekend road trip, but if you are a glass is half full kind of person you would argue that they completed the trek undefeated. Any way you slice it, a win and two ties is a pretty good. Ryan Aubertin (25, 22-20-42, 6) scored with 52 seconds remaining in the the third period to earn the Gold Miners a 2-2 tie with the Wildcats in Game 1 of the trip Friday night in Elliot Lake. Saturday night in Sault Ste. Marie, it was Luc Soares’ (36, 23-22-45, 32) turn to be the hero as he scored midway through the third period to allow the Gold Miners to tie the Thunderbirds 3-3. Zach Pease (21, 8-12-20, 14) had a five-point (two goals, three assists) as the Gold Miners dumped the Beavers 11-3 Sunday in Blind River. Ryan Swain (38, 17-32-49, 40), with one goal and four assists, also had a five-point night, while Jeremy Dumount (37, 17-17-34, 22), with three goals and one assist, had a four-point night. Aubertin added three goals for the visitors. The Gold Miners only have one game this week, as they will host the improved Mattawa Blackhawks at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex.
3. (3-8) Elliot Lake Wildcats (25-9-2-1) — Goalie A.J. Smith (1435:48, 2, 2.88, .913) made 39 saves Friday night to help earn the Wildcats a 2-2 draw with the visiting Gold Miners. Cole Hepler (37, 23-30-53, 10) and defenceman Nathan Campbell (37, 15-22-37, 34) supplied the goals for Elliot Lake. Trayvon Henry (20, 7-5-12, 4) and Campbell each had a goal and an assist, as the Wildcats held on for a 4-3 victory over the Powassan Voodoos on Sunday. Adam Baxter (33, 16-31-47, 18) added a pair of assists in that game. The Wildcats will travel to Blind River for a game with the Beavers on Wednesday, return home to host the Crunch at the Centennial Arena on Friday and then travel to Sudbury to play the Nickel Barons on Sunday night.
4. (6-6) Sudbury Nickel Barons (21-11-1-2) — The Nickel Barons had been in a funk that saw them lose four out of six games, but back-to-back victories over the Voodoos and the Crunch have things looking up in Sudbury. Newcomer Eric Champagne (3, 2-2-4, 0) scored his second goal of the game in overtime to lift the Nickel Barons to a 4-3 win over the Voodoos on home ice Wednesday night. Jacob Bonin (30, 11-21-32, 8), Sudbury’s leading scorer, had a goal and two assists against the Voodoos. Brett Whitehead (35, 1-9-10, 26) had a goal and an assist as the Nickel Barons beat the Crunch 4-1 in Cochrane Friday night. Jessie Morin (985:41, 0, 3.29, .907) was solid in net for the Nickel Barons, making 37 saves in the victory. The Nickel Barons will host the Eskimos at the McClelland Arena Wednesday night and the Wildcats on Sunday night.
5. (4-1) Cochrane Crunch (23-14-0-2) — Things went from bad to worse for the Crunch this past weekend as they followed up a 4-1 loss to the Nickel Barons on home ice with their worst loss in franchise history, an 8-2 setback to their hated Highway 11 rivals, the Pesky Eskis. Injuries and illness were big factors in both games, as they had numerous players out of the lineup Friday night against the Nickel Barons and while the majority of regulars — except the injured Josh Racek — suited up Saturday against the Eskimos many of them looked like zombies on skates, as they bravely tried to play through the flu. NOJHL scoring leader Cody Gratton (37, 43-30-73, 33) had the lone goal for the Crunch in Friday’s loss to the Nickel Barons. Brett Young (681:42, 0, 3.87, .906) took the loss in net, but 38 saves. Dustin Cordeiro (34, 36-15-51, 36), with both goals, was one of the few bright spots for the Crunch in Saturday night’s 8-2 loss to the Eskimos. Unfortunately for the visitors he became involved in a fight shortly after his second goal and was tossed from the game with the teams tied at 2-2. Things won’t get any easier for the Crunch this weekend, as they travel to Sault Ste. Marie for a game with the Thunderbirds Thursday night, to Elliot Lake for a game with the Wildcats Friday night and to Blind River for a game with the Beavers on Saturday night.
6. (5-4) Abitibi Eskimos (21-17-0-3) — The Eskimos played perhaps their best game of the season Saturday night against the Crunch, but still fell one spot in the rankings. That has more to do with the play of the Nickel Barons, however, than any shortcomings the Eskimos may have. Converted defenceman Brennan Roy (41, 20-31-51, 58), with three goals and two assists, and Brenden Locke (35, 28-27-55, 19), with a goal and four assists, each had five-point nights to pace the Eskimos attack against the Crunch. The Eskimos leading scorer, Brady Clouthier (35, 35-34-69, 51), chipped in with a pair of goals. Logan Ferrington (440:00, 0, 3.41, .917), with 39 saves, had another solid night in goal for the Eskimos, as well. The Eskimos will travel to Sudbury on Wednesday to attempt to extend their winning streak to four games against the Nickel Barons, before returning home to host the Mattawa Blackhawks at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex in Timmins Friday night.
7. (7-7) Powassan Voodoos (12-19-0-1) — The Voodoos post-Christmas swoon continued this past weekend, although they were able to win one of the four games. Since the holiday Powassan has a record of 1-5-0-2, negating a lot of the progress they had made in their trek back to .500 prior to the break. A power-play goal by Jake Staples (6, 6-1-7, 0) with 32 seconds left in the third period allowed the Voodoos to force overtime and pick up a point in Wednesday’s 5-4 loss to the Nickel Barons in Sudbury. Steve Harland (38, 33-34-67, 6) and Kyle Moore (33, 17-22-39, 30) each had a goal and an assist during Friday night’s 6-3 loss to the Thunderbirds in Sault Ste. Marie. Moore and Harland each had a goal and two assists in Saturday night’s 4-3 win over the Beavers in Blind River. Michael Silveri (32, 9-18-27, 17), Jacob Erwin (39, 15-10-25, 18) and Harland scored for Powassan in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Wildcats in Elliot Lake. The Voodoos will have plenty of time to regroup, as they will not see any action this week.
8. (8-5) Mattawa Blackhawks (9-25-0-2) — The Blackhawks did not play any games this past week and goalie Joe Sheppard (1531:56, 0, 6.07, .873) likely enjoyed the rest. The big Texan has played more minutes and stopped more pucks than another other netminder in the NOJHL this season. Having won four of their past six games, most of Sheppard’s teammates likely would have preferred not to have a break while they are so hot. We will see if the time off affects them as they travel to Timmins for a game against the Eskimos Friday night and then to Kirkland Lake to take on the Gold Miners Saturday night.
9. (9-9) Blind River Beavers (0-38-0-1) — The Beavers recent coaching change has yet to translate into the win column, as they suffered their 37th and 38th setbacks of the season this past weekend at the Blind River Community Centre. Dante Juris (32, 10-10-20, 33) and defenceman Chandler Dorbin (17, 1-3-4, 26) each picked up a pair of assists in the Beavers 4-3 loss to the Voodoos Saturday night. Chris Ordoobadi (29, 9-5-14, 41) scored two goals for the Beavers during their 11-3 loss to the Gold Miners on Sunday. Regan Yew (13, 4-9-13, 12) added a pair of assists. Former Eskimos goalie Braddock Baalerud (485:46, 4.57, 0, .886) stopped 46 of the 57 shots the Gold Miners fired his way. The Beavers will host the Wildcats at the Blind River Community Centre Wednesday night and the Crunch Saturday night.