TIMMINS - The first road trip for the Soo Thunderbirds and the Elliot Lake Wildcats through the East Division offered some more insight into which teams are true contenders for an NOJHL championship and which are merely pretenders.
My first observation is that the Thunderbirds, despite a double overtime loss in Sudbury and an overtime loss in Kirkland Lake are as good as advertised, if not better.
Their 12-game winning streak came to an end this week, but even when they lost they managed to pick up points.
Coach Jordan Smith told me on the weekend that the Thunderbirds want to be known as a team that rolls four lines and that just might be the secret to their success.
Most of the good teams in the NOJHL can match up with the Soo line for line when it comes to lines one through two — and in some cases three — but I have yet to see another team in the league that has as much talent on its fourth line.
Secondly, it should be noted that the Gold Miners deserve to be right there with the Thunderbirds when it comes time to discuss the elite teams in the NOJHL.
They defeated both the Wildcats and the Thunderbirds this past weekend, avenging losses in Elliot Lake and Sault Ste. Marie earlier this season.
Coach and general manager Marc Lafleur tinkered with his lineup between that earlier road trip and this past weekend’s home games and Kirkland Lake fans have to be happy with the results.
I find it hard to believe, however, that the Gold Miners — who have an average attendance of 419 and a season-high of 501 — were only able to attract a crowd of 368 for Sunday afternoon’s big showdown with the Thunderbirds.
Thirdly, the Wildcats rank among the next level of contenders, along with the Nickel Barons in Sudbury, the Crunch in Cochrane and the Abitibi Eskimos in Iroquois Falls.
All four of these teams have the capabilities of knocking off one of the elite teams when it comes playoff time and, if they get hot at the right time, of winning it all.
The past weekend also proved that the Powassan Voodoos are a better team than their record would indicate and that there is a great deal of separation between them and the NOJHL’s bottom feeders — the Mattawa Blackhawks and the Blind River Beavers.
Now that I have had a chance to see every team in action in person at least once, Tom’s Top 9 NOJHL power rankings this week stacks them up in the following order (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 (16-2-0-2) — The Thunderbirds 12-game winning streak may have come to an end, but they are currently on a streak of 16-straight games in which they have picked up at least a single point. That is enough to give them a slight edge over the Gold Miners, who defeated the Thunderbirds 4-3 in overtime this weekend. The Thunderbirds proved they are human on Wednesday by twice blowing three-goal leads in a 6-5 double-overtime loss to the Nickel Barons in Sudbury, but also posted a 4-0 win over the Crunch Friday night in Cochrane and a 7-3 victory over the Eskimos Saturday night in Iroquois Falls. The Thunderbirds have nine players — Nicolas Tassone (19, 15-20-35, 4), Jaren Bellini (20, 4-11-25, 6), Nicolas Sicoly (20, 12-13-25, 10), Joey Miller (17, 7-13-20, 27), Anthony Miller (17, 8-9-17, 17), Matt Pinder (16, 9-7-16, 6), Nathan Hebert (20, 6-10-16, 2), Eric Hillock (18, 7-6-13, 4), Matt Caruso (15, 5-8-13, 16) — who are averaging at least a point per game and/or have scored at least five goals so far this season. Can you say balanced attack boys and girls? I knew you could. The Soo even gets offensive contributions from its defencemen, including Caleb Boman (20, 2-11-13, 14) and David Radke (12, 1-10-11, 16). Goalies Mario Culina (593:30, 2.22, .924) and Brian Kment (640:49, 3.00, .899) continue to play well, although Kment’s stats were inflated a little bit by the loss in Sudbury. Transactions: None. After playing four games last week, the Thunderbirds do not play any game this week. They had been scheduled to host the Beavers Friday night, but that game has been postponed due to the Central Canada Cup Challenge. No make up date has been announced yet.
2. (2-3) Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (16-3-0-0) — When you are No. 2, you try harder and few people are going to question the work ethic of Lafleur’s squad. A weekend in which they defeated both the Wildcats and the Thunderbirds, the Gold Miners are as close to being No. 1 in the rankings as you can get without actually earning the grade. For teams to be successful, their biggest stars have to come up big in big games. Having said that, you can put a gold star beside the names of Gold Miners foward Steven Babin (19, 11-28-39, 10), who had a goal (game-winner in overtime) and two assists against the Thunderbirds, and defenceman Jeremy Picard-Fiset (19, 3-20-23, 10), who had a goal and an assist, as well as goalie Josh Erickson (423:19, 2.13, .915), who was in net for both wins. The Gold Miners have added a number of offensive weapons this season, including, Luc Soares (19, 14-10-24, 14), Tristen Hazlett (18, 10-13-23, 8), Ryan Swain (19, 9-11-20, 14), Jeremy Dumont (17, 9-11-20, 6), Tyler Romain (19, 8-11-19, 9) and Connor Thie (12-6-12-18, 10). Transactions: Nick Eytcheson traded to the Dryden Ice Dogs (SIJHL). The Gold Miners will play another home-and-home series with the Crunch this weekend, with the first game at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex Friday night and the second in Cochrane Sunday afternoon.
3. (4-6) Sudbury Nickel Barons (13-4-0-2) — The Nickel Barons twice overcame three-goal deficits to defeat the Thunderbirds in double overtime on home ice Wednesday night and then beat the Beavers 5-1 in Blind River Friday night. Brad Sutton (19, 4-5-9, 4) was the offensive star against Thunderbirds, as he netted a pair of goals, including the game winner. Matt Neault (18, 7-10-17, 18), who started the season with the Beavers, had a pair of goals and an assist to pace the attack against his former team. Transactions: Acquire Eliot Herz from Fort Frances Lakers (SIJHL). The Nickel Barons lone game this week will see them host the Wildcats at the McClelland Arena on Wednesday night.
4. (3-8) Elliot Lake Wildcats (12-6-0-0) — Alec MacKenzie (17, 6-15-21, 14) had the game-winning goal in double overtime Thursday night, as the Wildcats defeated the former Elliot Lake Bobcats (now the Cochrane Crunch). As coach Nathan Hewitt told me earlier in the week, it was “just another game” for the Wildcats. It meant a little bit more to their hosts. MacKenzie, 6-3 and 200 pounds, also played well against the Eskimos in Timmins Friday night, although Trayvon Henry (3, 3-1-4, 0), who had three goals in the loss, was clearly the offensive star of the game for the Wildcats in that encounter. Goalie A.J. Smith (691:08, 3.04, .912) was in net for the win over the Crunch and also looked sharp in relief of Allan Menary (340:06, 3.70, .877) against the Eskimos and the loss in Kirkland Lake Saturday night. Transactions: Acquire Kevin Miller from Neepawa Natives (MJHL); acquired Henry from Brantford 99 (GOJHL) Jr B. In addition to travelling to Sudbury for a game against the Nickel Barons Wednesday night, the Wildcats will also travel to Blind River for a game against the Beavers on Saturday night.
5. (5-1) Cochrane Crunch (12-7-0-1) — Cody Gratton (20, 23-14-37, 16) was the offensive star for the Crunch during their 6-5 double-overtime win over the Voodoos in Powassan last Monday night. His three goals included the game-winner in double overtime, the game’s first goal, an even-strength goal, a power-play goal and a short-handed goal. When you are averaging more than a goal a game, there are not many ways you don’t score them. The Crunch also managed a point in an overtime loss to the Wildcats on home ice Thursday night — with Gratton adding another goal and an assist — and were shutout 4-0 by the Thunderbirds at the Tim Horton Event Centre Friday night. They were supposed to play the Blackhawks in Mattawa on Sunday, but that game was postponed due to travel issues. Transactions: None. The Crunch play a home-and-home series with the Gold Miners this week, with the teams meeting in Kirkland Lake Friday night and then at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Sunday afternoon.
6. (6-4) Abitibi Eskimos (10-8-0-2) — It hasn’t taken Jake Holland (2, 2-2-4, 0) long to make an impact with the Abitibi Eskimos. The former Fort Frances Laker had a pair of goals in the Eskimos 6-5 win over the Wildcats in Timmins Friday night and had a pair of assists in the team’s 7-3 loss to the Thunderbirds at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night. Unfortunately, the Eskimos lost forward, Tristan Salesse (1, 0-0-0, 0), another former Laker, to an upper body injury in that game. Brady Clouthier (20, 14-17-31, 27) had four assists against the Wildcats, while Ryan Tront (12, 6-8-14, 10) had a pair of goals and an assist against Elliot Lake and Ryan Attwood (20, 6-14-20, 28) added a goal and two helpers. Brenden Locke (18, 15-10-25, 7) had a pair of goals in the loss to the Thunderbirds. Transactions: None. The Eskimos will travel to Powassan for a game with the Voodoos Friday night and then to Mattawa for a game against the Blackhawks Saturday night.
7. (7-7) Powassan Voodoos (6-9-0-3) — A great week for the Voodoos saw them pick up five of a possible six points, as they dropped a 6-5 double-overtime decision to the Crunch on home ice Monday and then took both ends of a home-and-home series from the Blackhawks, winning 11-2 and 7-0. Former Crunch goalie Matt Young (723:10, 2.82, .917) was in net for all three of those games and he picked up his second shutout of the season Saturday night. Kyle Moore (13, 8-4-12, 10) had three goals in the first win against the Blackhawks, while Timmins native Aaron Sullivan (18, 4-10-14, 8) had two goals and two assists and leading scorer Steve Harland (18, 13-10-23, 0) had two goals and an assist. Nathaniel McLeod (10, 9-3-12, 10) had two goals and an assist to lead the way during Saturday night’s win. The Voodoos may still be at No. 7 in the rankings, but they are now just three games under .500. It is also worth noting that Young, who some people suggested was not capable of beating good teams, has a better goals against average and saves percentage than either of Cochrane’s current puck stoppers. Transactions: None. The Voodoos lone game this week will see them host the Eskimos at the Powassan Sportsplex Friday night. Could a win vault the Voodoos into No. 6 in the rankings, ahead of the Eskimos? You will have to read next week’s column to find out.
8. (8-5) Mattawa Blackhawks (1-17-0-1) — Just when you think the Blackhawks might be about to turn the corner, they demonstrate why they have been ranked No. 8 for so many weeks. After beating the Eskimos 5-4 back on Oct. 25, the Blackhawks have dropped four-straight games — by a combined score of 41-3! Jimmy Philbin (19, 5-7-12, 0) and Tyler Broderson (19, 6-4-10, 8) had the Blackhawks lone goals this week, as they were beaten 11-2 and 7-0 by the Voodoos. The Blackhawks continue to allow way too many shots against — 55 and 62 in the two games against the Voodoos — and take too many penalties. The Blackhawks are in desperate need of an influx of talent. Transactions: None. The lone game for the Blackhawks this week will come on Saturday night when they host the Eskimos at the Mike Rodden Arena. Getting a second-straight win against the Eskimos will not be easy, of course, even if the visitors spot the Blackhawks a two-goal advantage like they did in their last two home games.
9. (9-9) Blind River Beavers (0-18-0-1) — Blind River fans can take some comfort from the fact that their beloved team lost just one game this past week, but then again they only played the one game — and they have yet to taste victory in 19 tries. Trent Linklater (1, 1-0-1, 0) had the Beavers lone goal of the week, playing in his first game. Zach Mills (508:33, 7.31, .843) got the start in net and made 34 saves. The Beavers biggest problem this season appears to be a lack of players. Blind River dressed just 13 skaters and two goalies for their 5-1 loss to the Nickel Barons — five short of the maximum. There are only 18 players listed on their roster — including three goaltenders, although the roster lists Daniel Potter as both a goalie and a defenceman. I have heard of skaters having to play goal in an emergency, but a goalie who plays defence when he doesn’t have the pads on? Transactions: Luke Galatiuk acquired from Fort Frances Lakers (SIJHL). The Beavers will travel to Sault Ste. Marie for a game against the Thunderbirds Friday night and then return home to take on the Wildcats at the Blind River Community Centre Saturday night.