By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – As the end of the 2015-16 NOJHL regular season draws near, the playoff picture is quickly coming into focus.
All that remains to be determined at this point is the order of finish for the Top 3 teams in the NOJHL’s East Division and which team will claim the final playoff berth in the West Division.
Heading into play this week, the Powassan Voodoos (53, 39-10-3-1, 82) hold a precarious lead over the Cochrane Crunch (51, 38-9-2-2, 80) for top spot on the East Division.
To hold onto top spot, however, the Voodoos will have to defeat the Rayside-Balfour Canadians Saturday night at the Powassan Sportsplex and hope the Crunch gain no more than three points in their final three regular season games — tie the Canadians and hope the Crunch gain no more than two points in that span or lose and hope the Crunch pick up only one more point.
The Crunch host the Iroquois Falls Eskis Wednesday night and then finish up the regular season against the Wildcats in Elliot Lake Friday night and against the Beavers in Blind River Saturday night.
The schedule would seem to favour the Crunch finishing first, but the Eskis have proven in the second half of the season they are no pushovers (especially when playing their Highway 11 rivals), the Wildcats are always up for causing a little grief for the Crunch (formerly the Elliot Lake Bobcats) and the Beavers could be playing for their playoff lives when they face-off against Cochrane.
And lets not forget the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (51, 36-12-2-1, 75) still have a mathematical chance of finishing second in the division.
For that to happen, the Gold Miners would have to defeat the Timmins Rock Thursday night at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex, get past the Eskis Saturday night in Iroquois Falls, beat the Rock in Timmins on Wednesday, March 9, and the Crunch would have to lose all three of their remaining games.
Not likely, but not impossible, either.
The free-falling Rock (51, 28-22-0-1) will finish fourth in the East Division and host a best-of-three Round 1 playoff series against the Eskis (52, 15-37-0-0, 30), who have won two of their past three games against the Rock.
The dates of those games are Saturday, March 12, at the McIntyre Arena; Sunday, March 13, at the Jus Jordan Arena; and, if necessary, Wednesday, March 16, at the McIntyre Arena.
Eskis fans are drooling at the opportunity to have their team bring an early end to the franchise that left Iroquois Falls for the bright lights of Timmins, while Rock fans are praying their squad can end its funk and get back on track in time for the playoffs.
The Rock, who have lost four-straight games and five of their past six, would like to forget about the month of February (3-5-0-0).
The Eskis had an identical record for the month of February, but they were outscored 25-3 in their final two starts.
Round 2 of the playoffs in the East Division will see the first-place finisher host the winner of the Round 1 series between the Rock and the Eskis, while the second-place finisher will host the third-place finisher. Both of those series will be best-of-seven.
Meanwhile, the French River Rapids (50, 2-46-1-1, 6) will find themselves on the outside looking in when the playoffs get underway.
The Rapids doubled their win total for the season when they handed the slumping Rock a 10-6 setback during new coach Dan Tremblay’s debut behind the bench on Feb. 20.
They will be looking to play the role of spoiler during the final four regular-season games.
Over in the West Division, the Soo Thunderbirds (48, 42-5-1-0, 85) have wrapped up first place and and are just one win away from securing top spot in the NOJHL.
With four of their five remaining games in the friendly confines of the Essar Centre or the John Rhodes Community Centre, that should be just a formality.
The Thunderbirds, the second-place Elliot Lake Wildcats (49, 31-11-5-2, 69) and the third-place Rayside-Balfour Canadians (51, 27-23-1-0, 55) will have a bye in Round 1 of the playoffs.
The fourth-place Soo Eagles (50, 21-27-0-2, 44) will host a best-of-three series against either the Espanola Express (50, 11-36-3-0, 25) or the Blind River Beavers (52, 9-39-4-0, 22)
With a three-point lead in the standings and four games remaining on their regular-season schedule, the Express appear poised to snatch the final playoff berth, but three those four games are on the road.
After taking on the Eagles in Sault, Mich., Tuesday night, the Express return home to host the Wildcats Wednesday night, then travel to Sault Ste. Marie to take on the Thunderbirds Sunday afternoon and then to French River to close out the schedule against the Rapids Wednesday, March 9.
The Beavers will travel to French River for a game with the Rapids Friday night and then return home to host the Crunch Saturday night.
Round 2 of the playoffs in the West Division will see the Thunderbirds host the winner of the Round 1 series between the Eagles and the Express or Beavers, while the Wildcats will host the Canadians.
The scoring race in the NOJHL looks like it could come down to the wire, as well.
Crunch sniper Hunter Atchison (50, 47-47-94, 30) has a five-point lead over Brayden Stortz (51, 33-56-89, 32), of the Gold Miners, heading into the final week-and-a-half of the regular season.
Atchison is just three goals away from the magic 50-goal plateau and three helpers away from 50 assists on the season, as well as six points away from the 100-point mark.
With four games remaining, all three of those marks are well within reach for the talented forward who might just need a productive period to hit all three marks.
Rounding out the Top 10 scorers in the NOJHL are Tyler Peters (51, 41-43-84, 44), of the Voodoos, Dustin Cordeiro (51, 38-44-82, 49), of the Crunch, Zachary Kercz (50, 25-54-79, 84), of the Rock, Ryan Erickson (44, 24-52-76, 37), of the Canadians, Logan Fredericks (50, 45-29-74, 51), of the Gold Miners, Jake Staples (53, 27-45-72, 28), of the Voodoos, Cole Hepler (41, 36-35-71, 22), of the Wildcats, and Tristan Salesse (40, 30-41-71, 18), of the Rock.
Following are the leaders in the various NOJHL offensive categories:
Goals — Atchison, Crunch, 47;
Assists — Stortz, Gold Miners, 56;
Power-play goals — Fredericks, Gold Miners, 13;
Shorthanded goals — Atchison, 10;
Game-winning goals — Bain Cunningham, Rock, 8;
Penalty minutes — Joseph Eben, Beavers, 110.
Five NOJHL goaltenders — Tyler Mazzocato (1,188:00, 15-2-0-1, 1, 2.12, .922), of the Gold Miners, Garrett Forrest (2,088:00, 23-10-0-1, 5, 2.33, .934), of the Voodoos, Aaron Mackay (1,589:00, 18-5-0-1, 2, 2.34, .920), of the Wildcats, Mario Cavaliere (1,138:00, 15-3-0-0, 2, 2.85, .912), of the Voodoos, and Victor-Olivier Courchesne (1, 416:00, 17-8-0-0, 2, 2.88, .901), of the Gold Miners — have posted goals against averages of under 3.00 this season.
Coincidentally, all five of them are rookies.
Following are the leaders in the various NOJHL goaltending categories:
Minutes played — Brett Young, Crunch, 2,291;
Save percentage — Forrest, Voodoos, .934;
Shutouts — Forrest, Voodoos, 5;
Wins — Young, Crunch, 25;
Losses — Kevin Labelle, Express, 28;
Ties — Jack Hickey, Eagles, Young, Crunch, 2.