TIMMINS - When the Powassan Voodoos touch down at the Tim Horton Event Centre Friday night and the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night, fans will notice some significant changes from the squad that last made the trek up Highway 11.
For one thing, the Voodoos have overcome a slow start that saw them lose 10 of their first 13 games to climb back to within one win of the magical .500 mark.
“We made a few key moves,” said Voodoos head coach Scott Wray.
“We picked up some quality older guys and they have done a great job of calming the room down and calming the guys down on the bench.
“They have done a great job of coming in and being leaders on the scoresheet, too.
“They are doing a great job for us.”
Heading into the 2014-15 NOJHL campaign, the Voodoos featured one of the youngest rosters in the league.
“I think the younger guys are now realizing that they can play at this level,” Wray said.
“They are getting better day by day and we are going into games knowing that we can win now, instead of just wondering if we can keep it close.
“That is a compliment to the players we have.”
After struggling to score goals early in the season, the Voodoos now feature two strong lines capable of putting the puck in the net on a regular basis.
Steve Harland (26, 22-20-42, 2), Brendan D’Agostino 26, 11-15-26, 6), Kyle Moore (21, 11-12-23, 14), Nathaniel McLeod (18, 14-7 21-9, 12), Jacob Erwin (28, 13- 7-20, 16) and Michael Silveri (20, 6-13-19, 17) have combined to provide Powassan with a more balanced attack.
“Those two top lines can score every night and when you have balanced scoring like that, it helps,” Wray said.
“Instead of one line going, we have two or three right now.”
Even though the Voodoos are more capable of putting the puck in the net, it has not changed the coach’s desire to see his team think defence first.
“After a couple of 10-5 wins and 10-6 losses, I have been telling the guys, ‘you know you are going to score goals’ and we score them in bunches, ‘but it is just a matter of taking care of our own end,’” he said.
“That is the hardest thing to teach a young kid at this age and level who knows that they are very capable offensively. It is a matter of trying to get them to take care of their own end.
“Overall, though, we have had some good success keeping pucks out of our own net if we can stay out of the box. That (taking penalties) is where most of our trouble comes from.
“I couldn’t be any happier with our defensive corps.”
The next challenge for the Voodoos will be getting over the magical .500 mark and staying there.
“As a competitive person, you want to be in every game and you want to win every night, but at the start, as an expansion team and without an expansion draft, we had hurdles that we had to get over,” Wray said.
“Now we are getting where we need to be and we keep telling the guys, ‘don’t be afraid to succeed,’ because they are a very good bunch of kids.
“They are playing in a pretty much veteran league and we have a lot of youth in our lineup.”
Playing road games in Cochrane and Iroquois Falls will provide two more hurdles for the Voodoos to clear.
“Cochrane and Abitibi can score goals in bunches,” Wray said.
“You have to take care of your own end and then good things are going to happen. If you don’t, it’s going to be a long night.”
Facing the run-and-gun attack of the Crunch can be especially challenging given that they have three players in the Top 10 in scoring in the NOJHL, including the league’s top sniper, Cody Gratton (25, 34-21-55, 22).
“You have to try and key on Gratton, that’s for sure,” Wray said.
“Everything runs through Gratton and why wouldn’t it? The kid’s a thoroughbred. He skates like the wind and can put the puck in the net in bunches himself.
“As long as you shut him down, you have a good chance of winning, but I remember the last time we played them here, we lost in overtime and we keyed a line on him and said, shut him down.
“Well they shut him down five on five, but the kid had a power-play goal, he had a short-handed goal and then he had a four-on-four goal in overtime.
“The good part is we shut him down five on five, but the bad part is the kid still scored three goals some how, some way.”
Wray isn’t even convinced that Gratton isn’t dangerous with his butt firmly planted on the Crunch bench.
“Even then he is dangerous. I bet he’s found some phantom assists sitting there,” Wray said, with a chuckle.
Things won’t get any easier Saturday in Iroquois Falls.
“It is a tough building to play in, but we know we can play with them,” Wray said.
“We can play with anybody in the league. We just have to stay out of the box. We just have to play smart.
“They are a structured team and you have to play to their structure to beat them.
“It is always an entertaining game when we play them. I think in the last two games there have been about 30 goals scored.
“As a coach you are pulling your hair out, but as a fan you are loving it. Our boys get up for those games, too. We are going to need some solid goaltending. The last couple of games we have had against them our goaltending hasn’t been up to par and our goalies know that. It is not a shot at our goalies. Everybody has an off night.
“Every time we play them, it seems it is our chance to reach .500 and we lose that game and then we are two games below .500, so I think the boys are going to be driven to get to .500 or over.”
The Voodoos, who dropped a 4-3 decision to the Nickel Barons in Sudbury Wednesday night, have managed to pick up points in nine of their past 11 games.
“As long as we can keep getting points every night, things will look better come February and March,” Wray said.
Game time for both Friday night’s game against the Crunch at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane and Saturday night’s game against the Eskimos at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls is 7:30 p.m.