ELLIOT LAKE - Wildcats coach Nathan Hewitt hopes his team’s swing through the NOJHL’s East Division is a little more productive than their first excursion.
That trip in early November started out OK, as the Wildcats edged the Cochrane Crunch 4-3 in overtime, thanks to Alec MacKenzie’s game-winning goal.
The wheels fell off the bus, figuratively, the following night in Timmins when Elliot Lake blew a 3-0 first-period lead en route to 6-5 loss to the Abitibi Eskimos.
Things then went from bad to worse in Kirkland Lake when the division-leading Gold Miners skated to a 5-2 win over the visitors.
Significant changes have occurred to the rosters of all four teams since then, however, and the Wildcats arrive at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane as one of the hottest teams in the NOJHL.
They have won four-straight games and eight of their last nine. In fact, since Nov. 26 the team is sporting a record of 20-4-1-0 and they have pulled to within five points of the Soo Thunderbirds for top spot in the West Division standings.
“I don’t think it really matters where we finish (in the standings),” Hewitt said.
“We would like to have home ice for as many rounds as possible, obviously, because we do play really well at home but I think it is more important that we are playing good hockey down the stretch, on a high or a peak as we head into the playoffs.”
Changes to the Wildcats roster since their last trip to Cochrane include the addition of forwards Aaron Carmichael (41, 9-26-35, 28), picked up in a trade with the Crunch, and Connor Scott (12, 5-9-14, 4), acquired from the Humboldt Bronco (SJHL), as well as defenceman Kyle Salmon (21, 2-5-7, 8), obtained from the Notre Dame Hounds (SJHL).
In addition, Liam Blais (32, 11-7-18, 12) was sick and missed the Wildcats’ first trip through the East Division.
“We are talking about a handful of guys who give us a little bit more experience and a little bit more depth,” Hewitt said.
Incorporating these players into the lineup took a bit of time.
“It took us a while to establish our system and the way we wanted to play,” Hewitt said.
“We tried different things and we had some successes and we had some failures. Now we pretty much have a system we stick to and the guys are really, really good at playing it and it shows.
“We have a good mix of everything. The big guys are obviously hard to play against when they play big and we have got some little guys who can move and make plays.
“We are pretty comfortable with the four lines we have. We are not afraid to get caught on a mismatch, especially on the road where the other team gets its first line out against our so-called fourth line.
“It is not as big a deal now as it was before. It is nice to have that kind of depth. It definitely gives us a lot of confidence.”
The Wildcats have been using three goalies this season and all three have proven to be quite capable.
A.J. Smith (1531:54, 14-8-2, 2, 2.90, .913) has received the lion’s share of starts, but Allan Menary (967:44, 14-3-0, 0, 2.79, .899) and Tristan Hanna (240:00, 4-0-0, 1, 1.00, .948) have also put up solid stats.
Hanna, in fact, was named one of the NOJHL’s Stars of the Week after shutting out Blind River 5-0.
“We lost Smith for a while, he was hurt, and in his absence we really didn’t miss too much,” Hewitt said.
“Menary went in and beat the Soo and Hanna went in against Blind River and shut them out. It is nice to know if your top guy goes down, you have guys who can jump in and fill the spot.
“We don’t have to change our style of play, or anything like that. They are going to get the job done.”
While the Wildcats struggled a bit during their first swing through the East Division, the team has played pretty well on the road this season.
“Our first trip was a bit of a learning curve for a lot of our guys,” Hewitt said.
“They didn’t really know what to expect and the grind that goes along with it. It is not an easy road trip. You have three good teams in three nights.
“We are more aware of that heading in. We have more experience first-hand now and we will be more ready to do what it takes to hopefully come out with a better record than we did the last time.
The Wildcats have taken two out of three games from the Crunch this season — winning 4-3 in Cochrane on Nov. 6, losing 6-4 at home on Dec. 7 and winning 9-1 at home on Jan. 30.
They have not fared so well against against either the Eskimos or the Gold Miners.
The Wildcats have dropped two of three meetings with the Eskimos — losing 5-2 on home ice on Oct. 25 and 6-3 in Timmins on Nov. 7 and winning 6-2 on home ice Jan. 9.
Elliot Lake has split its first three games with the Gold Miners — winning 6-2 on home ice Oct. 3, losing 5-2 in Kirkland Lake on Nov. 8 and tying 2-2 on home ice Jan. 23.
Hewitt does not anticipate altering the Wildcats’ game plan in relation to which of the three teams they will be facing on any given night.
“Maybe our special teams a little bit, but five-on-five we are going to play the way we want to play,” he said.
“We don’t want to worry too much about other teams. We are just going to do what we want to do and let them adjust to us.
“When we play the way we need to play, we have success.
“We just have to stick to the game plan and do the little things right … finish hits, block shots, take care of the defensive zone, forecheck hard, pay attention to the details on faceoffs.
“There is no big thing. It is just a combination of little things that when executed well we have success. When we don’t pay attention to those little details, we don’t.”
You can rest assured, however, that the Wildcats will be well aware every time Crunch forward Cody Gratton, the NOJHL’s leading scorer, steps on the ice Thursday night in Cochrane and Brady Clouthier, the NOJHL’s third-leading scorer, hops over the boards at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls on Saturday night.
“It is hard to match lines on the road, for sure,” Hewitt said.
“Ideally, we would like to get our checking line out against those guys, but it is not always possible.
“It is very important to know when those guys are on the ice. I don’t think we fear them but we do respect them and respect their abilities.”
Heading into the road trip, the Wildcats do not have any significant injury or suspension worries.
“A few guys have colds and are a little bit sick but it hasn’t hit us too hard yet, knock on wood,” Hewitt said.
“I guess it is that time of year.”
Both Thursday’s game at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane and Saturday’s game at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls are scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.