By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – With the end of the regular season less than two months away, every game in the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League is starting to take on greater meaning.
That is especially true given that unlike last season, not every team will make the playoffs this year.
Only the Top 5 teams in the NOJHL’s six-team East and West divisions will advance to post-season play.
The Top 3 teams in each of the divisions will enjoy a bye, with the fourth-place teams facing the fifth-place teams in a pair of best-of-three series.
The winner of each of those series will then advance to face the first-place finisher in their divisions, while the second-place and third-place teams will clash, each in best-of-seven series.
The East Division and West Division champions will then be crowned as the winners of the two divisional semifinals in each meet in a best-of-seven series.
Finally, a best-of-seven series will see the West Division champions face off against the East Division champions to determine bragging rights for the 2015-16 campaign.
That series will also determine the NOJHL’s representative at the Dudley Hewitt Cup, being hosted this year by the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, starting on May 3.
If the Gold Miners, who play in the East Division, win the NOJHL championship, then the West Division champions will also advance to the Dudley Hewitt Cup.
Should any of the NOJHL’s other 11 teams win the league championship, then that team and the Gold Miners, as hosts, would advance.
So, how would all this play out if the regular season were to end today?
In the East Division, the first-place Cochrane Crunch (39, 29-6-2-2, 62), the second-place Powassan Voodoos (37, 26-7-3-1, 56) and the third-place Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (37, 26-8-2-1, 55) would all have a bye in Round 1.
The fourth-place Timmins Rock (40, 24-15-0-1, 49) would have home-ice advantage in a best-of-three series with the fifth-place Iroquois Falls Eskis (40, 11-29-0-0, 22) and the sixth-place French River Rapids (37, 1-35-0-1, 3) would be booking tee times.
Needing at least 19 points in their final 15 regular-season games and the Eskis to go pointless the rest of the way, the Rapids may already have those tee times booked.
Likewise, the Eskis are assured they will be visiting the Rock, the Gold Miners, the Voodoos, or maybe even the Crunch when Round 1 begins.
They are 27 points out of fourth place at this point and only have 12 regular-season games left on their schedule.
The Rock, meanwhile, still have some hope of catching one of the three teams ahead of them in the standings and avoiding a series against the Eskis — a team that has beaten them twice already this season.
Over in the West Division, the Soo Thunderbirds (38, 34-3-1-0, 69), with a 22 point lead over the Elliot Lake Wildcats (35, 21-9-4-1, 47) and the Rayside Balfour Canadians (40, 23-16-1-0, 47) have pretty well wrapped up first place.
It looks like those two teams will finish second and third although the order may go down to the wire.
That leaves the fourth-place Soo Eagles (36, 15-20-0-1, 31) to host a Round 1 series against either the Espanola Express (37, 8-28-1-0, 17) or the Blind River Beavers (40, 6-31-3-0, 15).
The race between the Express and the Beavers should produce some added excitement during the final days of the regular season.
• • •
You would think the more successful an NOJHL franchise is on the ice, the more successful it would be at the gate, but does that really hold true?
Following is order of the league’s 12 teams in terms of attendance, with the first number being their season average, the second being their largest crowd of the campaign, the third being their rankings in the overall standings and the fourth the number of points they have accumulated so far:
1. Soo Eagles — 604 (814), 8th, 31 points;
2. Timmins Rock — 559 (1,123), 5th, 49 points;
3. Iroquois Falls Eskis — 446 (824), 9th, 22 points;
4. Elliot Lake Wildcats — 394 (505), 6th, 47 points;
5. Cochrane Crunch — 373 (640), 2nd, 62 points;
6. Kirkland Lake Gold Miners — 306 (447), 4th, 55 points;
7. Powassan Voodoos — 292 (396), 3rd, 56 points;
8. Soo Thunderbirds — 224 (404), 1st, 69 points;
9. French River Rapids — 218 (450), 12th, 3 points;
10. Rayside-Balfour Canadians — 214 (416), 6th, 47 points;
11. Blind River Beavers — 198 (385), 11th, 15 points;
12. Espanola Express — 180 (346), 10th, 17 points;
The league’s top team on the ice only ranks No. 8 in attendance, and the league’s No. 1 team in terms of attendance is No. 8 in on-ice success.
None of the league’s Top 3 teams on the ice can be found any higher than No. 5 in attendance.
The only thing that really seems to make any sense is that the Beavers, who are 11th in attendance are also 11th in on-ice success.
• • •
The latest rankings show there are three NOJHL squads among the CCHL’s Top 20.
Following, in order, are the 20 teams that made this week’s list, with the number after their league being how they were ranked last week — 1. Soo Thunderbirds (NOJHL) (2); 2. Penticton Vees (BCHL) (3); 3. Trenton Golden Hawks (OJHL) (1); 4. Portage Terriers (MJHL) (4); 5. Brooks Bandits (AJHL) (5); 6. Spruce Grove Saints (AJHL) (6); 7. Fort Frances Lakers (SIJHL) (7); 8. Whitecourt Wolverines (AJHL) (9); 9. Chilliwack Chiefs (BCHL) (11); 10. Cochrane Crunch (NOJHL) (8); 11. Lloydminster Bobcats (AJHL) (13); 12. College Francais de Longeueil (QJHL) (12); 13. Battlefords North Stars (SJHL) (15); 14. Steinbach Pistons (MJHL) (16); 15. Powassan Voodoos (NOJHL) (10); 16. Ottawa Jr. ‘A’ Senators (CCHL) (14); 17. Melfort Mustangs (SJHL) (17); 18. Carleton Place Canadians (CCHL) (19); 19. Woodstock Slammers (MHL) (NR); and 20. Cumberland Grads (CCHL) (HM)
The Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (NOJHL); Nanaimo Clippers (BCHL); Weyburn Red Wings (SJHL); Winkler Flyers (MJHL); and Kingston Voyageurs (OJHL) all earned honourable mention.
• • •
Following are the NOJHL league leaders through games played on Sunday:
• Points — Hunter Atchison, Crunch, 76;
• Goals — Hunter Atchison, Crunch, 37;
• Assists — Zachary Kercz, Rock, 44;
• Game-winning goals — Bain Cunningham, Rock, 7;
• Power-play goals — Hunter Atchison, Crunch, 11;
• Shorthanded goals — Hunter Atchison, Crunch, 8;
• Penalty minutes — Joseph Eben, Beavers, 84;
• Goals against average — Nathan Warren, Thunderbirds, 1.67;
• Saves percentage — Garrett Forrest, Voodoos, Nathan Warren, Thunderbirds, .931;
• Shutouts — Nathan Warren, Thunderbirds, 3;
• Wins — Brett Young, Crunch, 18.