By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
Kenny Fitzgerald, show here making a save against the NOJHL’s leading goal scorer, Brady Clouthier of the Abitibi Eskimos, during a game at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex on Sept. 10, has teamed with rookie Devon Debastos to give the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners first-place goaltending. In three NOJHL games this season, the pair have allowed just one goal — total.
TIMMINS - Every team in the NOJHL has now played at least one game, after the Soo Thunderbirds crushed the Blind River Beavers 12-1 Sunday night.
Based upon that performance and the Thunderbirds strong showing in recent seasons, I have a hunch it will not take them too long to climb up the West Division standings.
They current trail the surprising first-place Sudbury Nickel Barons by six points, but they have four games in hand.
While you can’t assume too much based upon one game, it appears Beavers fans could be in for another long season, if their performance against the Thunderbirds is any indication.
Prior to the start of the regular season, I predicted the order of finish for the nine NOJHL teams — even though at the time I had seen less than half of them in action and exhibition action at that — so now each week in this column I will provide Tom’s Top 9 rankings of the teams in the league.
Of course to remind you of just how far off base my original prognostications were, I will also show how the current rank compares to that preseason list.
Here we go …
1. (up from 3) Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (3-0-0-0) — In three games, the Gold Miners have allowed a total of one goal (scored by Abitibi Eskimos defenceman Ryan Kerr on Sept. 10). Goalies Kenny Fitzgerald (120:00, 0.50, .977) and Devon Debastos (60:00, 0.00, 1.000), a Timmins native, have each posted a shutout and while neither has been peppered with shots they have looked stellar thus far. The Gold Miners have been pretty good at the other end of the ice, as well, scoring 20 goals. Steven Babin (2, 1-7-8, 4) leads the NOJHL in points and assists. Rookies Luc Soares (3, 2-3-5, 4), Ryan Swain (3, 4-1-5, 2), Jérémy Dumont (3, 1-4-5, 2) and Tristen Hazlett (3, 1-4-5, 0) are all off to fine starts, as well. Timmins Tyler Romain (3, 1-3-4, 2) is not too far behind, while all-star blue-liner Jeremy Picard-Fiset (3, 1-3-4, 2) is off to his typically fast start. Few general managers in the NOJHL do as good a job recruiting players as Marc Lafleur, who also coaches the squad. The Gold Miners visit the McIntyre Arena in Timmins for a game against the Abitibi Eskimos Friday night and then return home to host the Mattawa Blackhawks in a rare Saturday night contest at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex.
2. (unchanged) Soo Thunderbirds (1-0-0-0) — The Thunderbirds sport a goaltending tandem — Mario Culina (60:00, 1.00, .947) and Brian Kment — that can rival the Gold Miners duo. Up front, Nicholas Tassone (1, 3-2-5, 0) and Nicholas Sicoly (1, 3-2-5, 0) are both off to red-hot starts. Matt Caruso (1, 2-1-3, 0), Jaren Bellini (1, 0-3-3, 0) and defensive stud Owen Headrick (1, 1-1-2, 2) also had a solid game against the Beavers. The Thunderbirds will host the Powassan Voodoos at the John Rhodes Community Complex Friday night and then the Sudbury Nickel Barons on Saturday night.
3. (up from 6) Sudbury Nickel Barons (4-1-0-0) — The Nickel Barons have the most points (eight) in the NOJHL standings, but they have also played more games than any other team in the league, other than Mattawa. Sudbury certainly deserves the bump in the rankings, if for no other reason than their three victories in a four-games-in-four-games stretch that included three road games. Even with star players such as Khadyn Butterfly (3, 4-2-6, 9), Jacob Bonin (4, 2-4-6, 2) and Cray Roberge (3, 3-0-3, 4) missing for parts of the stretch the Nickel Barons excelled. Christopher Rossi (5, 1-5-6, 0) and Ryan Mooney (5, 0-3-3, 2) look like solid NOJHL players and veterans August Jarecki (4, 1-3-4, 8) and Kyle Fransen (3, 1-3-4, 2) have been steady. Coach Jason Young has the Nickel Barons playing outstanding hockey. The Nickel Barons will host the Blind River Beavers at the McClelland Arena Wednesday night before travelling to Sault Ste. Marie for a meeting with the Thunderbirds Saturday night.
4. (down from 1) Cochrane Crunch (3-1-0-0) — The Crunch split a pair of games this week, dropping a 2-1 decision on home ice and then defeating the Voodoos 5-0 in Powassan. Their drop down the rankings has more to do with how well the three teams that passed them played, than how poorly the Crunch performed. There is no doubt the Crunch can put the puck in the net, a fact attested to by the number of players they have in the Top 10 in scoring — Cody Gratton (4, 3-4-7, 4), Jacob Erwin (4, 3-3-6, 6), Jason Berube (4, 2-3-5, 2), Josh Racek (4, 3-2-5, 6) and Dustin Cordeiro (4, 4-1-5, 6). The Crunch have struggled at times this season with defensive zone coverage, but after giving up just two goals in two games this week they seem to be making progress on that issue. Goalie Matt Young (120:00, 2.50, .933) and Troy Paquette (126:56, 2.84, .906) have provided Cochrane with steady goaltending. The Crunch will host the Mattawa Blackhawks at the Tim Horton Event Centre Friday night, then travel to Iroquois Falls for their first meeting with the “Pesky Eskis” Saturday night.
5. (down from 4) Abitibi Eskimos (1-1-0-1) — A second-period melt down in Kirkland Lake Wednesday night and a loss in which they twice had two-goal leads Saturday night drops the Eskimos out of fourth place. Brady Clouthier (3, 5-1-6, 2) has picked up right where he left off last season, but unfortunately no other Eskimo has more than one goal this season. Former Espanola Rivermen forward Ryan Attwood (3, 1-3-4 , 2) has been as good as advertised, while defencemen Ryan Kerr (3, 1-2-3, 4) and Jamey Lauzon (3, 1-2-3, 10) have helped out. Rookie forward Kezmin Madden (3, 1-2-3, 0) looks like he belongs. Brenden Locke (1, 1-0-1, 5) has only played one game, thanks to a two-game suspension. Hopefully, he has learned that fighting is not his role on this squad. Losing a high-scoring forward to a broken hand certainly would have been a much more difficult consequence for Eskimos fans to have to endure, than his two-game suspension. Chet Tooker (186:54, 3.53, .913) has played every minute in goal for the Eskimos and has been steady. The Eskimos host the Gold Miners at the McIntyre Arena Friday night and then the Crunch at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night.
6. (up from 8) Elliot Lake Wildcats (1-1-0-0) — The Wildcats are averaging five goals a game, so it appears they can put the puck in the net. Alec MacKenzie (2, 2-4-6, 4), Cole Hepler (2, 2-2-4, 2) and Shane Woolsey (2, 2-2-4, 0) have paced the Elliot Lake attack in the early going. A.J. Smith (120:00, 4.50, .873) has played every minute in net for the Wildcats this season and he fared much better in his second outing than he did in the first. Elliot Lake will host the Beavers on Friday night at the Centennial Arena and then the Voodoos on Sunday.
7. (unchanged) Powassan Voodoos (1-2-0-1) — Given his statistics, it may sound strange to suggest the play of goalie Ben Auger (179:03, 5.36, .882) has been the strength of the Voodoos early on, but the young puck stopper has been a rock for the expansion franchise. Newcomer Jack Ondrovic (60:00, 2.00, .960) was stellar in leading the Voodoos to their first win Monday night, 6-2 over the Mattawa Blackhawks. Up front, Nathaniel McLeod (4, 4-0-4, 4), Aaron Dart (4, 0-3-3, 4), Jeremy St. Pierre (3, 1-3-4, 2), Steve Harland (4, 1-2-3, 0) and Kyle Moore (2, 2-1-3, 2) have been solid. The Voodoos need to land some more veterans, however, to give the North Bay Trappers (GNML) grads some support. Fans should expect the Powassan lineup to be in a state of flux until their parent club, the North Bay Battalion, of the OHL, finalize their roster. Then it will likely take coach Scott Wray a couple of weeks to get everybody on the same page. The Voodoos play road games in Sault Ste. Marie Friday night, Blind River Saturday night and Elliot Lake Sunday night.
8. (up from 9) Blind River Beavers (0-1-0-0) — The Beavers can’t be as bad as they looked against the Thunderbirds, can they? Unfortunately, for Blind River fans that remains to be seen. Chris Corgan (1, 1-0-1, 0) was the only Beaver to find the back of the net against the powerhouse Soo squad. Jeremy Joyce (1, 0-1-1, 0) and Chris Zajak (1, 0-1-1, 2) were the only other Blind River players to register points Sunday night. Neither of the Beavers goalies, Nick Kazmierczak (31:09, 9.63, .773), or Zach Mills (28:51, 14.56,.774) excelled against the Thunderbirds. The Beavers will travel to Sudbury on Wednesday night, Elliot Lake on Friday night and then return home to the Blind River Community Centre to take on the Voodoos Saturday night.
9. (down from 5) Mattawa Blackhawks (0-5-0-0) — The Blackhawks have come close to getting a win a couple of times, but need to play more consistently and disciplined if they hope to find the victory column. Former Gold Miner Alex Hulford (4, 4-0-4, 6) has provided an offensive spark for the Blackhawks. Kyle Baril (3, 1-3-4, 9) has also been solid up front for the Mattawa. The Blackhawks goals for and against record might actually have been a lot worse, if not for the strong play of Joe Sheppard (165:50, 7.24, .841) and Josh Horner (134:10, 5.81, .879). Mattawa will visit Cochrane Friday night and then Kirkland Lake Saturday night.