SUDBURY, Ont. – There is no hotter team going in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League and the sizzling Soo Thunderbirds will look to keep their winning ways going Tuesday night as they host the Soo Eagles in Game 1 of the West Division Final at John Rhodes Community Centre, that features a 7 p.m. start.
Here’s a look at this best-of-seven match-up, which sees the two cross-border rivals renewing acquaintances:
SEASON RECORDS: Winners of 22 consecutive games, dating back early February in the regular season, the Thunderbirds soared to a NOJHL-best record of 38-5-2-3, finishing 11 points clear of the Eagles, who ended up second in the league’s West Division at 33-11-2-1.
Thunderbirds: 38-5-2-3 (1st NOJHL West/1st overall)
Eagles: 33-11-2-1 (2nd NOJHL West/4th overall)
HEAD-TO-HEAD: The two teams tangled 10 times throughout the course of the 2021-22 campaign with the Thunderbirds coming out on top in the season set with a 6-1-1-2 record, including four straight victories.
Four of the contests needed extra time, to figure out a result, as two were decided in overtime, while a couple of others went to a shootout.
The Thunderbirds out scored the Eagles 37-21 in the 10 meetings.
Oct. 8: @ Thunderbirds (4-3 Thunderbirds – OT)
Oct. 17: @ Thunderbirds (3-0 Eagles)
Nov. 7: @ Thunderbirds (7-6 Eagles – SO)
Nov. 20: @ Eagles (Eagles 3-2 – SO)
Dec. 4: @ Eagles (3-0 Thunderbirds)
Dec. 15: @ Eagles (Eagles 2-1 – OT)
Dec. 17: @ Eagles (5-2 Thunderbirds)
Feb. 16: @ Thunderbirds (8-1 Thunderbirds)
March 8: @ Eagles (5-2 Thunderbirds)
March 26: @ Eagles (3-0 Thunderbirds)
NOJHL West Division Final schedule
Soo Thunderbirds @ Soo Eagles
Game 1: Tuesday, April 19 @ Thunderbirds 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 2: Wednesday, April 20 @ Thunderbirds 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 3: Friday, April 22 @ Eagles 7:30 p.m. (Pullar Stadium)
Game 4: Saturday, April 23 @ Eagles 7 p.m. (Pullar Stadium)
Game 5*: Monday, April 25 @ Thunderbirds (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 6*: Wednesday, April 27 @ Eagles 7 p.m. (Pullar Stadium)
Game 7*: Friday, April 29 @ Thunderbirds 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
THE THUNDERBIRDS: They advanced to this series by swiftly disposing of the Blind River Beavers in the minimum four outings.
A methodical approach saw 11 skaters on the club pick-up two, or more, points in the four-game triumph over the Beavers.
Leading the squad offensively was veteran forward Michael Chaffay.
He had a team-high three tallies, and as many assists, for six points to pace the T-Birds.
Fellow forward Dharan Cap also had a strong effort versus Blind River, collecting five points, including a game-winning goal.
Defenceman Kaden Dundas also chipped in with five points from the back end, which puts him one shy of the NOJHL playoff lead among blueliners.
Goaltender Noah Metivier was nearly unbeatable in two starts against the Beavers, giving up just one against for a sparkling goals-against average of 0.50 and an equally stellar save percentage of .969, to go with one shutout.
Fellow team netminder Noah Zeppa was also 2-0 in the series with Blind River, registering an average of 2.00
The highly-touted Thunderbirds were solid from top to bottom during the regular season.
Having not lost a game since back on February 5, in a setback against the Powassan Voodoos, Sault Ste. Marie boasts the NOJHL’s most valuable player, top defenceman and best goaltender, among those on their roster.
Even more impressive is all three of those league-award winners are rookies.
MVP Cooper Foster paced the Thunderbirds offensively with 60 points, in just 38 games, on 18 goals and 42 assists.
That placed him fifth overall in NOJHL offensive numbers while his 27 power play points putting him second among all players in the NOJHL.
The league’s top defenceman, Andrew Gibson, also had a very solid initial campaign.
He led all blueliners in both tallies and points with 21 and 30 respectively while his 30 points collected while the Soo were on a man advantage were the most of any skater in the league.
Thunderbirds’ captain Brock Santa Maria also played at a point-per-game pace for his hometown side with 42 in 41 contests with a career single-season high 13 tallies and 29 helpers.
Boasting that solid tandem between the pipes, Metivier and Zeppa finished one-two respectively in the league in terms of goals-against average at 1.88 and 2.07.
Metivier also paced the pack in save percentage at .922 and tied for the league-lead in shutouts, with a franchise single-season record six.
Zeppa meanwhile was fifth with a .912 save mark and had one shutout.
Overall, the Soo allowed the fewest goals-against in the entire league at 101, 23 less than their nearest competitor.
THE EAGLES: Earning their way to the divisional meeting with the Thunderbirds, the Eagles advanced by clipping the Greater Sudbury Cubs, four games to two in their best-of-seven.
Leading them offensively against the Cubs was their captain, Jack Mortson.
He had seven points to his credit as he tallied three times and helped set-up four others.
The NOJHL’s leading point-getter among defencemen, Colin Handy, sits next on the squad with six points while forwards Alex Freund and Chase Tallaire, along with D-man Trevor Davis, each have five playoff points to date.
Ryan Gilmore has been solid between the pipes, picking up three of the four victories against Greater Sudbury, to go with a crisp 1.94 average and a .955 save mark to sit second among league stoppers in both categories, behind just Metivier of the Thunderbirds. Gilmore also had one shutout vs. the Cubs.
Gabe Rosek had the other triumph in net for the Eagles.
Sault Ste. Marie boasts five skaters who collected 40, or more points, during the course of the regular season.
Leading the Eagles was talented forward Chase Tallaire. He had a team-best 27 tallies, to go along with 29 assists and 56 points, which also paced the Michigan Soo.
Of those 27 goals Tallaire scored, nine proved to be game-winners, which was the most of any player in the entire NOJHL.
Next in offensive production for the team was rookie forward Seth Ferguson.
He picked up 44 points on 22 markers, and as many helpers.
Then the Eagles’ duo of Marc Lafrance and Brian Fiddes chipped in with 43 points each as they both scored 18 times and helped set-up 25 others while Mortson was close behind them with 41, featuring 15 tallies.
A trio of Soo defencemen also paid dividends at both ends of the ice.
Davis notched 10 goals and 28 assists with Dylan Bachalo and Nicholas Castillo supplying 22 and 20 points respectively.
Eagles’ goaltender Rosek had a record of 16-6-1-0 and was eighth in the league in goals-against average at 2.90 and sat fourth-best in save percentage at .912.
Gilmore chipped in with 13 wins, two of which were shutouts, between the pipes in 21 appearances.
UP NEXT: The winner of this series will take on either the Timmins Rock or the Hearst Lumberjacks for the NOJHL championship.
The league title holder will then head to Estevan, Sask., to compete in the Centennial Cup, presented by Tim Hortons, in May.
WHERE TO WATCH: All NOJHL playoff games are streamed live online, and on demand, at HockeyTV.com.
Photo credit: Bob Davies