SUDBURY, Ont. – There is no hotter team in all of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, than the Soo Thunderbirds, who will welcome the Blind River Beavers to John Rhodes Community Centre tonight for Game 1 of their best-of-seven West Division semifinal at 7 p.m.
Winners of 18 consecutive contests to conclude regular season play, the No. 1 seeded Thunderbirds will be meeting a club that will be skating in their fourth outing in as many nights.
Blind River advanced to meet the Soo after winning a hard-fought best-of-three affair with the Elliot Lake Red Wings, that went the distance, including a 2-1 triumph in the decider Wednesday evening at home.
Here’s a look at the best-of-seven match-up between the Thunderbirds and Beavers:
Thunderbirds: 38-5-2-3 (1st NOJHL West/1st overall)
Beavers: 25-17-6-0 (4th NOJHL West/7th overall)
HEAD-TO-HEAD: The Thunderbirds and Beavers met eight times during the 2021-22 campaign with Sault Ste. Marie sporting a 5-2-0-1 record to take the season set.
Two of the meetings were determined in overtime while a third needed a shootout to decide a winner.
In all, the Soo outscored Blind River 31-21 along the way.
Sept. 18: @ Blind River (7-0 Thunderbirds)
Sept. 24: @ Soo (2-1 Beavers)
Oct. 3: @ Blind River (5-4 Beavers – SO)
Nov. 6: @ Blind River (5-4 Thunderbirds – OT)
Nov. 12: @ Soo (5-0 Beavers)
Feb. 9: @ Soo (4-1 Thunderbirds)
March 2: @ Soo (6-2 Thunderbirds)
March 20: @ Blind River (4-3 Thunderbirds – OT)
NOJHL West Division semifinal
Soo Thunderbirds vs. Blind River Beavers
Game 1: Thursday, April 7 @ Soo 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 2: Saturday, April 9 @ Soo 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 3: Sunday, April 10 @ Blind River 4 p.m. (Blind River Community Centre)
Game 4: Monday, April 11 @ Blind River 7 p.m. (Blind River Community Centre)
Game 5*: Wednesday, April 13 @ Soo 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 6*: Thursday, April 14 @ Blind River 7 p.m. (Blind River Community Centre)
Game 7*: Saturday, April 16 @ Soo 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
THE THUNDERBIRDS: The highly-touted Thunderbirds are solid from top to bottom.
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 a solid tandem between the pipes, Noah Metivier and Noah 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 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 rival.
THE BEAVERS: The busy Beavers also played Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to earn their way to the meeting with the Thunderbirds after slipping past Elliot Lake in their play-in series.
They received plenty of contributions in their triumph over the Red Wings with six skaters providing three, or more points.
Leading that group is Caleb Minns, who collected four points versus Elliot Lake, including a pair of goals.
Meanwhile, Kyle Caron, James Ingram, Sam McCue, Ethan Pegg and Andrew Tsotsos all chipped in with three points apiece for the Beavers.
Goalkeepers Patrick Boivin and Gavin Disano each had a win in series vs. the Red Wings.
In the regular season, Blind River was led offensively by forwards Minns and Evan Fraccaro, along with defenceman Pegg.
They also boasted nine different skaters who collected 20, or more, points during the course of the campaign.
Minns led the squad with 47 points, including a team-high 20 tallies.
Pegg was next with 40 points, on 10 goals and 30 assists, which placed him fourth overall in league offensive production among blueliners.
Fraccaro meanwhile, a rookie up front, sat third on the club in scoring with 31 points.
Meguire Naughton and Hayden Webster shared the team-lead in game-winning markers with four apiece.
Goaltender Boivin had 14 wins in league play this season while Disano had 10.
UP NEXT: The winner of this match-up will advance to take on either the Soo Eagles or Greater Sudbury Cubs in the best-of-seven West Division Final.
WHERE TO WATCH: All NOJHL playoff games can be viewed online via HockeyTV.com.
Photo credit: Helene Rancourt