SUDBURY, Ont. – The Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League’s West Division Final begins Friday evening at 7 p.m. at Chelmsford Arena with the top two clubs in that group squaring off in a best-of-seven affair with a berth to the NOJHL final awaiting the winner.
Here’s a look at that West Division series between the Rayside-Balfour Canadians and Soo Thunderbirds.
HOW THEY ARRIVED: Rayside-Balfour finished first in the West Division with a solid 37-14-4-1 overall record.
Their 79 points was three more than the Thunderbirds who finished up going 36-16-3-1.
In their divisional semifinal series, the Canadians defeated the Blind River Beavers in six outings while Sault Ste. Marie stormed back from a 3-1 series deficit to rally past the rival Soo Eagles in seven exciting games.
HEAD-TO-HEAD: The regular season series between the Canadians and Thunderbirds couldn’t have been much closer.
They met a total of eight times with each side earning four victories each.
In the final seven contests, four of them were decided by one goal while the other three were determined by just two tallies.
It was even close in total goals scored with the Thunderbirds having the edge there by a 22-21 count.
Eight different players notched game-winning goals in the meetings.
POINT PRODUCERS: Noah Serre and James White led Rayside-Balfour in scoring vs. the Soo this season with six points apiece as the duo both scored four times and assisted on two others.
Defencemen Jordan Spadafore and Ryan O’Bonsawin were next with five points each.
Topping the Thunderbirds in offensive numbers vs. the Canadians was Nick Smith as he led the way with six goals and four assists for 10 points.
Next on the club was Mark Tassone with seven points while Camaryn Baber and Braden Robbins supplied six each.
Kyle Liinamaa paces Rayside-Balfour in postseason numbers with three goals and four assists followed by Taylor Woolcott and O’Bonsawin, who have four points apiece.
Of the two goals Gabriel Rheault has notched, both have been game-winners.
Rookie Robert Calisti leads the Thunderbirds in playoff scoring with five points in seven games.
He is followed by Kaidan McDonald, Spencer Van Tiem and Smith who have four each.
THE GOALTENDERS: Canadians’ netminder Brayden Lachance went 2-2 in four starts vs. the Thunderbirds in 2017-18 with a 2.50 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage.
He started all six games in the series win vs. Blind River and had a 2.49 average to go with a .945 save mark and one shutout.
Brandon Gordon saw the bulk of the work against RBC this season going 3-4 with a 2.72 GAA and a .910 SV%.
Eric Schuch won his lone start against Rayside-Balfour allowing just two against on 33 shots in a 3-2 home win back on December 8.
Schuch also started the final three games in the match-up with the Eagles and won them all, giving up just three goals against, to help his side take the series. This included his first NOJHL playoff shutout.
He has a 3-1 playoff record with a stingy 1.21 goals-against average and a league-best .957 save percentage.
Gordon is 1-2 in the postseason with a 2.93 GAA and .903 SV%.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Rayside-Balfour saw their power play produce nearly half of the goals they scored against the Soo.
In all they tallied 10 times in 33 opportunities for a solid 30.3% success rate via the man advantage.
The Thunderbirds meanwhile went 5-58 while up a skater against the Canadians converting at just under 9%.
Rayside-Balfour had the lone shorthanded marker between the clubs.
WHAT’S NEXT: The winner of this series will advance to the NOJHL final where they will take on either the Cochrane Crunch or Timmins Rock for the league title.
The NOJHL champion will also move on to the Dudley-Hewitt Cup, May 1-5, in Dryden, Ont.
Wet Division Final
No. 1 Rayside-Balfour Canadians vs. No. 2 Soo Thunderbirds
Game 1: Friday, March 30 @ Rayside-Balfour 7 p.m. (Chelmsford Arena)
Game 2: Saturday, March 31 @ Rayside-Balfour 7 p.m. (Chelmsford Arena)
Game 3: Wednesday, April 4 @ Sault St. Marie 7:30 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 4: Thursday, April 5 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7:30 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 5*: Sunday, April 8 @ Rayside-Balfour 4 p.m. (Chelmsford Arena)
Game 6*: Monday, April 9 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7:30 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game7*: Wednesday, April 11 @ Rayside-Balfour 7 p.m. (Chelmsford Arena)
*- if necessary
All NOJHL playoff games are streamed online at HockeyTV.com.
With files from NOJHL Statistician & Historian David Harrison
Photos courtesy of James Egan’s Sports Photography