Playoff series preview: Espanola Express vs. Soo Eagles

SUDBURY, Ont. – The 2020 Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League playoffs commence tonight at Pullar Stadium in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., as the Soo Eagles host the Espanola Express in Game 1 of their best-of-three match-up at 7 p.m.

During the course of the regular season, the Eagles and Express met a total of eight times with the Michigan Soo taking the season set 5-1-1-1.

Two of the get togethers were decided in overtime while another went to a shootout.

The Eagles also outscored the Express by a 33-25 count in those eight games.

SCORING: Joel Brandinger and Bobby Price led the Soo in offensive production against Espanola with eight points each.

They were followed by Malik Ali’s seven while Dominic Skrelja and George Orfanos registered six apiece.

Skrelja led his club overall offensively with 54 points, featuring a team-high 28 tallies.

Eric Vanderhoff was close behind with 53 points while Brandinger had 42.

Pacing the Express offensively on the year was defenceman Matthias Salem.

He put up 66 points on the year, including eight vs. the Eagles. His total numbers led all NOJHL blueliners.

Next on the squad in scoring was Lukas Lyszyk followed by Zachary Matyasik and Zach Trempner, who combined for 108 points between them, during the course of the season.

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Shane Brancato saw the bulk of the work in net for the Eagles this season going 21-18-1-2 overall with a 2.89 goals-against average along with a .919 save percentage.

In meetings with Espanola, he had a 5-1-0-1 record.

Joel Rainville had close to 2,000 minutes worth of game action for the Express in 2019-20 and had a career single-season high 10 wins, along with one shutout to his credit. One of those victories came against the Soo.

WHAT’S NEXT: The winner of this series will advance to take on the Rayside-Balfour Canadians in a best-of-seven West Division semifinal.

NUMBERS GAME: The Eagles finished fourth in the NOJHL West at 30-21-2-3 while the Express were fifth at 17-34-4-1. … Espanola’s Mattias Salem not only led all league defencemen in scoring with his 66 points, including 50 assists, he also finished fourth overall among all skaters. … The Soo’s Skrelja tied for 14th with his 54 points. … He was also third in the NOJHL in power play markers with 12 while Salem was second in man advantage assists with 23. … Brice French and Hayden Clark led all Eagles D-men in scoring with 33 points each. … The Soo was 17-9-1-1 as the home team while Espanola was 9-16-3-0. … The Eagles had a league-best eight victories in either overtime or shootouts this season. … The Express had six. … The Soo was 20-6-1-0 when scoring first in games while Espanola finished 11-9-1-0. … The Eagles were sixth in the league on the power play at 18.8% while the Express were seventh at 18.1%. … Sault Ste. Marie was second-best on the penalty kill at 88.2% with Espanola ending up 12th at 75.2%. … The Soo was an impressive 19-2-1-0 when leading after two periods while the Express were 12-2-0-0. … The Eagles wrapped up the regular season with five straight victories. … Their last defeat came in a shootout (6-5) at Espanola back on Feb. 14.

ONLINE VIEWING: All NOJHL playoff games can be watched online, via a pay-per-view basis, at

West Division play-in series
No. 4 Soo Eagles vs. No. 5 Espanola Express
Best-of-three series
Game 1: Wednesday, March 4 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (Pullar Stadium)
Game 2: Friday, March 6 @ Espanola 7:30 p.m. (Regional Rec. Complex)
Game 3*: Saturday, March 7 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (Pullar Stadium)
*- if necessary

With files from NOJHL Historian, David Harrison