SUDBURY, Ont. – John Rhodes Community Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., will be the site Saturday at 7 p.m. as the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League championship series between the Soo Thunderbirds and Hearst Lumberjacks begins as the two sides commence their quest for the Copeland Cup – McNamara Trophy.
This marks the first-ever playoff meeting between the Thunderbirds and Lumberjacks, who both finished atop their respective divisions in the league.
HOW THEY ARRIVED: For the Soo, who claimed the NOJHL’s regular season title with a league-best 44-11-0-1 overall record, they punched their ticket to the final after taking the West Division playoff crown.
They won their first two playoff match-ups with identical 4-2 series triumphs over both the Blind River Beavers and the Rayside-Balfour Canadians.
As for Hearst, they finished with the second-best mark in the league during the campaign as they went 33-16-6-1 overall to claim their initial East Division title with 73 points.
The Lumberjacks enter the final on an impressive run, having won seven consecutive contests.
After falling behind three games to one to the Timmins Rock, Hearst reeled off three straight triumphs to win that best-of-seven, that went the distance.
They then went on to sweep the Powassan Voodoos to claim their initial East postseason title.
HEAD-TO-HEAD: The two teams met just twice during the course of the campaign, with each club coming away with a victory apiece on home ice.
The Soo won 4-3 at John Rhodes back on Oct. 27 with four different skaters scoring for the Thunderbirds, including Nolan Ford’s game-winner nine minutes into the third period.
All three Hearst markers were provided via the power play in that one.
Picking up the win goal for the Thunderbirds was William Anderson as he made 20 stops in the triumph while Tomi Gagnon faced 21 attempts in defeat.
Countering, it was the Lumberjacks who prevailed in their second meeting just five nights later as NOJHL MVP Nicholas Tallarico was stellar in a 43-save shutout decision over the Soo at Claude Larose Arena.
That contest was scoreless until 3:25 of the third when Bradley Golant notched the eventual difference maker during a man advantage opportunity. He also rounded out the scoring with a late empty netter.
Anderson was also between the pipes for the Thunderbirds in that match-up, allowing two on 21 shots.
The trio of Nick Smith, Noah Boman and Matthew Bazarin paced the Soo offensively vs. Hearst with a goal and an assist each.
As for Hearst, it was Golant, Jake Desando and Cameron Clark that led their side vs. Sault Ste. Marie as they each picked up three points.
SCORING: Lucas Theriault continues his solid season as he leads all playoff performers in scoring with 17 points on seven goals and 10 assists.
Right behind him is Max Johnson of Hearst with 16 points, including a league-best 10 tallies.
Noah Boman of the Soo sits tied for fourth with 15 points while the Lumberjacks Golant is close by with 16, as his 10 helpers knots him for the NOJHL postseason lead in that department.
Spencer Van Tiem of the Thunderbirds is also in the Top 10 in playoff scoring as he shares seventh overall with 13 points to his credit, entering the finals.
Theriault and Boman tied for the league-lead in points during the regular season with 76 apiece. Theriault was tops in tallies with 40 and game-winning goals with nine while Boman led in assists with 52.
Of note, of the nine goals Spencer Van Tiem had on the year, five of them were game-winners, which tied him for fourth in the NOJHL in that category.
During the regular season Jake Desando (30g-45a-75pts) and Max Griffioen (29g-43-a-72pts) finished third and fourth respectively in NOJHL scoring.
Alec Johnson was fourth in league D-man scoring with 43 points as he scored 12 times and helped set-up 31 more.
GOALTENDERS: Both Colin Ahern of Sault Ste. Marie and Nicholas Tallarico share the league lead in playoff wins with eight apiece.
Ahern sports a 2.47 goals-against average in the playoffs while Tallarico is not far off at 2.51.
They are also close in save percentage with Tallarico sporting a .912 mark and Ahern is at .910.
The Soo duo of Ahern and Anderson won the NOJHL’s Team Goaltending Award for allowing the fewest goals-against during the regular season at 145 and combined to register 44 wins overall.
Tallarico saw the bulk of the work during the regular season for the Lumberjacks as he produced a 24-10-5-1 record along with three shutouts.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Hearst went three for 11 vs. the Soo on the power play in their two get togethers while the Thunderbirds went two for 11 against the Lumberjacks.
So far in the playoffs Sault Ste. Marie boasts a 21.2% success rate on the man advantage while Hearst sits at 17.9%.
On the penalty kill, the Soo boasts an 82.7% success rate in the postseason while the Lumberjacks sit at 75.6%
TEAM PLAYOFF NOTES: Hearst leads the league in overall playoff attendance to date at 5,822, averaging 970 fans per game at Claude Larose Arena. … Lucas Theriault leads the NOJHL in power play assists in the playoffs with seven. … He is also tied with Noah Boman for top spot in postseason points, via the man advantage, with eight. … Brendan Miller of the Soo leads all skaters in game-winning goals with three. … Nicholas Tallarico has played the most minutes in net at 718 while Colin Ahern is next at 704. … Troy Daniels sits second in scoring among defencemen as the Hearst blueliner has eight points. … Steven Bellini of the Thunderbirds is knotted for fifth with a half dozen points. … The Soo is four and two at home, and on the road, so far in the playoffs. … As for Hearst, they are 5-1 at home and 3-2 as the visitor. … The Lumberjacks are 2-2 in overtime while the Thunderbirds are 0-1. … The Soo is 7-2 when scoring first in the postseason and Hearst is 4-2. … The Thunderbirds are 5-1 when leading after one period of play and a perfect 7-0 when up after 40 minutes. … As for the Lumberjacks, they boast a 4-2 mark when up through one and are unbeaten at 6-0 when leading heading to the second intermission. … Nolan Ford of the Soo has a modest three-game assist streak in tact while Max Griffioen has points in four in a row. … With seven consecutive victories to their credit, Hearst sports the longest in the NOJHL since the Powassan Voodoos reeled off 12 straight wins back in 2017 en route to a league championship. … The Thunderbirds also had seven straight triumphs in 2016 as they did in 2015. … Back in 2014 and 2013, the Soo racked up nine wins in succession in the playoffs.
WHAT’S NEXT: The NOJHL winner will advance to the Dudley-Hewitt Cup Central Canadian Jr. A Championship, April 30 – May 4, in Cochrane.
Joining the league title holder will be fellow NOJHL-side, the host Cochrane Crunch along with the champions of both the Ontario Junior Hockey League and the Superior International Junior Hockey League.
The OJHL Buckland Cup final features the defending Dudley-Hewitt Cup-winning Wellington Dukes taking on the Oakville Blades.
As for the SIJHL, the Thunder Bay North Stars and Red Lake Miners will vie for the Bill Salonen Cup.
Awaiting the DHC champion will be a berth in the Canadian National Jr. A event, May 11-19, in Brooks, Alta.
All contests in the NOJHL final will be streamed live online at HockeyTV.com.
Soo Thunderbirds vs. Hearst Lumberjacks
Game 1: Saturday, April 13 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 2: Sunday, April 14 @ Sault Ste. Marie 5 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 3: Wednesday, April 17 @ Hearst 7 p.m. (Claude Larose Arena)
Game 4: Thursday, April 18 @ Hearst 7 p.m. (Claude Larose Arena)
Game 5*: Saturday, April 20 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 6*: Monday, April 22 @ Hearst 7 p.m. (Claude Larose Arena)
Game 7*: Wednesday, April 24 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
With files from NOJHL Statistician/Historian David Harrison