It is like the playoffs before the playoffs have even started. Regular-season play in the 12-team Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League carries through until March 1. But the close quarters of the NOJHL make it seem as though the playoffs have already arrived.
In the East Division, the Timmins Rock and Powassan Voodoos appear headed for a photo finish to decide first place, though the always-dangerous, third-seeded Hearst Lumberjacks remain a very serious threat.
Fourth in the East is the Cochrane Crunch, which appears destined to remain where it is as the no. 4 seed.
But then comes a frantic race for the fifth-and-final playoff spot in the East with the French River Rapids and Kirkland Lake Gold Miners in a virtual deadlock.
Back up to the top, whether Timmins finishes first or not, the Rock has the best goals against average in the entire NOJHL with the tandem of Tyler Masternak and Vance Meyer representing a dandy duo.
Not that Powassan or Hearst are slouches between the pipes.
The Voodoos can counter on a given night with Owen Say or Luke Greenwood as their choice of a capable stopper.
And the Lumberjacks have a nifty pair to call on in Nova Scotia product Liam Oxner and rookie Noah Zeppa.
The 17-year old Zeppa, who is the reigning most valuable player from the Great North Midget Hockey League as a member of the Soo Jr. Greyhounds, joined Hearst not that long ago after beginning the season — and then getting injured — in the Greater Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
As for that playoff chase between French River and Kirkland Lake, the Rapids, under first-year head coach Corey Bricknell, are looking to make it to the post season for the first time since they entered the NOJHL as an expansion team in 2015.
Over to the West Division, there are two separate battles being fought with the regular-season finish line looming in the distance.
Blind River Beavers, led by scoring machine Caleb Serre, are skating it out with the Rayside Balfour Canadians for first place.
Blind River also features the 20-year old goal-tending duo of Jackson Hjelle and Dominic Boily. But Rayside Balfour has a higher level of experience to call on in 19-year old goalie David Bowen, who has seen action in both the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League.
In the middle of the West war are the Twin Soo teams, the Ontario-based Thunderbirds and the Eagles, who play out of the Michigan side of the International Bridge.
Mere points separate the border rivals and the race for third place is an in-your-face pace between the Thunderbirds and Eagles as teams who are not known for being fond of one another.
In the fifth spot is the much-improved Espanola Express, which is led by veteran NOJHL bench boss Dave Clancy. Clancy brought his no-nonsense approach to Espanola last season and the hard work, discipline and attention to detail has been paying off for the Express this time around.
Espanola has not made the playoffs since the 2015-2016 season but the Express, piloted by Clancy, and featuring a pair of northern Ontario boys guarding the net in Joel Rainville and Carson Boutin, have a pretty secure lock on the fifth-and-final playoff spot in the West.
Elliot Lake Wildcats are at the bottom of the West standings and also have the worst record in the entire NOJHL. A recent coaching change has done little to improve the fortunes of the Wildcats who, barring an on-ice miracle, will miss the playoffs this season.
For the most part, the NOJHL is a balanced league that carries with it a number of very capable, high-end coaches and general managers.
A veteran GM is Bruno Bragagnolo of the Soo Eagles, who often refers to the balance among teams in the NOJHL.
“I have said it many times,” relayed Bragagnolo, “and that is, there are no easy games in our league. The minute you take an opposing team lightly, it seems they turn around and beat you. It has happened to us, that I know.”
Copy that, said second-year Eagles head coach Doug Laprade, who has been a Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association champion as both a player and assistant coach with the Lake Superior State University Lakers.
“There is not a team that can be taken lightly,” Laprade noted. “Even Elliot Lake, which is at the bottom of our division, has given us some really tough games. I like the overall balance that we as a league have.”