The holiday season in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League is just about over. And this veteran scribe is among those looking forward to the resumption of play this week.
There is a lot to be settled in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Such as the trade deadline and roster-freeze dates — and which teams finish where.
EAST DIVISION: Powassan Voodoos, Timmins Rock and the reigning NOJHL champion Hearst Lumberjacks are in a furious fight for first place.
Powassan (28-6-0) has 56 points followed by Timmins (26-5-2) with 54 and Hearst (26-11-1) with 53. The Lumberjacks, though, have played five more games than the Rock and four more than the Voodoos.
The general consensus is that, as of now, Timmins has the best all-around team in the East Division.
Certainly, the Rock with Corey Beer at the helm, and the Lumberjacks, with Marc Lafleur calling the shots, are very good teams that will not be out-coached.
In the middle of the East are coach Ryan Leonard and the Cochrane Crunch, with 32 points from a record of 14-17-4.
Cochrane has a franchise history of finishing above the .500 mark and while the Crunch is below level at this advanced stage of the season, Leonard has shown an ability over the years to get a lot out of what he has got.
Then comes a close chase for the fifth and final playoff spot between the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (9-21-5 for 23 points) and the French River Rapids (8-22-5 for 21 points.)
French River has yet to make the playoffs since joining the NOJHL in 2015.
But as both French River and Kirkland Lake have played 35 games, the remainder of the schedule favours the Rapids as far as home ice goes.
Of its remaining 21 games, French River will play 14 at home. Meanwhile, of its remaining 21 games, Kirkland Lake will play only eight of them on home ice.
Here’s looking to coach Corey Bricknell to lead the Rapids into the playoffs for the first time ever.
WEST DIVISION: Fasten your NOJHL seat-belts.
The small-market Blind River Beavers, superbly coached by Kyle Brick, are in first place by the narrowest of margins over the second seeded Rayside Balfour Canadians.
Blind River has 56 points from a record of 26-7-4. Nipping at the Beavers’ tails is Rayside Balfour with 52 points from a record of 24-10-4 with Blind River holding a game in hand.
The Twin Soo teams are next, locked in a showdown for third and fourth spots.
Soo Thunderbirds have 43 points from a record of 19-13-5 and Soo Eagles have 43 points as well, from a mark of 20-15-3. The Thunderbirds hold a game in hand on the Eagles.
From a home-ice advantage standpoint, the Eagles will play 12 of their remaining 18 regular-season games in the cozy confines of Pullar Stadium. And of further advantage for Eagles, of their six remaining away games, two of them are a mere two miles away, across the International Bridge, against the Soo Thunderbirds.
Ah, the Thunderbirds.
They are well-coached by the very-intense John Parco. But the Thunderbirds have played more than one home game this season to a crowd of less than 100 fans and one has to wonder about the state of the franchise and its current operator.
Up next, coach Dave Clancy and his ever-improving Espanola Express have 23 points from a record of 10-21-3. The Express has a secure hold on the fifth-and-final playoff spot in the West, well ahead of the last-place Elliot Lake Wildcats.
Elliot Lake has 11 points from a league-worst record of 5-30-1. And thus far, a December coaching change has showed little in the positive results department for the Wildcats.
PHOTO: Recently-acquired goalie Noah Zeppa and the Hearst Lumberjacks in action against the rival Timmins Rock.