Separated by two miles of International Bridge and about 90 miles of highway, a pair of upstart teams will face off for West Division bragging rights within the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
No. 4 seed Soo Eagles, fresh from a startling four-game sweep of two-time defending NOJHL champion Soo Thunderbirds, head to Blind River to face the no. 2 seed Beavers for Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven West Division finals.
The opening two games are slated for Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday evening at 6:30 at Blind River Memorial Community Centre.
Blind River recently won its first playoff series since 2009 — and only the second in a Beavers NOJHL franchise history that began in 1999 — when it out-lasted Rayside-Balfour Canadians in a seven-game thriller.
Counting a Game 3 win over Elliot Lake Wildcats in the preliminary round, the Eagles have won five straight playoff contests as a team that is responding to the preparation plans of veteran coaches Jim Capy and Bruno Bragagnolo.
The Beavers are no slouch in the coaching department either with NOJHL coach-of-the-year Kyle Brick — a former assistant with the aforementioned Thunderbirds — masterfully running the bench.
In the goal-tending department, Kade Phipps has been between the pipes for all six Eagles playoff wins to date. On the flip side, Aidan Doak began the playoffs with a win for the Beavers and Myles Hektor was in net when Blind River won Game 7 over Rayside-Balfour.
Offensively, Blind River boasts one of the most-dangerous scorers in the entire NOJHL in Yianni Liarakos, who had six goals in the seven-game series against Rayside-Balfour. Other top point-getters for the Beavers include Mark Bastianello, Zak Lambrecht, Max Khull and defenseman Cole Peck.
Players of high note on the Eagles are Jake Saxton, Roman Gaudet, Chris Murphy, Brad Hofelich, Jake Palmerio and point-per-game playoff defenseman Nick Trecroce. Ironically, Trecroce began his NOJHL playing career for Blind River a few seasons back.
Both teams are well-supported at the gate and have fans who are expected to travel back and forth between the Michigan Soo and Blind River for what should be a thriller of a series.
MY GUESS: Beavers win the series in a seventh-and-deciding game before 600-plus fans at the mad house in Milltown.