They are perched on top as play sets to resume following the holiday recess.
Thirty games into the 2014-2015 campaign, Soo Thunderbirds have the best winning percentage in the nine-team Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
As they prepare to return to action this week following the Christmas break, the Thunderbirds have a record of 23-4-3 and with 49 points, are in a virtual tie for first place with the defending champion Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.
General manager Kevin Cain, who has been the architect of ongoing Thunderbird success since 2010, is more than satisfied with the performance of the Soo squad thus far this season.
“Our older players and our younger guys have meshed well together,” said Cain on a recent edition of the Hockey North Show on ESPN Radio. “We have had some major injuries to deal with, especially on defence, but we have managed to overcome them. All in all, I am happy with the play of our team.”
To be sure, the Thunderbirds have had injury issues on the blueline.
Plum defender Owen Headrick, who has a future commitment to play for the Lake Superior State University Lakers of the Division 1, Western Collegiate Hockey Association, has been out of action since the fourth game of the season and is recovering from shoulder surgery.
Another prime defenceman, Alex Morin, who is an Ontario Hockey League draft pick of the Plymouth Whalers, suffered a concussion earlier this season and has played in just nine games.
But the Thunderbird blueline, led by veterans David Radke and Brandon Grandinetti and rookie Andrew Barbeau — who recently joined the team from the Michigan Warriors of the North American Hockey League — “is one of our strengths,” said Cain.
A pleasant surprise has been the play of rookie goalie Mario Culina, who has a 1997 birth date. Culina has a record of 14-3 to go with a 1.95 goals against average and .930 save percentage.
“We knew Mario was good,” said Cain. “But he has played better than we thought he would. He’s cool and he’s confident and he’s a really-good goalie.”
Up front, the Thunderbirds are getting the expected high-performance production from veteran forwards Nic Tassone, Jaren Bellini, Joey Miller and Anthony Miller, among others.
Tassone has scored 20 goals and Bellini is right behind with 19. They are also 1-2 on the Thunderbirds in points with 46 and 37, respectively.
Rookie Nic Sicoly has also been an impact forward as a 16-year old. Sicoly — who made his OHL debut with the Guelph Storm earlier this season — has 13 goals and 31 points on the season.
“I like where we are at,” Cain said evenly. “I like the togetherness of our players.”
PHOTO: Soo Thunderbirds forward Jaren Bellini, in action this past weekend against the Mattawa Blackhawks. (Photo by Ali Pearson.)