It’s the beginning of the playoff season in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
All four best-of-seven series get underway this week.
Following are my first-round predictions.
This one should be easy.
First-place Soo Thunderbirds finished 75 points ahead of eighth-place Blind River Beavers during the 2013-2014 regular season.
With 99 points from a regular-season record of 48-5-3, the Thunderbirds are a team without an apparent weakness.
Joel Horodziejczyk is not only the NOJHL’s best goalie but was named the league’s most valuable player and along with centre Gavin Burbach and defenceman Tyler Jones, were chosen to the first all-star team.
But there is more to the Thunderbirds, who are led by first all-star team coach Jordan Smith.
Forward Darcy Haines averaged two points per outing in 33 games after joining the Thunderbirds via trade and is perhaps the most-creative player in the NOJHL.
The blueline brigade is led by Jones and features fellow veterans Shane Snow, David Radke and Jeremy Solomon and NOJHL rookie-of-the-year Owen Headrick.
Blind River comes into the series led by 20-goal scorer Tyson McLeod and Tim Perks, who potted 8 goals, 6 assists, 14 points in just 18 games.
With two capable goalies in junior veteran Dylan Knox and rookie Jessie Morin, the Beavers are solid in that area.
Blind River finished the regular season with a mere 24 points from a record of 10-42-4 but did show improvement over the final 14 games with a mark of 5-8-1.
The Beavers will be without plum rookie defenceman Nick Trecroce for the series. Trecroce is sidelined with a shoulder injury.
PREDICTION: Soo in four.
KIRKLAND LAKE-NORTH BAY
As hockey boss, coach-general manager Marc Lafleur has done an exceptional job in assembling a Kirkland Lake team that finished in second place with 92 points from a record of 43-7-6.
To be sure, Lafleur has taken advantage of whatever resources are available to him to recruit players from outside of Ontario.
Gold Miners top scorers Samuel Wilbur (36 goals, 50 assists, 86 points) and Austin Rust (35 goals, 30 assists, 65 points) are both from Michigan and Steve Babin (24 goals, 56 assists, 80 points) hails from Quebec while goalie Ken Fitzgerald and his 22-5-0 record, 2.06 goals-against-average and .918 save percentage came from British Columbia.
And just how were the Gold Miners able to snag Wilbur in a trade with last-place Blind River?
Ah, the powers of persuasion.
At any rate, this is a Kirkland Lake team which should have little trouble with the Trappers from North Bay in this opening-round playoff series.
North Bay’s best player is 1997-birth year, rookie goalie Evan Cormier and the Trappers as a team seemed to regress as the season went on.
The seventh-place Trappers garnered 36 points from a record of 15-36-6 and ended the regular season with nine straight losses.
PREDICTION: Kirkland Lake in four.
Forget about the fact that third-place Espanola finished 20 points ahead of sixth-place Sudbury because the Rivermen should get all they can handle from the Nickel Barons in this matchup.
Fact is, Espanola overachieved during the regular season and Sudbury underachieved but over the past month, both teams have been fairly equal.
Both teams are laden with quality players and both teams are well-coached with Tom McCarthy in Espanola and Jason Young in Sudbury.
It says here that McCarthy in Espanola and Young in Sudbury, along with Jordan Smith in the Soo and Abitbi’s Paul Gagne, are top coaches in the eight-team NOJHL.
At any rate, expect a tight series.
This one could well result in a Sudbury upset of Espanola.
But we’ll side with home-ice advantage.
PREDICTION: Espanola in seven.
The fourth-place Eskimos put up 64 points — just one back of Espanola — and the fifth-place Bobcats weren’t far behind with 58.
Where to start?
Abitbi is led by point-producing forwards Erik Robichaud, Brady Clouthier and 1997 birth-year rookie Brenden Locke while Elliot Lake counters with 40-goal scorer Brett Wagner and a supporting cast led by Dustin Cordeiro and Aviv Milner.
Defensively, both teams are statistically-similar.
The Eskimos have home-ice advantage and the Bobcats are leaving Elliot Lake for Cochrane after this season.
PREDICTION: Abitibi in six.
PHOTO: Soo Thunderbirds defenceman David Radke. (Photo by Ali Pearson.)