It is setting up to be a wild ride in the West Division of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League. While the East Division of the NOJHL features a torrid race for first place between three teams, the Wild West has close battles going on for the first and second, third and fourth, and fifth and sixth slots with mere points separating the pairings.
• Soo Thunderbirds and Soo Eagles are in a border battle for first and second places.
• Sudbury Cubs and Blind River Beavers are in a see-saw showdown for the third and fourth spots.
• Elliot Lake Red Wings and Espanola Express are in a standoff to decide the fifth and final playoff spot and the right to advance to the preliminary round of this spring’s playoffs against the fourth place finisher.
Fasten the old seat belts, folks, for what appears to be photo finishes for the seeding rungs in the hotly-contested West side of the NOJHL.
The race with the most at stake is for fifth place. Whichever team finishes fifth draws an opening round, best of three playoff with the fourth seed. The sixth place finisher misses the playoffs entirely.
So, right now, with Elliot Lake and Espanola well behind Sudbury and Blind River, not to mention the two Soo teams, it is reasonable to suggest that it will be between the Red Wings and the Express for the fifth playoff spot in the West.
In one area, Espanola has the edge with multiple games in hand on Elliot Lake. But the Red Wings are the older, more experienced team of the two and as of late at least, has been getting better goal-tending than the Express.
Espanola is young and hardworking and a patchwork product of its never-give-up owner, general manager and coach Jason Rapcewicz. But the Express has trouble scoring goals and roster depth is an issue as the Express tries to stay on track for a run at the last playoff spot.
Elliot Lake, on the other hand, has stepped up its game to a slightly higher level of late as managing director Paul Noad oversees a hockey staff that has been able to coax added production from the Red Wings players who have playoffs on their minds.
Who to pick between Elliot Lake and Espanola?
If the Express can match the Red Wings in the goalie department and get an offensive lift from a player or two, it just might be able to overcome its lack of depth and sneak into the playoffs ahead of the Red Wings.
But Elliot Lake seems to have gained a bit of an advantage in the confidence department and the depth of the Red Wings got a big boost at the trade deadline when three serviceable skaters were added via trade with the first place Kam River Fighting Walleye of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League.
Either way, the Red Wings and the Express represent towns that are just over an hour’s drive apart — and a potential arch-rivalry in the making.
Photo: Espanola and Elliot Lake, in action from earlier this season.