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Canadians buy in to beat Beavers

No matter the logo on his chest, Gio Biondi is determined to display the speed, strength and skill he hopes will lead to a productive hockey career.

Ben Leeson      
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No matter the logo on his chest, Gio Biondi is determined to display the speed, strength and skill he hopes will lead to a productive hockey career.

Having split the season between the Rayside-Balfour Canadians of the NOJHL and the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL, with a stop earlier this week at the CJHL Prospects Game in Hamilton, Biondi was back in Rayside and back to doing what he does best on Thursday night, scoring the short-handed icebreaker in a 3-0 win over the Blind River Beavers at Chelmsford Arena.

Zach Snow struck on a power play, then Brett Jacklin added an empty-netter in his debut in a Canadians jersey, while David Bowen stopped all 38 shots he faced to give Rayside a fifth straight win over Blind River, its rival in the NOJHL West Division.

“I thought it was a great team effort, for sure,” said Biondi, a 17-year-old Sudbury native. “Everyone knew their role and played their role. We had nine forwards tonight and we got a couple of 10-minutes to put us down to eight, but everyone bought in.”

Rayside improved to 27-10-3-1, creeping to within two points of Blind River, owner of a 28-10-1-3 record and first place in the West.

Dominic Boily had a solid outing in the Beavers’ crease, with 33 saves, but his normally high-scoring squad was stymied at the other end, coming up empty on six power plays.

“The boys were definitely pumped up, everyone was dialled in before the game,” Biondi said. “Everyone was right into it, getting up and ready for tonight, and it was a lot of fun.”

Shots were plentiful enough in the first period, with Blind River holding 16-13 edge, but high-end scoring opportunities were in short supply, despite power plays for both sides.

Things picked up in the second stanza, however, and Bowen had to make a pair of big saves, just inside the five-minute mark, on point-blank chances from the slot.

Bowen’s teammates appeared to have repaid him with a power-play goal, with a little more than half the period gone, but officials waved it off as the Blind River net had come loose from its moorings.

Rayside-Balfour Canadians goaltender David Bowen (34) turns aside a shot while Blind River Beavers forward Caleb Serre (18) looks for a rebound during first-period NOJHL action at Chelmsford Arena in Chelmsford, Ontario on Thursday, January 16, 2019. BEN LEESON/THE SUDBURY STAR/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Instead, it was during a penalty kill that the locals got on the board, when Biondi chipped a puck away from the Beavers’ point man, put on a burst of speed and beat Boily with a quick shot for his fifth goal of the season at 19:09.

It has been a big week for Biondi, the Wolves’ 14th-round draft pick in 2018 and a signee out of training camp last fall. He took part in the CJHL Prospects Game in Hamilton, alongside fellow Greater Sudbury natives Chase Lammi and Hunter Brazier, in a contest that features the top NHL draft-eligible talent from junior A leagues across country.

Skating for Team East, Biondi and his mates dropped a competitive affair, 6-4, to Team West.

“It was definitely a lot of fun,” Biondi said. “It was nice playing with guys in different leagues and definitely, Sudbury and Rayside both helped me develop for that. It was a great opportunity to showcase my skill against all the top players in the West and the East, so it was a great experience and I made a lot of great friendships, most importantly, and it was definitely something I’ll remember forever.”

Blind River outshot Rayside 13-12 in the second frame Thursday night, holding a 29-25 advantage after 40 minutes.

Rayside’s Matthew Belanger, then Nick DeGrazia came close to making it a two-goal game on another man advantage in the third, then Jacklin, another Nickel City product acquired only a week earlier, toe-dragged his way into the slot for a chance at even strength, but couldn’t beat Boily.

Rayside-Balfour Canadians defenceman Greg Arnburg (27) shouts to a teammate while defending against Blind River Beavers forward Noah Minns (25) during first-period NOJHL action at Chelmsford Arena in Chelmsford, Ontario on Thursday, January 16, 2019. BEN LEESON/THE SUDBURY STAR/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Bowen was sharp during a two-man advantage for the Beavers, and looked good again with the visitors pressing late, capping his first shutout since returning from a stint in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

“Bowen played unreal in net,” Biondi said. “He made a couple of big saves to keep us in it.”

Snow added his sixth of the season, firing a shot that deflected high over Boily and tumbled over the goal line at 17:13. Benjamin Hatanaka and Mitchell Martin had the assists.

Jacklin put things on ice with an empty-netter at 18:48. DeGrazia assisted, drawing even with Mathieu Dokis-Dupuis for the team lead in points, with 37.

Having added the likes of Jacklin, Bowen and veteran defenceman Greg Arnburg prior to last week’s trade deadline, the Canadians are eyeing a run at the NOJHL championship, which would be followed by a berth in the Dudley Hewitt Cup.

Meanwhile, the OHL’s Wolves are looking for a deep run of their own. They added forwards Matej Pekar and Brad Chenier, a former Canadian, and also grabbed the major-junior rights to Jacklin in trades last week.

Whether in Rayside or Sudbury, Biondi believes he can count on an exciting finish to the season.

“My goals are definitely to improve, because there’s room for improvement everywhere,” he said. “Using my speed, using my strength, that’s what everyone wants to see, and no matter where I am, I just have to keep going. It’s a grind, for sure, but Rayside’s a great place to play and Sudbury’s a great place to play.”

The Canadians visit the Elliot Lake Wildcats on Friday, with puck drop set for 7:30 p.m.

Twitter: @ben_leeson