It isn’t exactly business as usual, but Steve Lauzon is doing his best to keep it close.
Former head coach of the Rayside-Balfour Canadians, Lauzon had his role changed to that of an assistant after the NOJHL took control of the franchise in the off-season. But when new head coach Dan Cuomo returned to Europe just before the start of the season to address health issues, Lauzon was again tasked with running the bench.
“It was an interesting start, not being 100 per cent sure what the staffing situation is,” said Lauzon, just prior to Tuesday’s practice. “But we’re making progress and taking the steps we need as a group of players, along with myself and the staff who are available and who are assisting, and the boys are responding.”
Monday’s 3-2 overtime win over the Blind River Beavers elevated Rayside’s record to 10-7-1-1, good for a share of first place in the NOJHL West Division.
The locals will head into Thursday’s home game against the Soo Thunderbirds with six wins in their last 10 games, including back-to-back victories at the NOJHL Showcase in Sudbury earlier this month.
“We’re rolling now, starting to get the line combinations,” Lauzon said. “I think the big thing at the beginning was we didn’t even have an exhibition game. It was a couple of practices, a couple of scrimmages, then throw everybody together and let’s mix it up and see where we go.
“I knew we had some real good chemistry and we had some potential when we went into Powassan that first time we were together and we got 57 shots on net. We lost 5-3, but I was like, hmm, this is going to be good, and it has gotten progressively better every week.”
Challenges have included a stretch of 11 games in 13 days and an extended road trip, just before the mid-week showcase, but the Canadians finally had a quick break this past weekend, allowing their various bumps and bruises to heal.
“What I have done is focus on what I can control,” Lauzon said. “I try to eliminate the white noise and to focus on what matters most, and that’s these players. I bear down and I get out the chalkboard and I prepare for practices and I work on our tactics and our game plan, get ready for the games. I try to continue to be a motivator, you know, high energy, let’s attack.”
Rayside’s penalty kill is beginning to approach the numbers of last year’s division-championship squad, which boasted a league-best 88.2 per cent efficiency and scored 12 short-handed goals. The power play has tailed off a bit from an impressive 23.8 per cent in 2017-18, but Lauzon hopes to get closer to that number, too.
“The players have been working their butts off and hopefully, we’re taking the same steps as last year,” Rayside’s coach said.
Veterans such as Evan Krassey, the team’s captain, and Zachary Snow and Brady Maltais, recently named as alternates, have helped make up for the loss of leaders such as Matt Neault.
“They come to every game with their work boots and lunch pails and they’re ready to go,” Lauzon said of his leadership group. “They have been very inspirational.”
Former scoring leader Kyle Liinamaa has been increasing his offensive output, with three multi-point games in his last five, while newcomer Benjamin Hatanaka has been among the team’s most consistent producers.
Additions such as Eric Eschweiler, a speedster with several games of major-junior experience, Giordano Biondi, a local product and Sudbury Wolves prospect, and Nicholas Belisle, a recent acquisition from the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners who has NCAA aspirations, should only help the squad.
“These guys want to play and they want to win,” Lauzon said. “There are guys who are going to graduate this year who will be looking for college, university opportunities, and that’s what I want them to earn. I want them to work hard and I want to be recognized as great hockey players and even better people off the ice.
“There’s no issues in our room and things are jelling. I’m really content, really happy with the way it’s going.”
Thursday’s game at Chelmsford Arena starts at 7 p.m.