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‘It was a big statement game’ — Canadians close to division title after beating Blind River

Rayside-Balfour Canadians forward Gio Biondi (17) tumbles over Blind River Beavers goaltender Jackson Hjelle (30) after getting tangled up with Beavers defenceman Bryan Clahassey (26) during NOJHL action at Chelmsford Community Arena in Chelmsford, Ontario on Thursday, February 20, 2020. BEN LEESON/THE SUDBURY STAR/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Mitchell Martin gained a confidence boost from signing with the Kitchener Rangers, then gave the Rayside-Balfour Canadians a scoring boost in a key divisional victory, 8-2 over the Blind River Beavers at Chelmsford Arena on Thursday night.

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Martin had a hat trick and Nick DeGrazia a pair of goals, while Gio Biondi, Oliver Smith and Zacharie Giroux also scored for Rayside, which now needs just one point to clinch first in the NOJHL West.

“Signing definitely improves my confidence,” said Martin, a 17-year-old Sudbury native, who had inked his OHL player agreement with Kitchener only two days earlier. “I didn’t have a great game last Sunday, but it was a big bounce-back game for me and for the team tonight.

“It was a big statement game. We proved that we’re the best team on this side and it felt really good.”

Brett Jacklin and Mathieu Dokis-Dupuis each recorded three assists, as well, but the Canadians’ offensive outburst may not have been possible without an excellent outing by netminder David Bowen, who made a season-high 46 saves to lift his team to 37-10-3-2, seven points ahead of Blind River.

“Bowen had a great game,” Martin said.

Jared Dupuis and Jaren DeBolt scored for Blind River, while Jackson Hjelle and Dominic Boily combined to make 28 saves. League scoring leader Caleb Serre, who may be the only player to top 100 points in northeastern Ontario’s junior loop this season, was held off the score sheet until recording a third-period assist — another key, Martin said, to beating the Beavers.

Blind River did lead briefly in the first, as Dupuis capitalized on a turnover to beat Bowen with 3:50 gone in the period.

Rayside wasn’t long replying, however, as Martin jammed his 22nd of the season past Hjelle at 4:27, then DeGrazia showcased his speed and puck skill to beat one man, then out-wait the Blind River netminder for his 28th of the year at 6:12.

The Canadians held a 13-11 advantage in shots after 20 minutes.

Another tally by Martin, his 23rd, after a well-aimed pass by captain Zach Snow at 5:37, and Biondi’s 12th of the year, on a nice feed from Dokis-Dupuis at 10:20, prompted Blind River coach Kyle Brick to change things up, sending Hjelle to the bench and Dominic Boily into the crease, but that did little to slow the home team’s momentum.

Smith used a tip-in to score his 27th of the year at 10:36, then Giroux received credit for his seventh when a Beavers defender attempted a cross-crease pass that went off the freshman’s shin pads and into Boily’s net at 10:36.

DeGrazia added his 29th of the year at 12:08, using another boost of speed to beat an opponent down the ice and a low shot to give his team a 7-1 lead.

Bowen didn’t have it easy, and his team was even outshot 19-16 in the middle period, but the veteran puck-stopper was in fine form throughout.

DeBolt got one back for the visitors at 4:36 of the third and the Beavers tried to pour it on, outshooting Rayside 18-7 down the stretch, but Bowen stood tall.

Instead it was Martin, showing his deceptive release, who took a feed from Dokis-Dupuis and beat Boily low for his 24th of the season at 16:39.

Martin leads all NOJHL rookies in points, with 57 in 48 games. Sudbury Wolves prospect DeGrazia, two points behind, holds the edge in goals, with 29 in 42 games.

The Canadians have a chance to clinch top spot in their division on Saturday, when they visit the French River Rapids in a 7 p.m. start.

Rayside will host Blind River again next Thursday, again at 7 p.m.

“We need to do exactly what we just did — play our game, take away their threats, get some bigs saves out of the goalies,” Martin said. “I think we’ll be fine.”