SUDBURY, Ont. – The Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League West Division Final between the Soo Thunderbirds and Rayside-Balfour Canadians begins Saturday at 7 p.m. at John Rhodes Community Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
Here’s a look at how the two sides shape up heading into this best-of-seven affair.
HOW THEY ARRIVED: The league-leading Thunderbirds finished first overall in the NOJHL standings with 89 points on a 44-11-0-1 record.
Sault Ste. Marie advanced to the West Final after defeating the Blind River Beavers is six hard-fought games.
As for Rayside-Balfour, they ended up second in the division posting a 31-20-2-3 mark, good enough for 69 points.
They then took on the Soo Eagles in the West Semifinals and went on to take that best-of-seven match-up in six outings.
HEAD-TO-HEAD: During the course of the season, the Thunderbirds and Canadians met eight times, with the Soo winning five of those.
Five of the eight contests however were decided by just one goal, including one in overtime and two via the shootout, while another two outings saw a late empty netter scored.
Each of the games saw a different skater credited with the game-winning goal.
In all, the Soo outscored RBC 23-18 in their season set.
SCORING: Pacing the Thunderbirds offensively on the year vs. Rayside-Balfour was Lucas Theriault, who collected a dozen points, on four goals and eight assists.
Next was Noah Boman with 10 as he too tallied four times while helping set-up six others.
Matthew Bazarin and defenceman Steven Bellini were next with six points each.
As for the Canadians, it was the trio of Brady Maltais, Jett Leishman and Kyle Liinamaa that led their squad against the Soo as they each picked up six points. Leishman also had a team-high four goals.
Theriault and Boman tied for the league-lead in points during the regular season with 76 apiece. Theriault was tops in tallies with 40 and game-winning goals with nine while Boman led in assists with 52.
Of note, of the nine goals Spencer Van Tiem had on the year, five of them were game-winners, which tied him for fourth in the NOJHL in that category.
Kyle Liinamaa led Rayside-Balfour in scoring for a third consecutive season, while tying Evan Krassey in 2017-18 in points. He has played at close to a point-per-game pace for the Canadians in his NOJHL career with 155 in 159 regular season outings.
So far in the playoffs, Spencer Van Tiem led the Thunderbirds in the series against Blind River with seven points with Nick Smith and Boman collecting six apiece.
Benjamin Hatanaka had a club-best eight points vs. the Eagles while team captain Evan Krassey picked up seven, including five goals for RBC.
GOALTENDERS: Colin Ahern had a 3-2 record in five starts against the Canadians on the season with a 3.18 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.
William Anderson meanwhile was 2-1-1 while sporting a 1.27 average and a save mark of .961 and one shutout.
The Soo duo won the NOJHL’s Team Goaltending Award for allowing the fewest goals against during the regular season at 145 and combined to register 44 wins overall.
Between the pipes for the Canadians, David Bowen had a 2-2-1 record with a 3.17 GAA and a .918 SV% vs. the Soo while Sebastien Plamondon was 1-0-1 with a 0.92 average along with a .975 save percentage and one shutout.
During the regular campaign, Plamondon paced all rookie goaltenders in the league in average at 2.49, which was the third-best in the entire NOJHL among all netminders. He was also third overall in save percentage at .928.
He and Bowen combined for 28 wins.
Ahern and Bowen started each game in their respective playoff series, posting identical 4-2 records.
Bowen did have two shutouts and among those with 200 or more minutes played, leads all league netminders in average (1.37) and save percentage (.937).
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Thunderbirds tallied 10 times in 47 opportunities, but allowed one shorthanded goal against vs. the Canadians this season while Rayside-Balfour went 4-32.
The Soo was tops in the league in both power play proficiency (22.1%) and on the penalty kill (86.6%).
As for the Canadians they finished fourth on the P.P. at 18.2%, but just 10th on the P.K. at 80%.
Rayside-Balfour did lead the NOJHL in shorthanded goals with 14 while Sault Ste. Marie tied for eighth with three.
The Soo gave up four man-down markers and RBC allowed five.
TEAM NOTES: During the regular season, the Thunderbirds went 30-2 when scoring first in a game while the Canadians were 23-8-1-1.
When leading after one period, the Soo was 25-2 and 28-1 when up after 40 minutes.
As for Rayside-Balfour, then had a 10-5-1-1 mark when holding the lead after one and were 22-2-2-1 while on top entering the second intermission.
WHAT’S NEXT: The winner of this series will play either the Hearst Lumberjacks or Powassan Voodoos in the NOJHL league championship series.
All NOJHL playoff games are streamed live online, and on demand, via HockeyTV.com.
NOJHL West Division Final
No. 1 Soo Thunderbirds vs. No. 2 Rayside-Balfour Canadians
Game 1: Saturday, March 30 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 2: Sunday, March 31 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 3: Wednesday, April 3 @ Rayside-Balfour 7 p.m. (Chelmsford Arena)
Game 4: Thursday, April 4 @ Rayside-Balfour 7 p.m. (Chelmsford Arena)
Game 5*: Saturday, April 6 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (GFL Memorial Gardens)
Game 6*: Monday, April 8 @ Rayside-Balfour 7 p.m. (Chelmsford Arena)
Game 7*: Wednesday, April 10 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
With files from NOJHL Statistician/Historian David Harrison