Beavers ready to begin playoff series with Thunderbirds
After a terrific regular season, the Blind River Beavers are ready to take on a big challenge as they face the Sault Ste. Marie Thunderbirds in the western division semi-final playoff series on the road to the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League championship. The Beavers, led by NOJHL scoring champion and presumptive most valuable player Caleb Serre, finished second in the regular season standings ahead of the perennially-strong Thunderbirds. However, the teams matched up very closely throughout their head-to-head battles throughout the season, and the best-of-seven series promises to produce a number of very close games featuring speed, toughness, great goaltending and highly entertaining hockey. The series kicks off at the Blind River Community Centre on Thursday evening at 7 p.m., with the Beavers also hosting the second game of the series on Saturday at 7 p.m. The series shifts to the John Rhodes Arena in Sault Ste. Marie for game three on Monday, March 16 and game four on Wednesday, March 18. If necessary, the series returns to Blind River for game five on Thursday, March 19, and to the Soo for game six on Saturday, March 21. The seventh and deciding game of the series, if necessary, would be played in Blind River on Monday, March 23. The home-ice advantage may play a key role in this series, as the Beavers had the best record in the NOJHL when playing at the Blind River Community Centre. The local squad won 21 times in 28 games at their home arena, while the T-Birds won 18 out of 28 games at the Rhodes Arena. The winner of the series between the Beavers and the Thunderbirds will move on to the NOJHL western division finals against the winner of the other semi-final series between the first-place Rayside-Balfour Canadians and the Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Eagles. The Eagles advanced to the semi-finals by defeating the Espanola Express in two straight games in their opening round playoff series. Naturally, the Beavers will be counting on Serre to continue his spectacular scoring feats that saw him lead the NOJHL in both goals (47) and assists (66) on his way to capturing the league’s scoring title. With the Thunderbirds undoubtedly gearing up to slow down Serre, the Beavers will have to get scoring support from a solid cast in order to get past the T-Birds. Fortunately, the Beavers have a number of speedy forwards who appear more than capable of stepping into the spotlight in the playoffs. Justin Mauro has returned from injury just in time for the playoffs, and the diminutive centre has the skill and smarts to become a huge contributor in the playoffs. In Mauro’s absence, forwards Lucas Adams, Kyle Quinn, Noah Minns and Devon Savignac have all displayed the ability to score goals and set up their teammates during the regular season. In addition, defensemen Nathan Balkwill, Jake Behnen and Bryan Clahassey have all been solid contributors to the Beavers’ offence this season. The Thunderbirds are much more balanced than the Beavers on offence, boasting eight players with more than 30 points during the regular season. They are led by rookie forwards Jacob Kovacs and Tyler Savard, but get regular goal production from players throughout their lineup. In goal, the Thunderbirds figure to go with Dakota Meyer, who has been very solid during the final two months of the regular season. The Beavers will counter with either of their two very good puck-stoppers in Jackson Hjelle or Dominic Boily, both of whom had outstanding seasons. As the most penalized team in the NOJHL, the Beavers will have to play smart hockey and stay out of the penalty box if they are to defeat the Thunderbirds. The Beavers racked up a league-high 851 minutes in the sin bin, compared to just 722 for the T-Birds. The Beavers appear to have a slight advantage over the Thunderbirds while enjoying the manpower advantage, as they have clicked on 19.5% of their power-play opportunities this season. By comparison, the T-Birds have converted on 17.3% of their power-play chances. The eventual winner of the NOJHL playoffs will advance to the Central Canadian Junior A Championship tournament in Fort Frances at the end of April. The winner of that event will compete for the Canadian National Jr. A Championship in May.