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Playoff series preview: Soo Thunderbirds vs. Blind River Beavers

SUDBURY, Ont. – For a second straight year, the Blind River Beavers and Soo Thunderbirds will meet in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League playoffs.

Sault Ste. Marie took their 2019 postseason meeting in six games in a divisional semifinal.

Their latest get together is scheduled to begin tonight at the Blind River Community Centre in a 7 p.m. start in this best-of-seven match-up.

The Beavers will have home ice advantage to begin the series and would host Games 1 & 2, and if necessary, 5 & 7.

Blind River earned that edge by finishing second in the West Division with 78 points and a 37-15-1-3 overall record.

The Thunderbirds meanwhile were third in the West with 67 points while sporting a 30-19-3-4 mark.

SEASON SET: Sault Ste. Marie had a slight edge in their eight regular season meetings, winning four times, dropping three in regulation as well as another in overtime.

The Beavers took the first three games, including one in OT, before the Thunderbirds finished up by winning four of the last five.

In all, the Soo outscored Blind River 30-26 in their contests against each other.

SCORING: The Beavers of course are led by their captain and NOJHL MVP Caleb Serre.

The Blind River product had a tremendous season, topping all NOJHL skaters in goals (47); assists (66); points (113); power play tallies (17); man advantage helpers (26) and game-winning goals (10).

Four others boasted 40 or more points for the squad in 2019-20 led by defenceman Nathan Balkwill’s 50 while the trio of Justin (48), Lucas Adams (46) and Kyle Quinn (40) combined for 134 in total.

Second team all-star forward Jacob Kovacs paced the Thunderbirds offensively with 58 points in 50 outings on 27 tallies and 31 assists while also providing five game-winning goals.

As the youngest full-time skater in the league in 2019-20, the 16-year-old Kovacs, playing for his hometown Sault Ste. Marie side, tied for ninth in overall offensive numbers while finishing near the top in nearly every offensive category among rookies.

Featuring a line-up of a dozen first-year players, the Soo saw solid years from rookies Tyler Savard (50 PTS), Rylan Clemons (38 in just 23 games), while veteran forward Avery Rebek provided 42 points, including 15 goals.

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Seeing the majority of work in net for Blind River was Jackson Hjelle.

The 20-year-old from Minnesota boasted a 13-win improvement with the Beaver over last season, finishing with a record 17-9-0-2 with a 2.55 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage, and three shutouts.

Meanwhile, the club’s other goalkeeper, Dominic Boily, who joined Blind River in early November, went 10-4-1 with a pair of shutouts.

As for the Thunderbirds, rookie netminder Dakota Meyer was 16-7-1-1 in 26 appearances with his side and had an average of 2.86, along with a save mark of .917 and one shutout.

Picked up by the Soo in December, Sam Evola went on to post a record of 7-5-1-1 with a 2.96 AVG., a .919 save percentage and had three shutouts, one of which was vs. Blind River.

WHAT’S NEXT: The team that prevails in this series will move on to meet the survivor of the West’s other divisional semifinal between the Rayside-Balfour Canadians and Soo Eagles.

NUMBERS GAME: The Beavers were an impressive 21-4-1-2 as the home team this season while the Thunderbirds were 18-8-0-2. … As the visiting side, the Beavers went 16-11-0-1 and the Soo was 12-11-3-2. … Blind River’s captain Caleb Serre registered a point in 51% of the goals the Beavers scored this season. … Jackson Hjelle was fourth in the league in goals-against average at 2.55 while Dakota Meyer was seventh at 2.86. … Jacob Kovacs, the youngest full-time player in the NOJHL this season, finished fourth in NOJHL rookie scoring with 58 points and goals with 27. … The Beavers’ Nathan Balkwill was second in offensive numbers among league defencemen with 50 points while the Thunderbirds’ Warner Young finished ninth with 31. … Caleb Serre had one of the four penalty shot goals in league play this season and it came against the Soo back on Feb. 16. … When scoring first in games, Blind River was 29-4-1-2 while the Thunderbirds were 21-5-2-3. … Special teams saw the Beavers end up fourth overall on the power play at 19.5% while the Soo was eighth at 17.3%. … On the penalty kill, Blind River finished third at 85.6% and the Thunderbirds were seventh at 82.1%. … The Soo had the edge in shorthanded tallies by a 6-3 count. … When leading after two periods of play, the Beavers were an impressive 31-1-0-2 while the Thunderbirds were also strong at 23-1-0-2.

ONLINE VIEWING: All NOJHL playoff games can be watched online, via a pay-per-view basis, at HockeyTV.com.

West Division semifinal
No. 2 Blind River Beavers vs. No. 3 Soo Thunderbirds
Best-of-seven series
Game 1: Thursday, March 12 @ Blind River 7 p.m. (Blind River Community Centre)
Game 2: Saturday, March 14 @ Blind River 7 p.m. (Blind River Community Centre)
Game 3: Monday, March 16 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 4: Wednesday, March 18 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 5*: Thursday, March 19 @ Blind River 7 p.m. (Blind River Community Centre)
Game 6*: Saturday, March 21 @ Sault Ste. Marie 7 p.m. (John Rhodes Community Centre)
Game 7*: Monday, March 23 @ Blind River 7 p.m. (Blind River Community Centre)
*-if necessary

With files from NOJHL Historian, David Harrison