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Thunderbirds ready for national championship opener

The team opens the 10-day event this afternoon
2022-05-01 Soo Thunderbirds stock BC (1)
File photo.

They were one game away from their season being ended.

Instead, the Soo Thunderbirds went on their most important winning streak of the season to earn a spot in the Centennial Cup, which signified Jr. A hockey supremacy in Canada.

After running the table in the opening two round of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League playoffs, the Thunderbirds dropped the opening three games of the league final to the Hearst Lumberjacks.

It was the only time all season the team had lost three consecutive games.

“We were a totally different team from game one to game seven just in that series,” Thunderbirds coach Cole Jarrett said. “I’ve never seen that before, just in terms of our compete, our attention to detail, and the way the boys came together as a group and the way it all happened in 10 days. That made it a really interesting 10 days for us as coaches and as players. It’s obviously very rewarding.”

The team traveled to Estevan, Sask., site of the 2022 Centennial Cup, on Tuesday and was on the ice on Wednesday for practice ahead of their opener on Thursday and Jarrett said the players can’t wait to get started.

“Right from the time we told them the itinerary, they’ve all just been on the edge of their seat,” Jarrett said. “They can’t wait to get going.”

“We’re not out here to be tourists,” Jarrett added. “If we’re out here to be tourists, we’re going to get our lunch fed to us. It was nice the last couple days to be together and experience it, but now the games start, and the boys are focused and ready to go.”

The team opens the 10-day event on Thursday against the Flin Flon Bombers in a 6 p.m. (Sault time) start.

“We have to bring that same compete level that we had in the final on each and every shift,” Jarrett said. “Each and every shift is magnified and more important.”

“Our details in terms of what we want in our structure and how we want to play (is important),” Jarrett added. “We want to play a high pace, so what details we have to focus on to make sure that we’re doing that.”

The Bombers enter the tournament as the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League representative in the event. The team fell to the Estevan Bruins in game 7 of the SJHL final, but will enter the tournament as well with Estevan also being the host of the event.

“Like every team out here, they’re highly-skilled,” Jarrett said of the SJHL club. “They’re an older team. We’re one of the younger teams out here. They’re a team full of (older players). We know that they’re going to be hard-nosed, hard to play against. Watching their film, they play with great structure, very good pace. They’ve got a really solid goaltender.”

“We’re not too concerned about what anybody else is doing out here,” Jarrett added. “We’re focused on what we have to do to be successful, but no doubt they’re a really good opponent and a great challenge.”

The Thunderbirds enter the tournament on the high of battling back from a 3-0 series deficit in the NOJHL final against the Hearst Lumberjacks.

After dropping the opening two games on home ice, the Thunderbirds dropped game 3 in overtime before reeling off four consecutive wins, three by one goal, en route to the NOJHL title.

“Throughout the first three games, we turned the puck over way too much and it seemed to end up in the back of our net every single time,” Jarrett said. “We felt like we weren’t getting the bounces. Early in game four (Noah) Metivier made a huge save off a strange bounce in the slot. He tracked it the whole way and, like he did all year, he made a nice, calm save, and it felt like that relaxed the group.”

Jarrett added that the save also seemed to help Metivier “settle in and obviously he found his groove throughout those last four games.”

Metivier went 8-2 in the playoffs, which included winning four-straight in the final to help the Thunderbirds to the league title. His 2.08 goals against average was tops in the league during the playoffs/

“I can’t overstate it enough how well he played,” Jarrett said of the final four games by Metivier. “He earned the opportunity to keep the net and that gave him the confidence heading into game five. I don’t even know how you say enough about the kid. He’s been through a ton.”

“He was just dialed in,” Jarrett added. “You could see him during the game getting hotter and hotter and for those last four games, he got better and better and carried us through.”

In addition to solid production offensively from their top line of Michael Chaffay, Cooper Foster, and Kelsey Ouellet, secondary scoring became increasingly important during the series with Hearst.

“That was definitely key,” Jarrett said. “Hearst had four lines that were going that made it really tough on us. It was important to get that secondary scoring to match theirs. Our top line was good all playoff long.”

Among those chipping in was team captain Brock Santa Maria, who had goals in all four Thunderbirds wins in the final, the biggest of which was the overtime winner in the seventh game.

“He went to another level, and you could see it in game four,” Jarrett said. “We challenged them, but they challenged themselves to bring their game to another level and he was probably our best player in that game and from there, the boys just followed his lead.”

Due to COVID-19, the Centennial Cup format changed as Hockey Canada cancelled all regional tournaments and made the decision to allow each league champion from across the country into the event, making it a 10-team tournament.

The teams are split into two pools of five where teams will face each other once. The top three teams in each pool after round robin action will advance to the playoff round where the top-seeded teams will gain automatic berths in the tournament semifinal games.

Following the tournament opener, the Thunderbirds will face the Maritime League’s Summerside Western Capitals on Friday before a pair of days off. The team will then return to action on Monday against the Central Canada League’s Ottawa Jr. Senators before wrapping up their round robin schedule on Wednesday against the Manitoba League’s Dauphin Kings.

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Brad Coccimiglio

About the Author: Brad Coccimiglio

A graduate of Loyalist College’s Sports Journalism program, Brad Coccimiglio’s work has appeared in The Hockey News as well as online at FoxSports.com in addition to regular freelance work with SooToday before joining the team full time.
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