Chase for LJHL crown begins March 7

THUNDER BAY -- Five teams will begin the quest to become Lakehead Junior Hockey League champions.

The Thunder Bay Bandits and Nipigon Elks square off in a best of three quarterfinal that starts on March 7 at the Thunder Bay Tournament Centre.

"There is no room for mistakes, and each game is a game seven in my opinion," said Bandits head coach Rick Baraniuk.

"The last two games we played the Elks, we led them by four and three goals respectively, and on both occasions they ended up coming back to tie up the game."

The Bandits collected four wins in six games against the Elks, outscoring them 35-24.

“We need to get off to a quick start and keep disciplined in order to win,” said Elks head coach John Coppock.

“Three games are a short period of time where anything can happen. A hot goalie can go a long way.”

Game two of the series will happen in Nipigon on Friday, March 8 with the third and deciding game scheduled for Saturday, March 9 at the Tournament Centre.

The winning team will then earn the task of upsetting the Current River Storm, winners of the Brian Dell Memorial trophy, in the best of seven semi-finals.

“We are curious as to who we will play in the semi-finals,” said Storm head coach Robbie Untinen.

“That said, we are focusing on preparing our group to compete at an even higher level than the regular season. Playoffs is a whole new season for us.

“The Bandits and Elks bring a lot to the table, and both want to make it to the finals. Knowing that, we need to make sure our group is ready for each team.”

The Schreiber Falcons and Thunder Bay Northern Hawks will clash in the other best of seven semifinals in what is a rematch of last year’s league final.

The Northern Hawks had to deal with some adversity following a health scare to their head coach Matt Valley.

Acting head coach Frank Filice informed the team of the situation the day after it happened.

“There was definitely extra motivation for our next game,” Filice said.

“The players basically dedicated the rest of the season to coach Valley -- he has been around the dressing room since coming home and you can see the excitement in the room when he is around.”

The Northern Hawks won five of six contests, outscoring the Falcons 27-18.

Filice feels the Falcons are a quick and tenacious squad who will keep his players on their toes.

“They are a hard-working team and are constantly pressuring you when you have the puck. They have some great leaders with their veteran guys that can easily win a game or a series.

“As long as we stick to what gives us success, which includes being strong and disciplined defensively, we feel we should be able to compete with them.”

The Falcons have also had to deal with tough health news to their rookie defenceman Keewaedin Crews, who had to undergo emergency surgeries for what are being called rare and complicated health issues.

“Rather than letting losing a great teammate like Keewaedin kill us, the boys really rallied through that stretch,” said Falcons head coach Mario Filane.

“We were able to capture a pair of home wins against the Storm, which brought the boys even closer as a group while keeping the Crews Missile in our hearts, and life in perspective at the same time.”

When talking about matching up again with the Northern Hawks, Filane said “They’re a hard-nose team that knows how to find ways to win. It felt great beating them twice in the Central Canada Cup for a berth in the Championship Finals, but it’s still on our minds losing that series last season for the LJHL championship.”

The league winners will head to Flin Flon, Man. to take part in the Central Canada Cup beginning on Wednesday, April 17.

Kevin Jeffrey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,