The playoffs are just over a month away and the Sudbury Bantam AAA Wolves still have some work to do.
That was the message from head coach Trevor Blanchard coming out of a weekend series that would see the local squad drop three consecutive tight games to the visiting Soo Greyhounds.
The Hounds are locked in a neck-and-neck battle with the Nickel City Sons in the race for top spot in the NOBHL (Northern Ontario Bantam AAA Hockey League), a factor that provided a little extra motivation for the Sooites.
“We played a Sault Ste Marie team that was really hungry for first place,” said Blanchard. “I give them credit. Their coach had them flying from the opening puck drop to the last minute of this game.”
The Greyhounds swept the three-game set by scores of 3-2, 2-0 and 3-1, with all three encounters falling into the category of “games that could have gone either way.”
“We played at times, but I don't think our compete level was where we needed to be,” Blanchard said. “The games were tight throughout the weekend, but we just didn't have that second gear.
"The issue, for us, was the forechecking just wasn't there and being hungry in front of the net, finding those loose pucks. Our d-zone play was pretty good and our goalies gave us a chance to win.”
Battling back from a 2-0 deficit Jan. 5 at the Carmichael Arena, the Wolves received third-period power-play goals from Kyle Liinamaa and Dakota Woods just over a minute apart, drawing even with the Hounds.
The tie would last for roughly three minutes when Drake Pilon struck for the game-winner at 14:12 of the final frame, with only 2:48 showing on the game clock.
It was equally as close in the evening matchup as Pilon scored midway through the opening period, the only goal that netminder Christopher Lindsay would need in posting a 2-0 win for the Soo over Sudbury.
Jakob Porco added some insurance, tallying a short-handed marker in the dying minutes and providing the Greyhounds with a little breathing room.
Jan. 6 did not provide much better news for the local bantams. Trailing 1-0 after the first period, the Wolves drew even when a blocked shot inside the Sudbury blue-line sprung speedy Ryan Mooney on a breakaway, as the part-time defenceman, part-time forward made no mistake with a nifty move in tight.
But as it seemed to be the case in all three games, the Sault responded when necessary. With time having just expired on a power-play opportunity, Greyhounds' defenceman Daniel Cicchini drilled home a rocket from just above the ringette line, scoring the goal that would stand as the game-winner.
Penalty troubles sealed the fate of the Bantam Wolves in the third as the visitors increased their lead to a pair of goals on the power-play, improving their record to 20-7-1.
Despite the consecutive defeats, coach Blanchard and company are not about to completely re-invent the wheel.
“I understand that our team isn't necessarily the most offensively gifted team,” he said. “We play a simple game, a dump-and-chase game, moving the puck north/south instead of east/west, and the kids normally buy into that system. I think, for the most part, we were doing that.
“But the small areas of the game, we still need to tighten up (such as) giving ourselves a chance to establish puck possession immediately off every faceoff instead of the neutral zone, d-zone or offensive zone.
“We're working d-zone out. The offence will come if we spend a little less time in our own end.”
And with the league standings much more congested than in any year in recent memory, Blanchard is hopeful it will all come together at just the right time.
“We're fairly healthy and we've proven that we can beat every team,” he said. “The league is really tight this year. It's just a matter of getting hot at the right time.”