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Rayside-Balfour right in the race in NOJHL

Canadians battling for top spot in West Division
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The Rayside-Balfour Canadians are in the midst of a tight race for top spot in the NOJHL's West Division. (File)

Right in the thick of a four-way race in the West Division of the NOJHL (Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League), the Rayside-Balfour Canadians and owner Adrian Gedye are not about to stand pat.

"We want to make a run and go deep, try to win this league and get to the Dudley Hewitt," suggested Gedye, not long after his team registered their 17th win in 27 games, a 5-1 victory over the Espanola Express.

With a record of 17-8-1-1 (36 pts), the locals find themselves squeezed between the Blind River Beavers (39 pts), Soo Thunderbirds (38), Soo Eagles (32) and Elliot Lake Wildcats (29).

Thursday in Chelmsford, the team bolted to a 3-0 lead in the opening six minutes of the contest, cruising to a triumph as five different players hit the mark for coach Steve Lauzon and company.

Taylor Woolcott, Shane Donovan, Evan Krassey, Darcy Winkler and Gabriel Rheault all contributed offensively for the Canadians, with Joel Grandbois answering with the only goal in a losing cause.

Recent player movement was evident in several areas, as just acquired netminder Jean-Marc Brisson (Hearst Lumberjacks) served as back-up to rookie Matty Mayhew, who picked up the win with a solid 25-save performance.

Apparently earmarked for the Laurentian Voyageurs to begin the second half of the OUA schedule (according to scuttlebutt from countless sources), Mackenzie Savard's tenure with Rayside-Balfour appears to be over for the second time.

Coming in to replace the Onaping native is local product Brayden Lachance, secured in a recent trade with the Summerside Western Capitals of the Maritime Junior "A" Hockey League. 

"Lachance is the guy we recruited all summer," said Gedye.

"He went to the OJHL, played for Cobourg (Cougars), who won the RBC Cup last year. He got traded to PEI and then they got a "Q" league goalie, younger, and they are in a little bit of a rebuild. He's going to be our guy moving forward."

As for the now current trio between the pipes, Gedye is in no hurry to chop that number by a third. 

"To make a run, I think you need strength in the goaltending position," he said. "We might carry three (goalies) right through. Brisson is a big, strong, square goalie who will get the opportunity to compete and play some games."

It's a similar mindset, seemingly, behind a couple of other recent moves, as defenceman/forward André Frappier was shipped to Espanola (he actually dressed for the Express on Thursday), while veteran forward Tristan Simm was sent off to the Dryden Ice Dogs.

"When you have a team that is high end with a lot of good players, sometimes there's better opportunities for players out there," said Gedye. "For André, it's forty minutes down the road, he has friends on the club, he's got an opportunity to play as a top four (defenceman) as opposed to being a 6/7 guy here. And it allows us to go after a high end "D", preferably a major junior guy who is a final cut at the deadline."

"Simm has been a little bit snake-bit here and was looking for a fresh start," Gedye continued. "We honoured that. He's going to Dryden, so he's got an automatic berth in the Dudley Hewitt. Again, that allows us to go after a major junior forward at the deadline, maybe get that pure goal scorer. We don't really have that, we score by committee. This frees up a roster spot." 

All the more important given that four year league standout Gabriel Rheault landed on his third team this year, traded from the French River Rapids to Rayside-Balfour early last week.

"It's his last year and he was looking for a team that might be able to go the distance," said Gedye. "He's a guy that fits nicely in our top six, absolutely in our top nine, but we think as a top six if he scores like we think he can."

Of course, all of this upheaval in the lineup creates the need for the stability that comes by way of 19-year-old Evan Krassey and others, providing leadership in ensuring that newcomers enjoy a certain comfort level with their new settings.

"I try and talk to the guys, tell them just to relax, do the things that they brought you here to do," he said. "Play your game, do the little things, because the little things will turn into big things at the end of the day."

Second in team scoring with 22 points in 26 games, the native of Atikokan has also enjoyed an impressive five game stint with the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL, racking up three points in five games with the big club, including a pair of goals.

"I have confidence here and I bring that confidence into that league," said Krassey. "From there, coming back, I feel like I have that much more time with the puck. It seems to come a little bit easier when you go from that higher level back to here. It feels good."

Finishing with 30 points in 36 games in his first season with the Canadians last year, the power forward senses a somewhat different environment in the midst as he and his team look to better their first round playoff loss of 2016-2017.

"This year, we're a little bit younger in the dressing room, and the younger guys really want to win, which is good," he said. "I'm actually not too sure we are younger than last year, but it feels like that's how it is."

With six December encounters on the calendar to close out 2017, the Canadians will try and create some separation in a league that is excessively tightly bunched, especially in the West.

"We need to be a little more consistent throughout the full game, the full sixty," said Krassey. "We always seem to come out strong, just like we did tonight. Then we always seem to think it's going to be easy and we tone it down a bit."

"We have to keep playing, battling, whether it's Powassan or French River, no matter who it is." 

Another big game on the schedule this coming Sunday evening in Chelmsford as the Canadians play host to the Blind River Beavers at 7 p.m.



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