By Matt Stefano
After picking up their first victory of the season against the Blind River Beavers sixteen days ago in Blind River, the Soo Thunderbirds are getting set to return to action tonight at 7:00 p.m. as they will take on the Espanola Express at the John Rhodes Community Centre in Sault Ste. Marie.
The Thunderbirds enter tonight’s game with a record of 1 win, 2 losses and 1 shootout loss while the Express come in with a record of 3 wins, 1 loss and 2 shootout losses.
The Express currently sit in first place in the NOJHL’s West Division with 8 points while the Thunderbirds come in sitting in fourth place with 3 points.
In eight meetings against the Express last season, the Thunderbirds had 3 wins, 4 losses and 1 overtime loss.
They were also outscored by the Express 28-22 overall.
Forward Avery Rebek led the way offensively for the Thunderbirds against the Express last season, scoring 5 goals and 9 points.
THE BEST THEY’VE EVER HAD
The Espanola Express have only been in the NOJHL since 2015, but the 2019-2020 season was their best regular season in franchise history.
Last season, the Express finished off with a franchise best 17 wins and a set a new team record for most points in a regular season with 39.
They also set other team records, including least losses in a regular season with 34 and most goals scored in a regular season with 167.
BUGEJA GETS A STAR
On November 30th, Soo Thunderbirds goaltender Alex Bugeja was named one of the NOJHL Eastlink TV 3 Stars of the Week.
In a home game against the Blind River Beavers back on Saturday, November 28th, Bugeja made 37 saves in a 3-2 sudden death shootout loss at the John Rhodes Community Centre.
Bugeja then picked up his first NOJHL win a day later in Blind River, making 28 saves along with recording an assist in a 5-3 victory against the Beavers at the Blind River Community Centre on Sunday, November 29th.
Espanola Express rookie forward Luke Bibby has been named the NOJHL’s Rookie of the Month for November.
During the month of November, the Brantford, Ontario native had 8 points in his first six games played with the Express.
The 16 year old currently leads all Express rookies in goals (5) and points (8).
Bibby, who is in his first season in the NOJHL, was also drafted in the 13th round (250th overall) by the Owen Sound Attack in the 2020 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection.
SHORTHANDED MARKER FOR TOMS
Thunderbirds rookie defenceman Connor Toms is the only rookie blueliner in the NOJHL with a shorthanded goal this season.
In the Thunderbirds 5-3 road win in Blind River back on November 30th, Toms scored a shorthanded goal with 4:08 left to go in the third period, which at that time broke a 3-3 tie and proved to be the game winner.
That game, Toms also became the first Thunderbird defenceman to score a shorthanded goal since Robert Calisti did back on December 3rd, 2017.
THEY HAVE POWER
The Espanola Express come into tonight’s game with the best power play in the NOJHL’s West Division, operating at 24.4%.
The Soo and Espanola are also both tied for the best power play on the road in the NOJHL’s West Division, both operating at 25.0%.
SMYL LEADING THE WAY
Second-year forward Cooper Smyl currently leads the Thunderbirds in scoring with 5 points, including 2 goals and 3 assists in 4 games.
He also leads the club in power play tallies with 2.
KAV ON THE POWER PLAY
Espanola Express rookie defenceman Joshua Kavanaugh is the only rookie blueliner in the NOJHL with a power play goal so far this season.
The seventeen-year old scored his first NOJHL goal on the power play back on Friday, November 13th in a 6-5 shootout loss to the French River Rapids in Espanola.
KILLING THEM OFF
Entering tonight’s game, the Espanola Express currently have the best penalty kill in the NOJHL’s West Division, operating at 87.1%.
They also own the best penalty kill on the road in the West Division, operating at 92.9%.
The Thunderbirds, meanwhile, own the league’s best penalty kill at home, operating at 90.0%
SAY IT IN ENG
It’s been quite the start to this season for Espanola Express newly acquired forward James Eng!
Eng, who came over to the Express in a trade from the French River Rapids this past July, currently leads the Express in scoring with 10 points, including 3 goals and 7 assists in 6 games.
In his rookie season with Rapids in 2019-2020, the Mississauga, Ontario native scored 6 goals and 21 points in 56 games.
Eng, who currently has 3 goals this season with the Express, has already scored half the goals he had all of last season in French River.
NO LONGER ON BOARD
Following their best season in franchise history, the Espanola Express have lost their former captain and all-time scoring leader Mattais Salem to graduation.
Salem, who played on the blueline with the Express from 2018-2020, became the club’s all-time leader in points (91) and assists (67).
Last season, Salem also led all NOJHL blueliners in scoring with 16 goals, 50 assists and 66 points in 55 games.
His 50 helpers and 66 points also set new team records for most assists and points in a regular season.
Not bad for a defenceman!
(Photo credit to Bob Davies)