No early favourite in SIJHL

Although the league has dropped to six teams for the rest of the 2012/13 campaign due to the Sioux Lookout Flyers suspending hockey operations a couple of weeks ago, the level play of the SIJHL so far this season has been quite entertaining.
Whether it be a high-scoring affair, a goaltending clinic, or an overtime thriller, there’s been something for everyone as the first month of play draws to a close.
However, the one drawback to all of this exciting play so far, in my opinion, is that it’s getting quite hard to figure who will be the team to beat over the rest of the season in the race for the Bill Salonen Cup.
Other than the winless Duluth Clydesdales, the rest of the league only is separated by eight points heading into tomorrow night’s game here between the Minnesota Iron Rangers and Fort Frances Lakers, which proves once again that parity is reigning supreme.
That tilt is intriguing on a number of levels, especially since it’s the first time both teams have matched wits since the Iron Rangers took a 3-2 win in Hoyt Lakes back in September.
That loss marked the beginning of a four-game winless skid for the Lakers to start of the regular season. Since then, however, the local squad has moved back into fourth place in the standings after a four game winning streak that ended Monday in a 7-5 loss to the host Dryden Ice Dogs.
Other than that high-scoring affair a couple of days ago, the Lakers’ defensive unit has shut down their opponents over the last several games, with Tanner Hamilton turning in a number of sterling efforts between the pipes.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the offence has been firing on all cylinders recently, with Fort Frances native Colton Spicer currently leading the team in scoring with 15 points in nine games.
The Iron Rangers, meanwhile, easily have shook away any remnants of their previous iteration as the Iron Range Ironheads with their level of play thus far with four wins to start off the season.
While a 4-5 record might not seem that impressive, keep in mind that it took the erstwhile Ironheads until December of last year to reach the four-win mark.
Having not seen the Iron Rangers in person yet, I’m very interested to see how they’ll look live here tomorrow night, as well as how well they will preform for the rest of the season.
At the top of the heap right now are the usual suspects, with the defending league champion Minnesota Wilderness currently leading the way with an 8-2 record while the Thunder Bay North Stars and Ice Dogs sit close behind.
As per usual, the Wilderness team is doing the same things that have made them the winners of the last two Bill Salonen Cups, when they were then known as the Wisconsin Wilderness.
The forwards on the team are lighting the lamp for fun at this point, with newly-acquired Michael MacKinnon leading the SIJHL in scoring with 17 points, and netminders Gordy Defiel and JoJo Jeanetta frustrating the opposition with huge saves.
Thunder Bay might have made the most noise in the off-season to an extent with nobody knowing who the head coach was going to be until their home opener, when Kevin Kahoot was unveiled as the man behind the bench. But since then, they have been letting their play do the talking.
Putting aside Saturday night’s 8-3 drubbing handed to Thunder Bay by the Lakers at the Ice For Kids Arena, the North Stars have been very solid so far this season, despite icing a much younger lineup than they’ve had at their disposal in the past.
However, it’s been a pair of 20-year-olds that have been the leaders for the Lakehead squad at this point, with defender Matt Kaarela leading the team in scoring and former Sioux Lookout goalie Jayme Brattengeier standing tall at the other end of the rink.
But if I had to put my money down on a team that I think, at this very early stage, could make the most noise come playoff time, it just might be the Ice Dogs.
Granted, they may not have the firepower of a team like the North Stars or the Wilderness on paper, but the Ice Dogs do seem to have that gritty approach about them, which always is a key when you get into a best-of-seven series.
The biggest thing for me is the fact a number of veteran players are back with the Ice Dogs for another campaign, such as forward Jesse Linner and defenceman Len Pelletier.
There is nothing like experience at the junior hockey level, and that could be the biggest reason why the Ice Dogs might be representing the SIJHL at the Dudley Hewitt Cup in North Bay this April.
Granted, there is still a long way to go before we reach that part of the season, and anything can—and will—happen.