The Wolves are on an eight-game winning streak and a 9-1 record in their last 10 games.
Sudbury was at its absolute best in the last four games, allowing just five goals against while scoring 17 goals for and beat two of the better teams in the league - Oshawa and Sault Ste. Marie.
It is a stark turnaround from the first two months of the season which saw the Wolves play poor team defence and routinely allow five, six, seven and even 10 goals (twice) per game.
The Wolves are simply playing better defensively and showing discipline, and it has resulted in success. The test will be keeping it the same way for another half a season and the playoffs.
“Sudbury is certainly for real in the Eastern Conference,” North American Central Scouting Chief Scout Mark Seidel said. “They have tightened up their game and they have beaten everyone there is to beat in the east.”
In mid-November, Sudbury Wolves GM and president Blaine Smith swung a deal with Sarnia to acquire defenceman Craig Duininck. It was a costly deal, but one worth every last bit because the Wolves have gone 10-3 since Duininck arrived. His first game was a 7-1 loss to Barrie. He is no-nonsense and all business. Duininck has seen a dramatic difference in the team in the month-and-a-half he has been with the club.
“We believe in ourselves,” Duininck said. “We have come a long way since I arrived. We are now playing as a team and everyone is buying in to what we are doing. This has been the biggest difference and meant the most.”
Duininck, along with team captain, defenceman Kevin Raine, form the backbone of the team through the blue-line. They are the anchors. Raine and Duininck have brought a winning pedigree to the team from proven, winning programs in the OHL.
Duininck has a Memorial Cup ring. Since Raine returned from an upper body injury on Nov. 29 after missing nearly four weeks, the Wolves have been 7-0. These two defenders have made an undeniable impact on the Wolves team and culture.
“Raine has probably been their MVP thus far,” Seidel said. “The public may not think that, but from an evaluator’s standpoint and a team’s standpoint, he has been unbelievable.”
Teams can live and die by their first lines. The players who get the lion’s share of the minutes on the power play and each game drive a team with their ability to generate offence.
Sudbury’s Nicholas Baptiste, Mathew Campagna and Nathan Pancel have formed the majority of the first-line combinations with others players having been mixed and matched in when necessary. Baptiste (20 goals, 42 points, 33 games) and Campagna (12 goals, 52 points, 33 games) have delivered on their talents. Pancel has been the biggest break-out player for Sudbury with 32 goals and 51 points in 33 games. He had 26 goals and 56 points in 68 games last season.
“He has been phenomenal,” Seidel said. “He is one of the most underrated scorers in the league. He isn’t pretty to watch at times, but he gets the job done. A pure goal scorer.”
Secondary scoring is a big factor in a team’s success, especially come playoff time. Players such as Connor Crisp (16 goals), Dominik Kubalik (13 goals) Dominik Kahun (15 points in 16 games) and Jacob Harris (19 points in 25 games) have provided the Wolves with solid support scoring and are capable of more.
It is unfortunate the team has had to do without the services of Brody Silk as he would have been making an impact on games with his blend of skill and fearlessness.
“They have two good scoring lines and the third line works hard and can play against anyone in the league,” a respected Western Conference scout said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Most hockey experts outside the Wolves circle see the team as contenders and maybe one or two moves away from being serious threats to win the east.
“Sudbury is one, big, stay-at-home defenceman away from winning the east,” the Western Conference scout said. “Look at what London has done. General Manager Mark Hunter traded a top-six forward for a big shutdown defenceman at the start of the season. Why? Hunter has been to a Memorial Cup before and won and he knows what it takes. When push comes to shove in the playoffs, you need those kind of guys to lean on. It will cost a lot, but you either go for it or you don’t.”
In the rookie department, defencemen Stefan LeBlanc and Kyle Capobianco and goalie Troy Timpano have been the most prominent freshmen on the team. LeBlanc has wowed scouts, fans and everyone else with his poise and offensive instincts. Capobianco has also shown flashes of offensive skill. Timpano has not lost in regulation in his four starts and has a 2-0-1-1 record.
Forward David Zeppieri, when in the lineup and not a healthy scratch, has shown he belongs in every game due to his speed, willingness to finish checks hard and clean and skill level.
“LeBlanc has been a revelation,” Seidel said. “He has been impressive. We have him rated as a third-round NHL pick now, but if he keeps playing the way he is, he could move into the second round.”