In finishing third in the eight-team NOJHL (Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League) this year, the Rivermen found themselves 19 points clear of the Nickel Barons, slotted in sixth.
In seven of the eight meetings between the two teams, Espanola prevailed. They found a way to win, though not by much. Five of the eight encounters were decided by just a single goal, two in overtime.
After losing in each of the first six instances the teams faced off, the Nickel Barons finally cracked through just last Wednesday. The recent past is far more prevalent in the mind of Sudbury head coach Jason Young, who took over the team from Trevor Blanchard only as the calendar turned to welcome 2014.
"We're going to play Espanola, a team that we've beaten once and played well three times since I've been here," said Young after practice on Monday night in Copper Cliff. "I think it's going to be a pretty good series. We're really going to have to play well defensively, but the kids have come a long way."
Not that the former assistant coach with both the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL and the Great North Midget League's Nickel City Sons feels that his work is complete.
"You're never going to be happy, I think, as a coach, for your team unless you don't lose a game all year," said Young. "Obviously, that hasn't happened here."
Yet, one senses a belief in the competitive possibilities that exist for this first round matchup in the minds of each and every player on the Sudbury roster.
"They're definitely a good team," said defenceman Khadyn Butterfly. "They finished about 20 points ahead of us. We've got a lot of work to do. We'll need to keep it simple, play hard, be consistent and avoid getting off to slow starts."
Butterfly is among a large group of Sudbury talent that has taken a gradual step forward. In the case of the 18-year-old originally from Moosonee, perhaps not so gradual. Butterfly was recognized as the NOJHL's Most Improved Player over the weekend, rewarded with the Gilles Laperrière Trophy.
"I definitely felt a lot better in terms of the speed and strength that I had after working in the off-season with my personal trainer (Rick Kilganon)," said Butterfly. "I owe a lot of that to him."
"I just felt like a better hockey player, confidence wise, after having an OHL training camp under my belt. I was feeling pretty good coming into the season and was expecting bigger things than last year."
After recording just five assists in 41 games with Sudbury in 2012-2013, Butterfly vaulted all the way to fourth in team scoring this past season, recording 10 goals and 20 assists while dressing in 54 of the 56 games, most on the team.
"I took a bigger step on the offensive side, but I think I've been pretty sound defensively," stated Butterfly. "I still have a lot of improvement to do."
Thankfully, in facing the Espanola Rivermen, Butterfly and his teammates won't need a lot of improvement. Just a goal or so a game.
Because of ice availability, the series begin March 12 in Copper Cliff before heading back to Espanola for Games 2 on March 14 and Game 3 on March 16.
Young confirmed that the Nickel Barons will be without the services of forwards Josh Moore (in Moosonee for a family funeral) and Justin Bell (injured) for the opening encounter.
As for Espanola, coach Tom McCarthy and company will be led by their high-flying trio of Brennan Dubchak (83 pts), Brandon Janke (74) and Corbin Bean (73), all of whom more than doubled the offensive output of Sudbury leading scorer August Jarecki (37).