By Dave Leaderhouse
If past results are any indication the fans going to the Battlefords North Stars-Nipawin Hawks game on Friday can expect to get their money’s worth – and then some – as the top two teams in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League have needed extra time in both of their previous meetings this season.
Nipawin, which is on a 23-game run without a regulation-time loss, edged the North Stars 3-2 in overtime on Dec. 12 in the Battlefords while a shootout was needed in the most recent meeting when the Hawks fell 4-3 on Jan. 9 in Nipawin.
As a result of their recent success Nipawin has opened up an eight-point lead on the Melfort Mustangs for first place in the Sherwood Division standings and they are also five up on the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division-leading North Stars for first place overall. The Battlefords, with games in hand, still had an opportunity to catch Nipawin for first place overall based on that fact, but a 4-2 loss to Kindersley on Tuesday put the defending Canalta Cup champions farther behind Nipawin giving even more importance to Friday’s meeting.
Another interesting note about Friday’s game in the Battlefords is that the North Stars have been almost unbeatable on home ice going 16-1-2-0, but the Hawks have the best road record in the league with a 16-4-2-0 mark.
These two teams, who will also be in action on Saturday with Nipawin moving on to take on the surging Klippers in Kindersley while the Battlefords complete a four-games-in-five-nights stretch with a neutral-site game in Spiritwood against the La Ronge Ice Wolves, will undoubtedly battle right down to the finish for the regular-season pennant and the schedule makers couldn’t have asked for anything more as those two clubs will meet in Nipawin on the final night of the regular schedule.
While it’s an elementary fact to be stated, Nipawin and the Battlefords – along with Melfort – have all secured post-season berths as neither La Ronge nor the Yorkton Terriers could catch them should a collapse of major proportions ever occur. La Ronge and Yorkton are both on the outside looking in for the final two playoff berths and with each loss, or a win by other teams, their playoff hopes fade considerably.
La Ronge, which is 10 points back of the Melville Millionaires for the final playoff spot, will be in Humboldt to face the Broncos before their Saturday match against the North Stars and while the Ice Wolves desperately need to put some wins together to remain in the hunt for a post-season berth, the game is equally as important for Humboldt.
Entering the weekend, just four points separate the four middle-of-the pack teams (Estevan, Weyburn, Notre Dame and Humboldt) and with Kindersley having put together three straight wins, and holding a bunch of games in hand, they can’t be counted out of that equation just yet.
As it presently stands, Estevan, who is the lone team that is idle this weekend, has a four-point lead on Weyburn for the Viterra Division lead, but the Red Wings have a pair of games in hand and with four more head-to-head meetings between those southeast rivals left on the schedule that race is destined for a photo finish.
Whoever emerges from that race will claim a top-three seed for the playoffs leaving the other in a battle with Notre Dame and Humboldt – and possibly Kindersley – in a fight for the final two berths that will avoid an opening best-of-five Wild Card round.
Weyburn is home to Melville on Friday and Notre Dame hosts Melfort on Saturday while Humboldt entertains Flin Flon on Saturday in addition to their home date with La Ronge on Friday. Kindersley is also at home on Saturday to face Nipawin with the Klippers in the midst of a stretch where they play eight of nine on home ice, a place where they have enjoyed the majority of their success picking up 13 of their 18 wins this year. One final game on the weekend schedule has Flin Flon playing the middle game of a three-games-in-three-nights trip when they are in Yorkton on Friday to face the Terriers.
SJHL Notes – After this weekend Nipawin will have just four road games remaining. In comparison, the Ice Wolves will have 11 of their final 15 away from the friendly confines of the Mel Hegland Arena and Kindersley also has an interesting schedule as after this present homestand they will finish the season with eight of their final 11 games on the road…The individual scoring race appears to be a foregone conclusion as Battlefords’ captain Layne Young has opened up an 11-point advantage on Estevan sniper Zach Goberis. Young, who has already equalled his personal best with 75 points, could be the first SJHL player in seven years to crack the 100-point plateau. The last to accomplish that feat were La Ronge teammates Travis Eggum and Marc Andre Carre when both registered 106 points in 2010-11. By comparison, last year’s scoring title was shared by Notre Dame’s Ben Duperreault and Flin Flon’s Greyson Reitmeier who both had 79 points…One of many reasons Nipawin has surged to the top of the standings is that they keep the puck out of their net. The Hawks’ netminding duo of Declan Hobbs and Jake Anthony lead the league in goals-against average with 1.71 and 1.83 marks, respectively, while their save percentage is also well ahead of everyone else with Hobbs sitting at .933 and Anthony close behind at .930. Nipawin is also miles ahead of the others in goal differential as they have scored 88 more goals than they have allowed.
Flin Flon at Yorkton
La Ronge at Humboldt
Nipawin at Battlefords
Melville at Weyburn
Melfort at Notre Dame
Flin Flon at Humboldt
Nipawin at Kindersley
Battlefords at La Ronge