When the league-leading Battlefords North Stars blanked the Melville Millionaires 5-0 on Wednesday they not only set in motion another winning streak, but they also quietly became the first team to officially secure a spot in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League post-season.
The win, the North Stars second in as many nights, moved them to 34-7-2-0 on the season and offered the four bottom teams in the standings no opportunity of overtaking them no matter what happens for the remainder of the regular season. With the playoff format being changed this season to allow just the top eight teams to move on beyond the end of the regular schedule, the Battlefords know for sure they will be one of those eight teams.
The next box to check off is a division championship and if everything were to align properly that could occur as early as this weekend. The magic number for the North Stars to win a fifth straight Global Ag Risks Solution title is four meaning any combination of Battlefords wins or Humboldt Broncos losses totalling that number would give them another banner to hang from the rafters.
With the Battlefords hosting both the La Ronge Ice Wolves and Notre Dame Hounds this weekend and the Broncos engaged in a home-and-home set with the Melfort Mustangs the possibility of wrapping up the division exists, but that would be a bit of a stretch as the battle for playoff positioning has created an atmosphere where there is no clear favourite on any given night.
In the past, winning a divisional title guaranteed a top-three seeding for the post-season, but with the elimination of the Wild Card round, and having just the top eight advance, that no longer comes into play. What it does signify, however, is that you are in a position to be at or near the top of the overall standings and the Battlefords are comfortably leading that race as well.
With a 14-point bulge on the Viterra Division-leading Yorkton Terriers and 15 points ahead of the Flin Flon Bombers – frontrunners in the Sherwood Division – the North Stars control their own destiny for claiming home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, but there is a lot of hockey yet to be played.
Flin Flon, for example, holds a number of games in hand on both teams in front of them in the overall point’s race and they will look to add to their two-game winning streak when they visit the red-hot Nipawin Hawks on Friday.
Nipawin has reeled off five straight victories to give them some breathing room in the battle for a playoff position and a win on Friday would pull them closer to the Bombers and keep them in the hunt for a third straight Sherwood Division crown.
Another team that has been on a roll since the Christmas break are the Estevan Bruins. With points in their last six outings the Bruins have taken control of the eighth and final playoff berth while also remaining in the hunt for a fourth straight Viterra Division title. Estevan enters the weekend 16 points behind Yorkton for that honour, but with eight games in hand on the Terriers they will look to close that gap when they play the Weyburn Red Wings in a home-and-home set. Yorkton is idle until Jan. 25 as their home arena is presently being occupied by the Grand Slam of Curling event being held in that east-central centre.
One other game this weekend has Notre Dame visiting Kindersley to take on the Klippers with both of those teams needing to put together lengthy winning streaks if they hope to get back into the playoff picture. Both are a handful of points behind Estevan for that final spot and with Weyburn and Melville just behind them in the standings all four of those teams need something special to occur down the stretch if they hope to extend their seasons beyond the first week of March.
The league will take a short break following Saturday’s action as the annual Sask/Man Showcase will be held in Regina on Tuesday and Wednesday. There will be a total of six games played in those three days with scouts from various levels of the game to be in attendance watching the best players from both leagues go head to head. Games will be broadcast on SaskTel Max in addition to being streamed live for those who can’t make it to Regina, but it is hoped that large crowds will take in the action as this has turned into one of the premiere events on the calendar each and every year.
SJHL NOTES – Nipawin rookie goalie Ross Hawryluk was perfect in his nearly 30 minutes of action at Tuesday’s Canadian Junior Hockey League Top Prospects Game played in Hamilton, Ont. Hawryluk stopped all 10 shots he faced in helping Team West come out triumphant in a 6-4 decision over Team East. Mac Gross was also to have played in the game, but the former Klipper defenceman had to forfeit his spot when he joined the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs after the Christmas break…Still with Hawryluk, the 18-year-old Lloydminster product has claimed a share of the top individual goaltending stats as he has a 2.18 goals-against-average and .931 save percentage in 23 appearances. Weyburn’s rookie netminder, Joseph Young, also has a 2.18 GAA, but his save percentage is slightly better at .935. Young’s book of work, however, is smaller as he has seen action in only 17 games, but that is certain to change following Weyburn’s trade of Noah Decottignies to Humboldt at the trade deadline… The Battlefords have moved up a spot to No. 5 in the weekly CJHL rankings and could climb higher if they add to the two wins already posted this week…Yorkton captain Chantz Petruic eclipsed the 100-point plateau earlier this week when his three-point performance in a 4-2 decision over the Red Wings gave him 101 points in 47 games. With 11 games left on the schedule he has a chance to register the most points in the last 20 years as the 107 turned in by the Battlefords Layne Young two years ago is the highest total since Tyler Shantz posted 111 with the Lebret Eagles in the 2000-01 campaign. Previous to that Kevin Doell had 141 points with Melfort in 1998-99 and while that is likely out of reach for Petruic so is the 187 points Humboldt’s Bill McDougall collected in 1986-87…There are a number of players looking to add to their consecutive-game streaks this weekend as Humboldt’s Luke Spadafora and Tristian Shewchuk have assists in their last seven and six games, respectively, and the Battlefords Seth Summers also has helpers in his last six outings. As for points, Flin Flon’s Cole Rafuse is on a 12-game run where he has averaged more than two points per game with 25 in that span and Spadafora’s overall streak is eight games with at least one point as he has 13 points in those eight games. Petruic, who had a 23-game run earlier in the season, is on a nine-game streak right now, but he will have to wait another week before he can try and add to that.
Flin Flon at Nipawin
Humboldt at Melfort
Estevan at Weyburn
Notre Dame at Kindersley
La Ronge at Battlefords
Weyburn at Estevan
Melfort at Humboldt
Notre Dame at Battlefords
Tuesday and Wednesday
Sask/Man Showcase at Co-Operators Arena in Regina
(Three games each day)