By Dave Leaderhouse
The stretch run officially gets under way with a full Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League schedule this weekend and there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered in the final six weeks of the regular season.
With 10 of the 12 teams qualifying for the post-season those who will be advancing appear already decided as the La Ronge Ice Wolves and Yorkton Terriers will need to put together massive winning streaks over their final 20 games in order to extend their season beyond the final night of the schedule on March 9.
La Ronge, losers of their last seven games, are 12 points back of the Melville Millionaires for the final playoff spot while Yorkton is nine behind their Highway 10 rivals.
The Ice Wolves have their hands full this weekend when they travel to Flin Flon on Friday to face a Bombers squad that has won six of its last eight including putting the brakes on the Battlefords North Stars 10-game point streak in their last outing. La Ronge will then return home on Saturday to play the Notre Dame Hounds with the completion of an October 29 game that was postponed in the third period due to a power outage preceding a regularly scheduled match. The Hounds were leading 4-3 in that October contest before the power went out in most of northern Saskatchewan.
For the Terriers, this weekend isn’t any easier as they welcome two of the hottest teams in the league with the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division-leading North Stars paying a visit on Friday followed by the Sherwood Division and overall leading Nipawin Hawks invading the Farrell Agencies Arena on Saturday. A key part of Yorkton’s remaining schedule is they have four head-to-head meetings left with Melville and if they hope to catch the Millionaires they will have to enjoy a great deal of success in those contests.
Nipawin, who will host Notre Dame on Friday before heading to Yorkton, has been almost unbeatable for more than two months as the only blemishes in their last 21 games is an overtime loss in Flin Flon on Dec. 2 and a shootout loss at home to the North Stars on Jan. 9. The last time the Hawks lost in regulation time was Nov. 10 when they fell 2-1 to the Mustangs in Melfort.
As a result of their impressive run, Nipawin has built a six-point lead over Melfort for the Sherwood Division and overall point’s lead, but with four games in hand the Battlefords could still catch them in the overall point’s race. That battle will undoubtedly go right down to the final night of action and the schedule makers must have had a crystal ball as Nipawin hosts the Battlefords when the curtain drops on the regular schedule on Mar. 9.
While Nipawin and the Battlefords have put together lengthy point streaks to open up comfortable leads in their respective divisions, the Mustangs have quietly won seven in a row to remain in the conversation for both a divisional and overall point’s title. Melfort travels to Melville on Friday before returning home on Saturday to host the Humboldt Broncos and they will be looking to extend their streak even further to remain in touch with both the Hawks and North Stars.
The final divisional race is the closest of the three and this weekend it heats up even more with the Estevan Bruins and Weyburn Red Wings engaging in a home-and-home series on Friday and Saturday. Estevan enters the weekend with a two-point lead on Weyburn in the Viterra Division standings, but the Red Wings hold a pair of games in hand on the Bruins and with Weyburn having picked up points in their last four games they will be looking to close the gap even further.
The Bruins and Red Wings have met just twice this season with Estevan sweeping the New Year’s weekend doubleheader by convincing 5-2 and 5-1 margins. The southeast rivals will get plenty of opportunities to get to know each other in the immediate future, however, as they will have four more head-to-head meetings in the next six weeks after this weekend’s action.
Two more games this weekend have the Battlefords travelling to Balcarres on Saturday to face Melville as part of the Hockey Day in Saskatchewan celebrations while Notre Dame completes a gruelling weekend schedule with a stop in Humboldt on Sunday to take on the Broncos.
Entering the weekend, just one point separated the Hounds and Broncos in the standings and they, along with both Weyburn and Estevan, are in a battle to remain in the top six in the overall standings. Whoever emerges between the Bruins and Red Wings to win the Viterra Division will automatically get a top-three seed for the post-season leaving the other three in a fight for the fifth and sixth positions and a bye from the opening best-of-five Wild Card round.
Both Flin Flon and the Kindersley Klippers, who are the only team that is idle this weekend, could make that race even more challenging should they string together lengthy streaks, but time is not on either one of their sides as the deficits are double digits for both to close in on the group in the middle of the standings.
SJHL NOTES – From all accounts the inaugural SJHL/MJHL Showcase held in Regina earlier this week was wildly successful with the 60 SJHL representatives all having plenty of opportunities to display their talents to a bevy of scouts from various post-secondary institutions. Melfort netminder Evan Plotnik was the first beneficiary of the Showcase as it was announced on Thursday that he has committed to AIC, an NCAA Division 1 school, for next season. On the same day, Plotnik’s teammate with the Mustangs, Loch Morrison, announced that he will suit up with the Acadia Axemen next year…The Hockey Day in Saskatchewan festivities in Balcarres actually got underway on Wednesday with a pair of minor hockey games while the Melville Millionaires held a team practise and a skating session with the public on Thursday. Saturday’s schedule is full with Midget AAA female and male games taking to the ice prior to the Millionaires and North Stars tilt. A number of other games will complete the event on Sunday with NHL Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr being the guest speaker at a banquet on Friday. Last year’s event in Shellbrook was hugely successful and helped raise thousands of dollars for rink upgrades. The same is expected this time around in Balcarres.
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Melfort at Melville
Weyburn at Estevan
Notre Dame at Nipawin
Battlefords at Yorkton
Nipawin at Yorkton
Estevan at Weyburn
Notre Dame at La Ronge
Humboldt at Melfort
Battlefords at Melville in Balcarres
Notre Dame at Humboldt