By Dave Leaderhouse
The final push before the Christmas break begins with a heavy schedule this weekend then tapers off with a sprinkling of games through the week as one by one the 12 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League clubs will enjoy a well-deserved hiatus.
The Weyburn Red Wings are already finished their pre-Christmas schedule as they began a 17-day holiday following their 2-1 overtime loss to the Melville Millionaires on Wednesday. The Red Wings, who currently have a share of first place in the Viterra Division standings, will return to action on Dec. 30 when they begin a traditional home-and-home series with their closest rival – the Estevan Bruins.
Estevan, the team that is tied with Weyburn for the divisional lead, will have a home-and-home set with Melville this weekend before they shut down for the holidays and they will be hoping Christmas comes early as any kind of success against the Millionaires will give them sole possession of first place and the upper hand on the Red Wings when play resumes for the second half of the schedule.
The Millionaires, who earlier this week were announced as one of the SJHL reps – along with the Battlefords North Stars – for Hockey Day in Saskatchewan on Jan. 20 in Balcarres, will also head home after the series against Estevan returning on Dec. 30 for the first half of their doubleheader with the Yorkton Terriers.
Yorkton and the Notre Dame Hounds also play a home-and-home set this weekend to complete their pre-Christmas portion of the schedule.
It has been a mixed bag of results for both of these teams as the Terriers have struggled mightily winning just seven times in their first 31 starts, but they have seen some positive results since making a coaching change just over a month ago. Yorkton enters the weekend with wins in their last two outings, but they have some serious ground to make up as they are presently six points behind the Flin Flon Bombers for the 10th and final playoff spot.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, has been red-hot at home going 15-3-0-1, but on the road they are just 4-6-1-2 and with 16 of their final 24 games in the new year going to be away from the friendly confines of the Duncan McNeill Arena they will have to find a way to turn that around to continue to be among the top teams in the league. The Hounds will have plenty of time to prepare for that final stretch as they will have the longest break of all 12 teams not returning to action until Jan. 5 when they head to the Battlefords for a divisional match against the North Stars.
Those North Stars, thanks to registering points in four straight games, have once again moved to their customary position atop the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division. The Battlefords, who began the season with an incredibly light schedule playing just seven times in the first month, are now three points clear of the Humboldt Broncos and four in front of Notre Dame.
The North Stars will be at home this weekend to complete their pre-Christmas schedule with the Melfort Mustangs visiting on Friday and Flin Flon providing the opposition on Saturday. The Battlefords will then have an 11-day break before resuming play with a match against the Kindersley Klippers in the first game after Christmas on Dec. 29.
Other games this weekend will be a precursor to the final stretch for the six remaining teams as several teams still have plenty of work to do before they head home for the holidays.
Flin Flon is the busiest of the bunch as they will be in La Ronge on Friday before their match against the Battlefords on Saturday and then they will head to Kindersley for back-to-back games against the Klippers on Monday and Tuesday. After starting the season 5-1-0-2 the Bombers have faded considerably as they enter the weekend with a 9-15-1-3 ledger and now sit in 10th place overall with Melville having just moved past them with their win over Weyburn earlier in the week.
Flin Flon remains without head coach Mike Reagan and rookie forward Chrystopher Collin as both are with Team West (along with the Battlefords Levi Kleiboer) at the World Junior “A” Challenge in Truro, N.S. Team West will be playing the United States, a team the fell 2-1 to in round-robin play, in the gold-medal game on Saturday. That match will be broadcast at 1 p.m. on TSN.
The hottest team in the league, the Nipawin Hawks, also have some work to do before taking a break, as they will play the Humboldt Broncos in a home-and-home set this weekend before completing a very successful first half with a stop in La Ronge on Tuesday for a game against the Ice Wolves.
Nipawin has points in its last 13 games and as a result have now moved to the top of both the Sherwood Division and overall standings with an overall record of 23-5-2-2. Following Tuesday’s game against the Ice Wolves, the Hawks won’t return to action until Jan. 5 when they head back to La Ronge for another game against their northern rival.
Humboldt, meanwhile, has also been on a roll picking up points in their last eight games and following the twinbill against the Hawks, they will have to wait until after Friday when they travel to Melfort to face the Mustangs before they take a break from the rink. Both the Broncos and Mustangs will then get two weeks off as they won’t return to action until Jan. 5 when they face the top teams from the Viterra Division with Humboldt heading to Weyburn and Melfort travelling to Estevan.
Kindersley drew the short end of the straw as far as length of Christmas break is concerned. The Klippers play three games in four nights beginning with a Saturday contest at home against Melfort and then following the doubleheader against Flin Flon on Monday and Tuesday they get just 10 days off before returning to action on Dec. 29 against the Battlefords.
The Klippers began the month of December tightly grouped with the rest of the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division, but five straight losses have dropped them back from the others. A strong showing in the homestand before the holidays would certainly make Christmas that much more enjoyable.
The first half of the season has provided some exciting and entertaining hockey and the second half is certainly shaping up to have some fierce battles for playoff positioning.
Everyone involved with the SJHL would like to take this opportunity to wish all the volunteers, fans, sponsors, players and staff a very Merry Christmas and happy and safe holiday season and thanks in advance for the continued support of one of the best Junior “A” leagues in the country.
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Nipawin at Humboldt
Melfort at Battlefords
Melville at Estevan
Yorkton at Notre Dame
Melfort at Kindersley
Flin Flon at Battlefords
Estevan at Melville
Humboldt at Nipawin
Notre Dame at Yorkton
Flin Flon at Kindersley
Nipawin at La Ronge
Flin Flon at Kindersley
Humboldt at Melfort