By Dave Leaderhouse
The holidays must have been good because it sure feels like an eternity since any of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League teams last took to the ice.
That will change on Friday, however, when eight of the 12 franchises get back to work for a customary set of home-and-home clashes between regional rivals to close out the 2016 portion of the schedule.
Before those contests are cued up let’s have a quick refresher on what took place prior to the 12-day break.
The Battlefords North Stars were an ordinary 8-5-0-0 in their first 13 games under new head coach and general manager Nate Bedford to start the season, but all they have done since then is win 22 of their last 24 to open up a 19-point bulge over the Humboldt Broncos for first place in the Finning Division race and they are also 11 points clear of the Estevan Bruins for first overall.
The North Stars, who were the ninth-ranked team in the Canadian Junior Hockey League prior to Christmas, have another week off before returning to action when they head south for a three-games-in-three-nights swing against Estevan, Weyburn and Notre Dame.
Estevan has surprised everyone with its first half going 24-11-0-1 to build a 12-point cushion over the Weyburn Red Wings for top spot in the Viterra Division standings. Many thought this would be a rebuilding year after the Bruins lost a bevy of players following last season’s run as host team for the Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup, but Estevan has answered those naysayers with the most explosive offence in the league having scored 151 times in 36 games. Team defence is the Achilles Heel as they have yielded the second-most goals-against behind just the La Ronge Ice Wolves.
The Flin Flon Bombers are the third divisional leader and prior to a two-game losing skid to enter the break the Bombers had gone 12-1 to open up a nine-point lead on the Nipawin Hawks in the Sherwood Division race. That race could turn out to be the best of the three, however, as the Hawks have won four straight prior to Christmas and they also have five games in hand on the Bombers.
With the divisional leaders marching on, the real battle is going to be for positions four through 10 as just eight points separate the teams currently occupying those spots with the Melville Millionaires only three points back of joining that group.
La Ronge is the only team not in contention at the moment, but after a first half that saw three different men guide the team behind the bench, the Ice Wolves are hoping for a strong stretch run and that begins this weekend when they face Flin Flon on back-to-back nights.
The other tilts this weekend also provide some intrigue as Estevan takes on its nearest challenger in the Viterra Division race when they square off against arch-rival Weyburn, Yorkton and Melville renew the Highway 10 rivalry with just three points separating those two clubs and Nipawin looks to close the gap with Flin Flon even further when they meet the two-time defending champion Melfort Mustangs on consecutive nights. Melfort has turned things around with points in seven of its last 10 games to sit just two points back of Nipawin so they, too, have to be considered in the Sherwood Division race.
The Notre Dame Hounds are the first of the four idle teams to get back to work when they face Melville on Wednesday while the Humboldt Broncos, Kindersley Klippers and Battlefords all have to wait till next Friday before they return to action.
NOTES: Ben Duperreault of the Hounds continues to lead the individual scoring race with 51 points, but red-hot Layne Young of the North Stars is closing in quick as the 19-year-old from Frenchman Butte has points (four goals and 14 assists) in 10 straight games to creep to within five of the front-running Duperreault . Flin Flon’s Greyson Reitmeier, who had a 13-game consecutive point streak of his own end just before the break, is third just one point back of Young while Chris Van Os-Shaw of the Broncos leads the league in goals with 26 and sits fourth overall, another point in arrears of Reitmeier. Adam Dawe, a 17-year-old rookie with Notre Dame, is tied with Estevan’s Matt McNeil as both have 42 points with Dawe, who was named this week as the lone SJHL invitee to the CJHL Top Prospects Game next month in Cornwall, Ont., having played in just 30 games…Not surprisingly, the Battlefords tandem of Joel Grzybowski and Taryn Kotchorek lead the league in goals-against average at 1.73 and 1.85, respectively, but Nipawin’s Kristian Stead has the best save percentage at .938…Again, not surprisingly, the Battlefords have the best power-play record operating at 23.6 per cent efficiency while Notre Dame is slightly ahead of the North Stars in killing off penalties with the Hounds being successful 86.7 per cent of the time while the Battlefords are at 86.0 per cent.
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Weyburn at Estevan
Nipawin at Melfort
Melville at Yorkton
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Melfort at Nipawin
Yorkton at Melville
Estevan at Weyburn