By Dave Leaderhouse
Take a snapshot of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League standings today because the way this weekend’s schedule is set up it could easily be turned upside down by Sunday.
Three home-and-home match-ups will all have a significant say in how things shake out for the remaining three weeks of the regular schedule and the other two contests on both Friday and Saturday are even more attractive in setting the course heading into the stretch run.
The Flin Flon Bombers, who suffered their first regulation-time losses in 2017 last weekend when they fell 3-2 in Notre Dame and 4-2 in Estevan, take on the La Ronge Ice Wolves in what amounts to must-win games. Flin Flon, which at one point held a double-digit advantage over the Nipawin Hawks for the Sherwood Division lead, are now just two points up on the red-hot Hawks with Nipawin holding a pair of games in hand.
The Bombers can’t take the struggling Ice Wolves lightly as La Ronge is bound to snap its 19-game winless streak at some point and Flin Flon has to be ready for a team that is desperate to get back in the win column. Adding to the excitement of the stretch-run for the division title, and higher seed going into the playoffs, is that the Bombers and Hawks will face each other twice in the coming week with one more meeting set for the final night of the regular season and everything points to that game at the Whitney Forum on March 7 being a deciding factor in who claims the title.
Nipawin has closed the gap thanks to a 12-game winning streak, but they have their hands full this weekend to extend that run when they visit the Kindersley Klippers on Friday and the league-leading Battlefords North Stars on Saturday.
Kindersley had a seven-game winning streak of its own snapped on Wednesday when they lost 6-1 to the North Stars while the Battlefords have already locked up the Finning Division title for a second year in a row and their magic number to clinch the regular-season crown is down to four.
The Klippers, who also host the Melfort Mustangs on Saturday, are in a battle with the Weyburn Red Wings, Yorkton Terriers, Notre Dame Hounds and Melfort, for the sixth through 10th positions leading up to the post-season with just five points separating those five teams. The team that finishes sixth gets a bye for the opening best-of-five Wild Card round while the remaining four have to slug it out to see who advances to meet the top two seeds in the quarter-finals.
Two other home-and-home match-ups this weekend also have a lot on the line.
Yorkton and Melville renew the Highway 10 rivalry with the Terriers looking to leap past the Red Wings in the Viterra Division standings and possibly lay a temporary claim to the sixth seed while the Millionaires are close to being on life support in their chase for the final playoff spot, a position they are eight points back of entering the weekend.
Estevan and Weyburn also meet on back-to-back nights with the Bruins comfortably in front of their southeastern rival by 10 points in the chase for the Viterra Division title. If Weyburn has any inclination of catching the Bruins they will need a sweep while a reverse result would in effect all but seal the banner for Estevan and give them a top-three seed heading into the playoffs.
Both the Humboldt Broncos and Notre Dame Hounds are idle this weekend and they will undoubtedly be doing some scoreboard watching.
Humboldt is presently in fifth place overall, but they are just four points clear of Weyburn and five in front of both the Hounds and Yorkton. Throw in Kindersley who is another point back and if Melfort can end a seven-game losing streak with wins in the Battlefords on Friday and/or Kindersley on Saturday then that race tightens up even more.
NOTES: Winning on the road often spells success for teams and not surprisingly the Battlefords have the best road record at 21-4-0-0. Nipawin, however, has reeled off seven straight wins in opposing rinks to help them post the impressive 12-game winning streak. On the flip side, Flin Flon is unmatched on home ice suffering just one regulation loss at the Whitney Forum with the last 10 visitors leaving empty handed…The Bombers have the best power play overall at 25.4 per cent efficiency, but the Melfort Mustangs lead the way with a man advantage on home ice having capitalized on 24.4 per cent of their opportunities at the Northern Lights Palace…Penalty killing is dominated by the North Stars both at home and away, but Nipawin has tallied 10 times while playing a man short and they are also the only team not to have given up a shorthanded goal against…Individually, Ben Duperreault of the Hounds has opened up an eight-point lead in the scoring race over Flin Flon’s Greyson Reitmeier , but the red-hot Josh Bly of the Hawks is now within one point of Reitmeier after collecting four goals and 11 assists in his last seven games…Bly’s streak is the longest active one going right now while Carson Rose of the Red Wings is the hottest sniper of late having netted seven goals in his last four outings…Goaltending continues to be led by the Battlefords’ tandem of Joel Grzybowski (1.74 goals-against average) and Taryn Kotchorek (1.82), but Nipawin’s Kristian Stead has the best save percentage at 93.9 and the most shutouts with six. Garret Mason of the Broncos has been the busiest having appeared in 41 of Humboldt’s 49 games…The playoffs begin March 9 with the road ultimately leading to the Western Canada Cup in Penticton, B.C., and finally to the RBC Cup in Cobourg, Ont. Entering this weekend here are the league leaders from the three other western provinces – Wenatchee Wild in the BCHL (38-8-4-0), Brooks Bandits in the AJHL (41-4-4) and Steinbach Pistons in the MJHL (40-7-1). Penticton Vees are 35-12-2-1 and one of the three divisional leaders in the BCHL.
Melfort at Battlefords
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Nipawin at Kindersley
Yorkton at Melville
Estevan at Weyburn
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Weyburn at Estevan
Melfort at Kindersley
Nipawin at Battlefords
Melville at Yorkton