By Dave Leaderhouse
Now the fun really begins in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League!
The final nine weeks of the regular schedule gets into full swing this weekend with a full slate of games on Friday and Saturday and as the end gets closer there is still so much that needs to be decided.
All three divisional races have the leaders separated by no more than four points and the battle for top spot overall has a trio of clubs with just two points difference between them. Another group of teams are lurking close behind which makes things even more exciting.
There is also a bit of intrigue in the bottom part of the standings, but the Melville Millionaires appear to have found a winning formula since making a coaching change at the end of November as they have now put some distance behind them for the final playoff berth although there is still plenty of hockey left to be played giving the Weyburn Red Wings and La Ronge Ice Wolves an opportunity to chase that spot right to the finish line.
The spotlight, however, shines brightest at the top and this weekend the two top teams go head-to-head once again as the Nipawin Hawks and Melfort Mustangs pick up from where they left off prior to the Christmas break when they split a home-and-home set before having two weeks off.
Nipawin begins the stretch run with a two-point edge on the Mustangs for both the Sherwood Division and overall point’s leads, but Melfort holds a pair of games in hand. Just two teams have scored fewer goals than the defence-first Hawks, but when you average less than two goals against per outing then big offensive numbers aren’t required to rack up the wins.
The Mustangs, meanwhile, have had little trouble putting the puck in the net, especially overage forward Justin Ball who has picked up at least one point in 33 straight games to hold a nine-point edge in the individual scoring race. Melfort is also pretty frugal in their own end resulting in a league-best goal-differential of plus-47.
The showdown begins on Friday in Nipawin and resumes on Saturday at the Northern Lights Palace in Melfort. Both have fairly favourable schedules for the remainder of the season as the majority of their games left to be played will be in front of their faithful supporters although that scale is tipped slightly in the Hawks’ favour as Nipawin will have just seven road games after this weekend compared to Melfort’s 11.
The third team in that tight grouping at the top of the overall point’s standings is the Kindersley Klippers.
The Global Ag Risk Solutions Division leaders have just one regulation-time loss in their last 10 outings giving them a three-point edge on the Battlefords North Stars for the divisional lead and leaving them tied with Melfort, two points back of Nipawin for top spot overall.
Solid defence is also a cornerstone of the Klippers’ style as they are second in fewest goals against, trailing just the stingy Hawks in that category. While the Mustangs and Hawks will enjoy slightly more home cooking down the stretch the opposite is true for the Klippers as after this weekend’s doubleheader against the Ice Wolves at the West Central Events Centre they will play 14 of their final 20 games away from the friendly confines.
That same scenario also stares the Battlefords right in the eyes as the North Stars, who play the Humboldt Broncos in a home-and-home set this weekend beginning on Friday at the Civic Centre, will have just four home dates once this weekend is completed.
The North Stars have quietly become the league’s hottest team as their current run with points in five straight games has closed the gap on Kindersley for the divisional lead and brought them into the conversation for top spot overall. While the North Stars have been solid on home ice going 14-5-3-2 they have been just slightly better than .500 on the road with a 6-4-0-2 ledger. That will definitely have to improve if they hope to stay in both races.
Their opponents this weekend are still in the thick of things, but Humboldt has cooled down considerably with just two wins in their last 10 games after starting the season surprisingly strong considering everything that has happened in the past nine months.
The Broncos were dealt another blow over the holidays when head coach and general manager Nathan Oystrick and the team suddenly parted ways leaving assistant coach Scott Barney in charge. The Broncos have since brought in Troy Smith from Ontario to help Barney and with Smith’s wealth of experience in the Ontario Junior Hockey League it should only be a matter of time before they right the ship.
Other games this weekend have the Flin Flon Bombers making a swing through east-central Saskatchewan with stops in Yorkton and Melville while the Weyburn Red Wings also play those two clubs on opposite nights.
When the Millionaires visit Weyburn on Friday they will not only be looking to expand on their three-game winning streak, but to also put further distance between themselves and the Red Wings for the final playoff berth. Melville is also sneaking up on the Estevan Bruins as they now trail them by just seven points with three games in hand.
Saturday’s game between Weyburn and Yorkton will be their first meeting since those clubs completed a major deal right after the calendar flipped to 2019. Included in the trade was the swapping of goaltenders with Riley Lamb moving to the Viterra Division-leading Terriers while Ben Laidlaw headed south to the Red Wings.
For the Terriers, this weekend begins a stretch where they will play 10 of their next 13 on home ice and with an 11-4-1-0 mark so far at Farrell Agencies Arena that bodes well for them to expand on the four-point cushion they currently enjoy over Estevan for the division lead. Yorkton, who got good news when their leading scorer, Jared Legien, was returned from the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants following a three-game stint over the Christmas break, also have four games in hand on Estevan, who, along with the Notre Dame Hounds, are idle this weekend.
Finally, Flon Flon, which has played the fewest games of any team in the league, will need to start putting together a lengthy streak if they hope to catch those in front of them. With numerous games in hand they are just 10 points back of Nipawin, but a .500 mark in their last 10 games has left them with a bit of ground to make up.
SJHL NOTES – Rosters should be announced in the very near future for the second annual Sask/Man Showcase scheduled for Jan. 14-15 at the Co-Operators Centre in Regina. The event, presented by Sask Milk, has each league field three teams with a series of games being played over the two days. Scouts from various levels of hockey will be in attendance to evaluate the talent. Last year’s Showcase was wildly successful and there is plenty of anticipation for this one to be even better…Fans are reminded that the 50th anniversary book “Heart & Soul of the SJHL” produced by Rod Pedersen is on sale at all SJHL arenas in addition to the SJHL website www.sjhl.ca.. The final trade deadline is next Thursday and with so many races up in the air it is expected to be a rather busy stretch leading up to that date. That fact alone could amp up the intensity of this weekend’s action.
Humboldt at Battlefords
La Ronge at Kindersley
Melfort at Nipawin
Melville at Weyburn
Flin Flon at Yorkton
Battlefords at Humboldt
La Ronge at Kindersley
Nipawin at Melfort
Flin Flon at Melville
Weyburn at Yorkton