By Dave Leaderhouse
The reality of a true Canadian winter comes into play this weekend when 11 of 12 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League teams take to the ice during another frigid spell of arctic weather, but evidence of the diversity of this country’s great sporting make-up is never more telling then when the league’s top team is forced to hit the road because of a curling event occupying its home arena.
With the World Curling Tour’s Canadian Open, one of the grand slam events on the schedule, taking over the North Battleford Civic Centre this week, the Battlefords North Stars return to action for the first time in almost three weeks with three games in three nights in southeastern Saskatchewan.
The North Stars, winners of 22 of their last 24 games including their final three before the Christmas break, will be in Estevan on Friday, Weyburn on Saturday and Notre Dame on Sunday. As a result of the exceptional first half turned in by the defending Finning Division champions, the North Stars enjoy a comfortable 19-point lead over the Humboldt Broncos in the division race and a nine-point edge over the Estevan Bruins in the battle for first place overall.
While the North Stars look to pick up where they left off prior to the lengthy break they aren’t the hottest team in the league at the moment. That honour goes to the Nipawin Hawks who have won seven straight, including all three since returning from the Christmas holidays.
The Hawks have been a somewhat streaky team this year having opened the campaign going winless in their first four starts before reeling off wins in 11 of their next 12 to get back into the Sherwood Division race where they have been battling the Flin Flon Bombers all year. That run, however, was followed by a skid that saw them drop eight of their next 10 before they bounced back with their current streak.
Nipawin enters the weekend having closed the gap with Flin Flon to seven points and with four games in hand on the Bombers they could move even closer when they take on the Humboldt Broncos in a home-and-home series that begins on Friday. The Bombers, meanwhile, have enjoyed a good run of their own having won eight of their last 10 and will be looking to continue their improved play when they take to the road for a doubleheader in Kindersley this weekend against the Klippers.
Two other games on Friday have the struggling La Ronge Ice Wolves heading to Melville to face the Millionaires while the Notre Dame Hounds, who will be without netminder Jordan Greenfield-Flemon after the 20-year-old accepted a mid-season scholarship to join the NCAA Division1’s Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves this week, are in Weyburn.
Greenfield-Flemon wasn’t the only SJHL player to get a start on his hockey and education future this week as Flin Flon announced that forward Greyson Reitmeier has committed to Michigan Tech next year.
Saturday’s schedule, which includes the previously mentioned Flin Flon-Kindersley, Humboldt-Nipawin and Battelfords-Weyburn tilts, also has La Ronge moving on to Yorkton to take on the Terriers. The Melfort Mustangs are the only team not in action this weekend as they will return to the ice on Wednesday when they will host Nipawin, a day after the final trade deadline of the season has passed.
The divisional races might all have healthy leads for the frontrunners – Battlefords are 19 ahead of Humboldt in the Finning Division, Estevan is 12 clear of Weyburn in the Viterra Division and Flin Flon has the seven-point bulge on Nipawin in the Sherwood Division although that is somewhat misleading with the Hawks having the four games in hand –but the battle for the remaining seven playoff positions is only just starting to heat up.
Nipawin, with their recent run, have moved into fourth overall and if they weren’t able to catch Flin Flon would still have home-ice advantage in the quarter-final round. Their lead over the fifth-place Broncos is just two points, however, which makes this weekend’s home-and-home series even more important.
Weyburn is just two points back of Humboldt to hold down the final spot that would avoid an opening Wild Card round, but the Red Wings have to be looking over their shoulders as Melfort is one point back in seventh place followed by Yorkton, Notre Dame, Kindersley and Melville where those four teams are all separated by just five points. All told, the difference between the fourth-place Hawks and 11-place Millionaires is 11 points. Just La Ronge appears to be on the outside looking in, but a lengthy winning streak by the Ice Wolves would certainly get them back in the picture.
NOTES: Battlefords’ forward Layne Young will be looking to extend his consecutive-point streak this weekend as he had points in the last 10 North Stars’ games before the break. Young, who has four goals and 14 assists during that stretch, is now tied with Reitmeier for second overall in league scoring with both of those players trailing Notre Dame’s Ben Duperreault by five points…An interesting thing to point out is the Battlefords have a better winning percentage on the road than they do at home. The North Stars are 15-3-0 away from the friendly confines while they are 15-4-0 on home ice. Two of their three road losses, however, have come in rinks where they will be playing this weekend as they fell 4-2 to Notre Dame and 4-3 to Weyburn the last time they made a swing through the south back in mid-October.
Battlefords at Estevan
Nipawin at Humboldt
Flin Flon at Kindersley
La Ronge at Melville
Notre Dame at Weyburn
Flin Flon at Kindersley
Humboldt at Nipawin
Battlefords at Weyburn
La Ronge at Yorkton
Battlefords at Notre Dame