The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League is closing in on the half-way mark of its regular schedule with some things having crystalized while others remain clouded.
The most obvious result to most observers is that the defending champion Battlefords North Stars are going to be tough to dethrone. The North Stars, who return to action on Friday after a 10-day break when they host the Estevan Bruins, have lost just twice in their first 24 games. That result gives the Battlefords a 10-point cushion on the Humboldt Broncos for both the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division and overall point’s leads with the North Stars also holding four games in hand.
Prior to a 6-4 setback to the Yorkton Terriers in their last outing, the North Stars were the No. 1 ranked team in the entire Canadian Junior Hockey League. That loss, which was the second time this year the Terriers beat the Battlefords, dropped the North Stars down to the No. 4 spot, but they will be looking to reclaim the lofty perch with a busy five-games-in-eight-nights stretch that includes a rematch with the Terriers in Yorkton on Wednesday.
Another intriguing result of the first half is that the vastly improved play of the La Ronge Ice Wolves has made the Sherwood Division race a four-team battle and it appears that a winner of that division likely won’t be decided until the final whistle sounds in early March.
The Ice Wolves already have more wins than in any of the last four seasons and as a result are within three points of the division-leading Melfort Mustangs and Flin Flon Bombers. The Nipawin Hawks, winners of the Sherwood Division and overall point’s race in each of the last two seasons, are tied with the Ice Wolves leaving just three points separating all four teams in the division.
The Bombers face a pair of divisional rivals this weekend when they head to Nipawin on Friday before returning home to host the Mustangs on Saturday while the Ice Wolves take to Highway 10 for a pair of tilts with the Terriers and Melville Millionaires on the weekend.
Individually, an injury is the only thing that is likely to stop Yorkton veteran Chantz Petruic from claiming the scoring title. A 2-0 setback to the Weyburn Red Wings last week ended Petruic’s consecutive-game point streak at 23 games where he accumulated an astonishing 52 points in that span. Overall, Petruic has 56 points, which are 14 more than Flin Flon’s Alec Mayo.
Yorkton also has a 10-point lead in the Viterra Division, but their 11 losses and negative goal differential creates a bit more conversation for the remainder of the season than the convincing manner in which the North Stars are controlling their division.
Granted, the Terriers just went 6-2-1-0 on a nine-game road swing and with four straight on home ice beginning on Friday against La Ronge that conversation might end sooner than later.
Where things get muddy is at the bottom of the standings. With the elimination of the Wild Card round for this year’s playoffs leaving just the eight best records advancing beyond the regular season, a battle royale is looming for the final berth.
Estevan, Melville and the Kindersley Klippers all have 19 points which is two shy of the total put up so far by Weyburn. Those four are chasing the Notre Dame Hounds, who hold a two-point advantage for the final playoff spot.
This weekend, Estevan, which holds as many as four games in hand on the other four teams in their present grouping, is also in Kindersley in addition to their Friday game against the Battlefords. Likewise, Weyburn is making a swing through the west-central portion of the province with stops in Kindersley and the Battlefords, while Melville has just the game against the Ice Wolves and Notre Dame hosts Humboldt, both of which are on Saturday.
The final playoff spot is the current rung on the ladder that the bottom five teams are looking to get a grip on. To climb any higher they will all need to put together lengthy streaks as those ahead of them are slowly putting some space behind them.
SJHL NOTES – Petruic’s recent point streak not only gave him a commanding lead in the individual scoring race, but it also got him recognized at the national level when he was named the CJHL’s Gongshow Gear 3 first star of the month for October. Petruic had 25 points in 11 games during that month…A pair of SJHL rookies have been invited to the Team West selection camp for the World Junior “A” Challenge that will be hosted in Dawson Creek, B.C., Dec. 7-15. Humboldt’s Karter McNarland and Melville’s Nic Porterfield are among 44 players who will be auditioning their talents with Broncos’ head coach and general manager Scott Barney being among those evaluating the talent as he prepares to serve as an assistant coach for the Team West squad…The hottest goal scorer entering this weekend is Flin Flon’s Cole Rafuse, who has eight goals in the last five games. Petruic had 10 goals in a similar stretch earlier in the season, but the longest consecutive-game streak with a goal this year is six, shared by Kyle Ford of La Ronge and Austin Becker of the Battlefords. Rafuse will look to equal and surpass those runs with games against Nipawin and Melfort this weekend.
Flin Flon at Nipawin
La Ronge at Yorkton
Weyburn at Kindersley
Estevan at Battlefords
Melfort at Flin Flon
La Ronge at Melville
Humboldt at Notre Dame
Estevan at Kindersley
Weyburn at Battlefords