By Dave Leaderhouse
Generally speaking, a mid-season rest is a great opportunity to regroup and prepare for the stretch run, but it can also add a layer of rust and the Nipawin Hawks are hoping that none of the latter has built up as they return to action after a 17-day break.
The Hawks entered the Christmas hiatus as the hottest team in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League having collected a point in 16 straight games and in the process built a seven-point cushion atop the Sherwood Division standings while also jumping to the top of the overall point’s race.
The last time Nipawin lost in regulation time was Nov. 10 when they fell 2-1 to the Melfort Mustangs. Since then the only blemish is a 4-3 overtime loss in Flin Flon on Dec. 2 against the Bombers as they have outscored the opposition 72-30 in winning 15 of their last 16 games.
The Hawks haven’t played since Dec. 19 when they went into La Ronge and blanked the Ice Hawks 4-0 and that is where they will return on Friday for the first game of a home-and-home set this weekend. Nipawin has by far the best road record at 13-4-2-1 and after Friday’s game they will have just eight more games away from the friendly confines for the rest of the season. What makes that situation even scarier for opposing teams is that the Hawks home record is even better as they have won their last 10 at the Cage and are 13-1-0-1 overall on home ice.
The Hawks will be facing a team that is desperate for some points as the Ice Wolves begin the second half 12 points back of both Flin Flon and the Melville Millionaires, the two teams that occupy the final two playoff spots. Despite having already recorded more wins than they did all of last year, the Ice Wolves have struggled in finding the back of the net as they have scored a league low 78 goals in 34 games. Nipawin, in contrast, has allowed less than that amount (77) in playing one extra game than their northern rivals.
The Humboldt Broncos, Notre Dame Hounds and Melfort also get back to work after their lengthy Christmas breaks with all three teams taking to the road for a pair of difficult matches this weekend.
The Broncos, who dropped their final three games before the holidays, will head to Weyburn to face the Red Wings on Friday and then move down the highway to take on the Viterra Division-leading Estevan Bruins on Saturday.
The Mustangs, who dominated the early part of the regular schedule before falling off the pace set by the red-hot Hawks, will do the same trip in reverse order with a stop in Estevan on Friday preceding a date in Weyburn on Saturday.
Notre Dame begins a second half of the schedule that will see them play 15 of their final 24 games on the road as they head to the Battlefords on Friday to face the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division-leading North Stars on Friday before moving over to Kindersley on Saturday to square off against the Klippers.
The Hounds, winners of their last two starts before the break, trail the North Stars by six points in the divisional race, but with a 5-6-1-2 road record so far they will have to find a way to turn that around if they hope to challenge the Battlefords for the division lead.
One final set of games this weekend has the Yorkton Terriers heading to Flin Flon for a doubleheader against the Bombers.
Flin Flon has won its last three games to pull even with Melville in the overall standings and if things work out in their favour this weekend they could catch Kindersley. With that said, the Bombers will need an amazing second half to move any higher as there is a large gap between the seventh-place Red Wings and eight-place Klippers as Flin Flon enters the weekend 13 points back of Weyburn.
For the Terriers, the script is similar to that of the Ice Wolves. Yorkton is nine points back of both Flin Flon and Melville for the final playoff spot so there is little room for error heading down the stretch.
SJHL NOTES – Battlefords’ captain Layne Young picked up where he left off before the break when he notched a pair of goals in the North Stars’ 4-2 win over Kindersley on Wednesday. Young, who has committed to the University of Saskatchewan Huskies for next year, now holds an eight-point lead over Estevan’s Zach Goberis in the individual scoring race… Goberis still leads everyone in goals scored with 26, but Nipawin’s Brandan Arnold has pulled to within one in that category after netting 12 goals in his last 13 games…Rookie of the year honours this season appears to be a battle of first-year netminders as Nipawin’s Jake Anthony and Humboldt’s Jacob Wassermann have taken the reigns for their respective teams and helped them to be a contender each and every night. Anthony leads all goalies with a 1.87 goals-against average and .928 save percentage while Wasserman is at 2.67 and .907 in almost 200 more minutes of action…Humboldt’s Logan Schatz has the longest current point streak with 17 points in his last nine games, but that is a long way off the pair of runs that Young had earlier in the season. Young began the season with 31 points in his first 14 games and then after a three-game dry spell reeled off another 29 points in his next 12 contests…Nipawin is the only team not to have given up a short-handed goal against this year while on the flip side Notre Dame has allowed eight shorthanded markers while they have “enjoyed” the man advantage. The other side of the equation has Kindersley being the only team not to have scored a shorthanded tally with the Battlefords and Estevan having each potted six goals while killing off penalties…This weekend will be the last opportunity for teams to evaluate their rosters before Wednesday’s trade deadline. There will undoubtedly be some shakeups as the battle for playoff positioning is only going to get more intense as the season progresses.
Nipawin at La Ronge
Melfort at Estevan
Yorkton at Flin Flon
Humboldt at Weyburn
Notre Dame at Battlefords
La Ronge at Nipawin
Melfort at Weyburn
Yorkton at Flin Flon
Humboldt at Estevan
Notre Dame at Kindersley