By Dave Leaderhouse
One of the biggest questions going around the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League right now is: are the Nipawin Hawks ever going to lose in regulation time again this season?
It has been almost three months, a span of 26 games, since that last occurred, but on Friday they return to the scene of their last regulation defeat when they take on the Mustangs at the Northern Lights Palace in Melfort.
If the impressive run is to come to an end, the Mustangs likely have the best chance of anyone and with Friday’s meeting being the first of five head-to-head clashes over the final five weeks of the regular season between the Sherwood Division rivals they will have plenty of opportunities to do so.
Melfort has actually dominated the season series so far winning the first four meetings before falling in overtime the last time the two clubs met back on Dec. 1. In those four Melfort wins the combined margin was a total of five goals as one went to a shootout and another was decided in the overtime session with the Mustangs’ 2-1 victory on Nov. 10 being the last time Nipawin lost in regulation time.
As a result of Nipawin’s extended streak the Hawks have opened up a 10-point lead over the Mustangs for the Sherwood Division lead and they are also seven points in front of the Battlefords North Stars for first place overall although both of the teams chasing Nipawin hold games in hand.
After Friday’s showdown the teams will have a return engagement in Nipawin on Saturday when the Hawks will begin a four-game homestand. The Hawks will get a good dose of home cooking over the stretch run of the regular season as they will play nine of their final 12 games at the Cage with the only trips remaining after Friday’s short jaunt over to Melfort being a pair of trips to Flin Flon in mid-February and one more game in Melfort at the beginning of March.
The Hawks and Mustangs doubleheader highlights a busy weekend schedule with all 12 teams being in action on Friday and another five games taking to the ice on Saturday.
The Viterra Division-leading Estevan Bruins continue their week-long trip through the central part of the province with stops in the Battlefords on Friday and Humboldt on Saturday.
The Bruins, who are six points up on the Weyburn Red Wings for the division lead, fell 2-0 in Humboldt on Tuesday before rebounding with a 3-2 shootout victory on Wednesday in Kindersley against the Klippers. Estevan is not only in a battle with the Red Wings for the divisional lead, but they are also wary of what could happen should they falter and fall back into the mix for top-six positioning leading up to the playoffs.
Whoever emerges atop the Viterra Division race will capture a top-three seeding leaving the other fending off both Humboldt and the Notre Dame Hounds for the final two spots that will avoid an opening best-of-five Wild Card round.
Weyburn enters the weekend on the outside looking in as they not only trail Estevan by six points, but they are four behind Notre Dame and seven in arrears of the Broncos. The Red Wings, however, do hold games in hand on all of those clubs and they will look to make up some ground when they take on the Yorkton Terriers in a home-and-home series this weekend.
Humboldt is in Notre Dame on Friday before returning home on Saturday for the match against Estevan. The Broncos, who have won three in a row, could put some space between themselves and the rest of the middle-of-the-pack clubs with a strong weekend, but that race could tighten up even more should they struggle.
Another interesting weekend match-up has Flin Flon playing La Ronge in a home-and-home series. The Bombers have been playing much better since the Christmas break and as a result they have gone from possibly missing the playoffs altogether to catching eighth-place Kindersley this weekend. That is likely as high as Flin Flon could go as the group bunched in the middle appear out of reach, but it would set them up to possibly get home-ice advantage for the Wild Card round.
The Melville Millionaires, who presently hold down the 10th and final playoff spot, are in Kindersley on Friday and the Battlefords on Saturday. That’s a pretty daunting trip for anyone, but with Flin Flon and Kindersley pulling away – and Yorkton and La Ronge doing little to close the gap behind them – they really have nothing to lose this weekend.
SJHL NOTES – With five weeks left in the regular schedule, six teams have been confirmed for the post-season as Nipawin, Battlefords, Melfort, Humboldt, Estevan and Notre Dame can’t be caught by either Yorkton or La Ronge. Weyburn can join that group this weekend with a win in either game against the Terriers and Kindersley, Flin Flon and Melville can all move closer to making playoff plans with strong weekends. Like the saying goes, though, “it ain’t over till it’s over,” and both Yorkton and La Ronge could tighten the race up considerably should they have increased success during the stretch run…Battlefords’ captain Layne Young is running away with the individual scoring race having opened up a 17-point advantage on his nearest pursuer – Logan Schatz of the Broncos. Young has already eclipsed the winning total from a year ago and is on pace to become the first SJHL player to hit the century mark in seven years. With 15 games remaining, Young needs just 18 points to reach that milestone…The same can be said in the goaltending stats as the Nipawin tandem of Declan Hobbs and Jake Anthony are the only two with goals-against averages under 2.00. Hobbs leads the way at 1.69 with Anthony at 1.84. Both, however, are far behind a number of workhorses in minutes played as Colby Entz of the Millionaires leads the way with 1967 followed closely by Justen Close of Kindersley at 1930. Evan Plotnik of Melfort, Jacob Standen of Notre Dame and Arik Weersink of Weyburn have also taken on the bulk of their team’s netminding duties with that trio seeing well more than 1700 minutes of action each.
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Nipawin at Melfort
Yorkton at Weyburn
Melville at Kindersley
Estevan at Battlefords
Humboldt at Notre Dame
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Melfort at Nipawin
Weyburn at Yorkton
Estevan at Humboldt
Melville at Battlefords