By Dave Leaderhouse
Twas the week before Christmas
And all through the league
Everyone is skating, shooting and hitting
Before taking an extended leave
The North Stars, Bruins and Bombers
Have all taken early flight
With dominating first-half performances
They now have division titles in sight
Challengers are aplenty
For positions four through ten
And the individual scoring race
Is led by a player named Ben
The season is long
With countless miles on a bus
But the players don’t mind
Because they are playing for us
Get through this weekend
To head home to family and friends
Before returning to play
Right to the bitter end
The SJHL would like to thank
Everyone for giving them a reason
To celebrate this great game
And wishing everyone a festive season
That’s a pretty weak attempt at poetry, but the point is clear: the SJHL is into its final weekend of the pre-Christmas portion of the schedule and there are a number of games to be played before a well-deserved 12-day break takes effect.
The first half has seen some incredible hockey, but clearly, the frontrunners are the Battlefords North Stars, Estevan Bruins and Flin Flon Bombers.
All three have sizeable leads in their respective divisions and will be looking to add to those totals before heading home for the holidays.
The North Stars lead the entire league with a 27-7-0-0 record and with just two losses in their last 21 games are 15 points clear of the Humboldt Broncos for the Finning Division lead and seven ahead of the Bruins for first place overall.
The Bruins, who have stumbled a bit of late with three straight losses, still hold a commanding 10-point bulge over the Weyburn Red Wings in the Viterra Division standings while the Bombers are now the hottest team in the league with six straight wins to widen their advantage over the Nipawin Hawks to 13 points in the Sherwood Division race.
Included in Flin Flon’s recent streak is a 4-2 decision over the North Stars earlier this week and those two teams will meet again on Friday in the Battlefords to kick off a busy final weekend. The Bombers, who will also play in Kindersley on Saturday, are still without forward Brandon Lesko, defenceman Cory Thomas and head coach Mike Reagan who are all with Team West at the World Junior “A” Challenge in Bonneyville, Alta., this week.
While the division leaders are firmly in place there are still a number of interesting races shaping up, namely the battle for positions four through six, which by season’s end will get a bye in the opening Wild Card round.
Entering the final pre-Christmas weekend, the Notre Dame Hounds have moved into sixth spot, but they are just a single point ahead of Nipawin, Melfort and Yorkton with Kindersley just two points back of that trio. All five of those teams have Weyburn firmly in their sights as the Red Wings are just three points clear of the Hounds and Humboldt has come back to the group with just a two-point edge on Weyburn for fourth overall and the last spot to have home-ice advantage in the quarter-final round of the playoffs. Humboldt and Weyburn meet in a key contest on Friday.
Notre Dame has just the one game this weekend when they travel to Estevan on Friday for a rematch with the Bruins. The Hounds held the explosive Bruins to just one goal on Wednesday when they scratched out a 3-1 victory on home ice.
Nipawin has a huge home-and-home series with the La Ronge Ice Wolves to close out the pre-Christmas schedule. The Hawks have rebounded from a stretch where they lost five of six by winning their last two games and they could move closer to the Bombers if the results fall they way they hope. They can’t, however, take the last-place Ice Wolves lightly as La Ronge is a club fighting to get back into the playoff picture and have been playing much better now that the new coaching staff has settled in.
Melfort, the two-time defending league champions, have just a date in Humboldt on Saturday while Yorkton, who is also missing defenceman Regan Seiferling due to his involvement with Team West, also host the Battlefords on Saturday.
The Melville Millionaires, who presently join La Ronge on the outside of the playoff picture, are in Weyburn on Saturday before returning home for the lone game on Sunday when they will host the North Stars, the finale of a three-games-in-three-nights stretch for the league leaders. Melville could quite easily move into a playoff position with a strong weekend as they are just three points back of Kindersley.
The first half of the schedule has been packed with numerous exciting team and individual performances and all of that has been a prelude to what promises to be a thrilling ride to the finish line.
To the fans, volunteers and sponsors, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League would like to take this opportunity to say thanks and to also wish everyone a very festive and safe season.
Nipawin at La Ronge
Flin Flon at Battlefords
Notre Dame at Estevan
Weyburn at Humboldt
Melfort at Humboldt
Flin Flon at Kindersley
La Ronge at Nipawin
Melville at Weyburn
Battlefords at Yorkton
Battlefords at Melville