By Dave Leaderhouse
When the Melfort Mustangs laid claim to the final playoff spot on the final night of the regular season on Wednesday the Notre Dame Hounds were undoubtedly just as happy with that result as were the two-time defending Canalta Cup champions.
Melfort entered that final night of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s regular schedule with a one-point advantage on the Melville Millionaires and when Melville lost in regulation time to the visiting Estevan Bruins the Mustangs were assured of a post-season berth regardless of what happened in their game in Humboldt against the Broncos (it ended in an overtime loss for the Mustangs).
One could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from Wilcox as the Hounds had far more success against the Mustangs during the regular campaign then they did against Melville.
Notre Dame, which was in a fierce battle with Humboldt, Yorkton and Weyburn for a top-six seeding down the stretch before ultimately laying claim to the seventh-best record overall, was 3-0-1-0 against Melfort this year while in six games against the Millionaires the Hounds were 1-4-1-0.
All of that is moot now as the Hounds and Mustangs get ready to open their best-of-five Wild Card series on Friday in Wilcox.
Notre Dame was the lone Wild Card team to post a better-than-.500 record as they finished the regular season with a 26-23-7-2 ledger. The Hounds were 5-2-2-1 over their last 10 games and 2-0-1-0 in their final stretch of regular-season games.
The Mustangs, meanwhile, had a bit of a free-fall over the final month of the regular campaign as they were just 2-7-1-0 in their final 10 games and 0-2-1-0 during the final week to finish with an overall mark of 21-30-3-4.
In head-to-head meetings the Hounds outscored the Mustangs 18-9 with the first two meetings being lopsided victories – 6-2 on Sept. 24 and 7-2 on Nov. 23 – before the final two games ending in 3-2 verdicts – an overtime win for the Mustangs on Jan. 20 and a regulation victory for the Hounds on Feb. 22.
Notre Dame was led by co-scoring champion Ben Duperreault and rookie of the year Adam Dawe all season and while both of those had some success in games against Melfort it was Chance Longjohn who lit up the board for the Hounds in head-to-head meetings against Melfort. Longjohn had three goals and three assists in the four contests against Melfort with Duperreault adding a goal and six helpers. Dawe only played in two games against the Mustangs, but the Gander, Nfdl., product still managed two goals and one assist. Colby Brandt and Tyler Podgorenko also averaged a point-per-game against the Mustangs with each collecting four assists.
For the Mustangs it was Dakota Boutin who led all scorers as the veteran winger had two goals and two assists with one of his goals being the overtime winner in the lone Melfort victory against Notre Dame. Reed Gunville, Adam Hergott and Kalem Zary all had a goal and two assists in the season series against the Hounds.
A look at the regular-season stats quickly reveals two glaring differences between the two teams.
The first is team defence. While both clubs scored the same amount of goals – 174 – the Hounds allowed 49 fewer than the Mustangs. The other is special teams as Notre Dame was 7/15 with the man advantage against Melfort while the Mustangs were 5/24. Overall they were both tightly packed in the middle of the 12-team league in both power-play and penalty-killing numbers, but in head-to-head meetings the Hounds clearly had the better results.
Benjamin Patt will likely get the bulk of the work in the Notre Dame goal as he was used fairly regularly since returning to the SJHL in early January while Evan Plotnik is expected to get the nod in the Melfort goal as he appeared in all four games against the Hounds during the regular season.
This Wild Card round is taking a different route from the other match-up as the Hounds and Mustangs will alternate home games as opposed to Kindersley and Weyburn playing a 2-2-1 format. Following Friday’s game in the Wilcox, the series will move to Melfort for Game 2 on Saturday before returning to Wilcox on Monday. Should the series go beyond the minimum three games it will return to Melfort on Tuesday and if a fifth and deciding match is necessary it will be played in Wilcox on Thursday.
The winner of this series will move on to the quarter-finals and play either the Battlefords North Stars or the Flin Flon Bombers. If Melfort wins they get the league’s No. 1 team from the Battlefords regardless of what happens in the other Wild Card round and if Notre Dame prevails they will secure a date with Flin Flon as that scenario would mean the winner of the other series would automatically draw the North Stars in the next round.
While the numbers are slightly in favour of the Hounds, this series has the potential to be a long one as the Mustangs are, after all, the two-time defending league champions and they know what it takes to get over the top.