By Dave Leaderhouse
Outside of the holiday break there is seldom a five-day stretch when the lights are completely out on the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League regular season, but that is what occurred this week with no games having been played since last Sunday.
That is all about to change in a big way as the final third of the schedule kicks into high gear this weekend with a full slate of games and the hectic pace continues right through the week as several more contests will be played. With just six weeks remaining on the regular schedule each of the 12 teams still have between 18-20 games to play so going forward there will be plenty things to settle.
Chief among the battles that has taken shape is the one for the final playoff spot. With the Kindersley Klippers edging the Weyburn Red Wings 5-4 in the last game played they jumped past the Melville Millionaires into the final playoff berth, but with the Klippers being the lone team being idle this weekend and the Millionaires on the road in La Ronge on Friday and Nipawin on Saturday that could easily change once again.
The next battle is the one for sixth place, the final position that would avoid an opening best-of-five Wild Card round. Entering this weekend the Red Wings hold onto that spot, but their claim is being challenged by three other teams – Melfort Mustangs, Yorkton Terriers and Notre Dame Hounds – with just three points separating those four clubs.
Weyburn, which has slipped to 12 points behind the Viterra Division-leading Estevan Bruins, have just one game this weekend when they will host the Humboldt Broncos and with the Red Wings having played as many as four games more than those that are chasing them, getting something out of that game is imperative.
Melfort is just one point back of the Red Wings and they will enjoy home-ice advantage on both Friday and Saturday when they will host Notre Dame and the La Ronge Ice Wolves, respectively. The Mustangs have finally gotten back to the .500 level after some early-season struggles and with a 5-3-1-1 ledger in their last 10 games are playing some of their best hockey of the season.
Yorkton has also been playing better of late going 5-5-0-0 in their last 10, but they will have their hands full this weekend when they host the red-hot Flin Flon Bombers on back-to-back nights. The Terriers begin the weekend just two points back of Weyburn and one in arrears of the Mustangs, but they are also looking over their shoulders as Notre Dame, which also hosts the league-leading Battlefords North Stars in a neutral-site game in Shellbrook on Saturday, are just one point behind Yorkton.
That game between Notre Dame and the Battlefords would normally pit the league’s two top scorers, but the North Stars’ Layne Young will be on the sidelines completing a two-game suspension for an infraction that occurred last week in a game against Weyburn. Young, who has had a point in 14 straight games (8-15-23 in that span) is tied with Flin Flon’s Greyson Reitmeier for second place in the individual scoring race, six points behind Notre Dame’s Ben Duperreault.
That four-team fight for sixth place isn’t the last battle that is going on. The Nipawin Hawks and Humboldt Broncos have both won their last three games leaving the former with a two-point edge on the latter for fourth place overall, a position that would get home-ice advantage in the quarter-final round of the playoffs.
Nipawin, which has played the fewest games of any team at 38, have just the home date on Saturday against Melville this weekend while the Broncos tackle the southeast portion of the province with stops in Estevan on Friday and Weyburn on Saturday.
With all of that muddied water in the mid-to-lower portion of the standings, the top part is a lot clearer.
The Battlefords, who have points in their last eight games, are 22 points clear of Humboldt for top spot in the Finning Division standings and while it is just past the midway mark of January the North Stars’ magic number to clinch their second straight Finning Division crown is down to seven.
The Battlefords also hold an 11-point edge on the Sherwood Division-leading Flin Flon Bombers for first place overall while the Viterra Division leaders, the Estevan Bruins, are comfortably in third another five points back of the Bombers.
The only threat to a Battlefords-Flin Flon-Estevan one-two-three finish is the Nipawin Hawks as they are nine back of the Bombers in the Sherwood Division standings and with three games in hand could make that race very interesting if they make some hay while the sun shines.
NOTES: Saturday’s neutral-site game between the Hounds and North Stars in Shellbrook is part of the Hockey Day in Saskatchewan festivities that will also see a Midget AAA female game between the Prince Albert Northern Bears and Swift Current Wildcats and a Midget AAA clash between the Prince Albert Mintos and Beardy’s Blackhawks…Layne Young isn’t the only North Star currently on a lengthy point streak as teammate Coby Downs has a 12-game run of his own with the veteran forward notching five goals and 15 assists in that span…A big reason for the Bombers six-game winning streak is their special teams as Flin Flon has the top power-play operating at 24.3 per cent efficiency while their penalty killing is third best at 83.7 per cent. The Battlefords, not surprisingly, have the best PK at 86.9 percent and are second on the PP at 22.6 percent…An interesting stat to share is the Battlefords are the only team not to have an overtime win. They have won three times in a shootout, but have yet to end a game in the extra session. Weyburn leads that category with three OT triumphs…Saturday’s game in Shellbrook will be Notre Dame rookie sensation Adam Dawe’s final contest before he heads east for the annual CJHL Top Prospect game to be played on Wednesday in Cornwall, Ont. Dawe is the lone SJHL player selected for this game and the league wants to take this opportunity to wish him well.
Melville at La Ronge
Humboldt at Estevan
Notre Dame at Melfort
Flin Flon at Yorkton
La Ronge at Melfort
Melville at Nipawin
Battlefords at Notre Dame
Humboldt at Weyburn
Flin Flon at Yorkton