It took every second of the regular schedule to determine who would meet who in the quarter-final round of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs, but now the table is set and the second season gets under way on Friday.
The defending Canalta Cup champion Battlefords North Stars ran away with the regular-season and Global Ag Risk Solutions pennants so they will enjoy home-ice advantage when they take on the Nipawin Hawks in the opening round while the Sherwood Division-champion Flin Flon Bombers tangle with the Humboldt Broncos, who needed their final game on Tuesday to secure the No. 7 seed.
The Yorkton Terriers, winners of the Viterra Division banner, will square off against the La Ronge Ice Wolves in another best-of-seven match-up while the Melfort Mustangs will meet the Estevan Bruins with all four of these clubs being among the hottest down the stretch.
The higher seed in each series will host the first two games on Friday and Saturday with all match-ups changing venues for the next two games on Tuesday and Wednesday. Should any of the battles go beyond the minimum four games then they will alternate between higher and lower-seed home arenas on March 13, March 15 and March 17.
It is often said that regular-season results can be thrown out the window when it comes time for the playoffs to begin, but just for fun, we will take a look at how these teams fared against each other over the last five-plus months.
Battlefords (1) vs. Nipawin (8)
The North Stars had their way with almost everyone this season as they went 45-11-2-0 to easily outdistance everyone and at no time were they threatened in either their divisional race or in the chase for the overall point’s banner.
While the Battlefords were victors in five of six meetings against Nipawin there has to be an air of caution entering this series. Last year it was the Hawks who won the regular-season title and as defending champions were heavy favourites to at the very least make a deep run in the defence of their championship.
What happened was they came up against the eighth-seeded Yorkton Terriers in the quarter-finals and after seven hard-fought games it was Yorkton moving on. That isn’t to say it is going to happen again this year, but from a Nipawin perspective, it certainly could.
Three of the Battlefords’ victories against Nipawin this year were by one goal with another having a two-goal margin that included an empty-net tally. Each team had comfortable decisions in the other contests.
Battlefords coach Brayden Klimosko is a co-winner of this year’s Canalta Hotels Coach of the Year Award, but one can never count out a Doug Johnson-coached team as the Nipawin bench boss has been the recipient of that award on three occasions.
Goaltending will likely capture the spotlight in this series as Nipawin’s Ross Hawryluk and the Battlefords’ Adam Dmyterko were strengths for their respective teams and with goal scoring being done by committee for each club it should be a long series.
Flin Flon (2) vs. Humboldt (7)
The Bombers really had nothing to play for for the last couple of weeks as they were locked into the No. 2 position as they couldn’t catch the Battlefords and no one behind them could supplant them in the overall standings.
Whether it was because of that fact, or other things came into play, the Bombers were 3-5-2-0 down the stretch, but now that games are significant again the Bombers will be a handful.
Flin Flon had the most potent offence by a large margin with four players – Cole Rafuse, Alec Malo, Donavan Houle-Villeneuve and Tristan Lemyre – all finishing in the top 10 in individual scoring while Humboldt had just Logan Foster in that group. The Bombers will, however, have to be wary of defenceman Doug Scott as the 19-year-old had 15 points in his final four games and that number could have been higher had he not sat out the season finale against Melville.
The Bombers and Broncos met six times this season with Flin Flon winning four of those contests including one by a shootout. Another win was by a single goal and two others had late empty-net tallies to make the margin of victory look larger than it appeared. One of Humboldt’s wins was also by just a single goal with the Broncos’ other triumph – a 9-3 decision – being the lone decisive outcome.
An interesting thing to note here is that these two teams haven’t seen each other since Dec. 12 and with Humboldt winning its last six games to finish out the regular season they appear ready to make some noise in the playoffs. Flin Flon, however, had the second-best road record and third-best result on home ice so they will be tough.
Melfort (3) vs. Estevan (6)
If goaltending wins hockey games then the Melfort Mustangs appear to be the team to beat as Shawn Parkinson posted perfect games in each of his last three outings and in four of his last five overall to help the Mustangs climb all the way up to the No. 3 seed.
Parkinson finished with a league-high five shutouts and the 21-year-old also had the best goals-against average among active netminders at 2.36. Estevan also has their net covered pretty well as Keenan Rancier was the busiest goalie in the league having appeared in 48 of 58 games and equalling Parkinson’s win total with a league best 25. The only edge in goal is the current roll Parkinson is on so Estevan will have to try and solve him early to send out a message.
For a while it looked like the Bruins might not even qualify for the post-season, but that was largely due to a very light first-half schedule. Once they got into the meat of their schedule they responded accordingly and like the Mustangs won eight of their last 10 games to move several rungs up the standings.
Estevan finished the season by scoring 30 more goals than Melfort, but the Mustangs were just behind the league-leading North Stars for being the stingiest team defensively. The Mustangs and Bruins met four times this season with each team winning twice although Melfort did collect an extra point as the result of one of their setbacks coming in overtime. Each team won once on home ice and another time in the opposing team’s arena so this series could be a coin toss.
Yorkton (4) vs. La Ronge (5)
This series is the most intriguing for a number of reasons.
The La Ronge Ice Wolves are making a return to the playoffs for the first time in four years and with points in nine of their last 10 games finished just one point back of the Terriers for home-ice advantage in this series.
Yorkton also had points in nine of their final 10 contests and they did so without RBC Player of the Year/SGEU Most Valuable Player and SJHL scoring champion Chantz Petruic in the line-up for six of those games as the 20-year-old served a suspension he received in early February.
Petruic won the league scoring race by more than 20 points and he was a whopping 53 points clear of the next highest point producer on the Terriers. One would think with those numbers that Yorkton is a one-dimensional team, but they proved otherwise as they went 5-0-1-0 down the stretch without him in the line-up.
Yorkton also had to overcome the sudden departure of goaltender Ryan Ouellette just after the Christmas break, but rookie Philippe Bond has stepped in and more than adequately filled the void.
For the Ice Wolves they too have had to overcome the loss of their starting netminder as Liam McGarva was issued a 30-day suspension following an incident in a Feb. 12 game meaning he isn’t eligible to return to the line-up until the latter stages of the opening round. Like Yorkton, the Ice Wolves never missed a beat as they won six of seven without McGarva as 18-year-old Xavier Cannon took over the crease and helped La Ronge post its highest win total in a decade.
The Ice Wolves and Terriers met four times this season with each team winning twice, but the Ice Wolves collected a point in each contest as their two setbacks came in extra time. La Ronge’s two wins were by a combined three goals so there is little separation between these two clubs.
An interesting side note here is that La Ronge’s home rink, the Mel Hegland Arena, has yet to see these two teams as both of the Ice Wolves’ “home” games were played at neutral sites. One was in Ice Wolves’ head coach and general manager Kevin Kaminski’s hometown of Churchbridge while the other was in Pinehouse. Kaminski, the rookie bench boss and other recipient of the Canalta Hotels Coach of the Year honours, will undoubtedly be anxious to see his troops in a playoff atmosphere on home ice.
Like Flin Flon and Humboldt, the Terriers and Ice Wolves have not seen each other since early December so there might be a feeling out process, but it isn’t expected to last long.