~ Originally posted on rodpedersen.com (https://rodpedersen.com/neugsies-around-the-rinks-53/)
1) The history: The Flin Flon Bombers had not won the league since 1993, and the Bruins since 1999. Both are such storied clubs, with immense community support, and plenty of finals appearances; just neither have been able to get over the hump in this millennium! As a result, the hopes and attention of both communities have been absolutely dynamite so far in the final, and I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the passion these communities have for their teams in this province (and Flin Flon) never ceases to amaze me.
2) The stakes: So, with all that history in mind, it is no surprise to me that these groups of players and their organizations and fans are almost more fired up to compete for the SJHL Championship Cup than the Centennial Cup! Some people wondered whether the teams would go very hard given that they both have a spot sewn up in the National Championship, but as I said previously, they’re taking this final very, very seriously. There has not been much to choose between the two clubs so far, it’s just that the Bruins have found ways to scrape, claw, and find ways to win. Kudos to them.
3) Goalie dual: One of the things that have been tough to pick between the two clubs in the performance of their goaltenders. Boston Bilous for Estevan and Cal Schell for Flin Flon have both been outstanding. Bilous’ level of experience – a backup for a Memorial Cup run, almost 100 WHL starts, etc – is certainly more than Schell, who has really risen to his present prominence this year; but both have looked like they’ve more-than more than been here before. At the time of writing, Schell’s playoff save percentage is .932, and Bilous is .923, and there might be one goal scored so far that one of them could truly have wanted back. Very impressed with both.
4) Dogs?: I messaged all 10 of the league’s coaches not in the final before it started for their predictions, and to many people’s surprise, they, as a collective, didn’t consider Flin Flon THAT much of an underdog. The games in the regular season between the two clubs were all one-goal games, despite the fact Estevan won three of four, and while Estevan’s forward corps is certainly loaded, Flin Flon’s D-Corps might be just as loaded, and the goaltenders are pretty much even. So, even though there were 20 points between them in regular-season season standings, the Bombers aren’t 20-point underdogs; the games in the final so far have barred that out.
5) PK: What more can be said about Estevan’s 90-percent-plus penalty kill! I spoke to Bruins’ coach Jason Tatarnic about it, and he mentioned how he emphasizes teaching the team to press and be structured in the offensive and neutral zones whilst shorthanded, and that’s great stuff; but the most important element is that he has a real mittful of really smart, experienced, bought-in penalty killers. To put it in context, many coaches would be happy with an 85-percent PK…so 94 is pretty good. They block shots better than any team in this league, and Bilous just is not giving up much in terms of rebounds either. To be fair, both teams have really done a great job down a man in the final so far.
6) The Storm: What a wild ride Game 2 in Estevan was! The wild blizzard storm meant that travel even within Estevan was precarious, at best, and we had two power outages: one right before puck drop, and one with 45 seconds left in the first period. Given wind close to 100 km/h, and intense snowfall, I thought it very unlikely the SaskPower crews could fix it all in time: but they certainly did their job extremely fast and deserve so much praise. The TV broadcasts producer Rusty also did a remarkable job keeping it all together, timed out, and led, and he never ceases to amaze me how he can keep it all together and running run smoothly! I also want to shout out Pete Sereggela, Estevan restaurant owner, Rod Pedersen’s best-bud, huge Estevan Bruins fan, and incredible human being. During the storm outages, he worked so hard making sure there were concessions for people despite a lack of power, went right from the rink to mop his restaurant from all the storm snow (The Taphouse), and worked late into the night. Such a generous, kind, hard-working guy: I can see why he’s a legend in those parts!
7) The Ship: Have to say I keep being impressed with Bombers’ forward Gabe Shipper. The 5-foot-7 forward has done absolutely everything for Flin Flon this playoff: led them in scoring, power play, and on the penalty kill where he has often been responsible for blocking the blistering shot of regular-season goal-scoring champ Mark Rumsey. He’s committed to a great, old academic institution in Maine called Bowdoin College, and after making the team as a total 20-year-old free agent/unknown in training camp, he has continued to get better and has been one of the truly great stories through the post-season.
8) The Trade: The one area the Bombers have done extremely well, in which Estevan smoked Round 1 and 2 opponents Notre Dame and Yorkton, respectively, is on the face-off dot. The biggest reason for that is ‘THE trade’ of this year: Drew Kuzma brought in from Weyburn at the trade deadline, has been way over 60% on faceoffs, and has even been slightly better in that area than Estevan’s Eric Pearce, heretofore considered the SJ’s best faceoff man. Pearce has not been bad at all, but Kuzma has done a great job.
9) Pouliot: The hockey guys always say playoff offensive success goes to the heavy guy, with his nose getting pounded in the blue paint; but Estevan’s Olivier Pouliot is so electric, that none of that applies to him. He’s so confident, so dynamic, so quick, and with such great offensive instincts, that he just continues to play the same game he’s played all year and leads the league in playoff points at almost two points per game, he’s 5-foot-9, 160-pound former QMJHLer is committed to Lakehead University in USports and the OUA, and I have zero doubt he’ll be able to step in at that level and be an impactful guy right away. The moment I knew the Bruins were unlikely to lose to anybody came in the Notre Dame series when Pouliot, the league’s most dynamic offensive player, purposely blocked a shot from point-blank range off his foot on the penalty kill…if a guy like that is bought-in like that, I said to myself, everyone else is in trouble.
10) X-Factor: My X-Factors going into the final was Mason Kaspick for Flin Flon and Cody Davis for Estevan, and I think both of them have done their jobs very well. Kaspick is a big, hulking, physical forechecker, and has done a great job alongside Matt Raymond having heavy shifts with good territorial advantage. Davis has been fantastic, using his incredible north-south speed very intelligently, has penalty-killed well, and after Pearce feels like Tatarnic’s second call when his team is facing an extra-attacker to kill off a game late. He scored an empty-netter in Game 1 with pure will, and as one of two locals on this team (alongside Alex Von Sprecken), you know this final means so much to him.