By Dave Leaderhouse
Photo credit: DiscoverHumboldt.com
Of all the quarter-final match-ups the Nipawin Hawks-Humboldt Broncos series is the only one with a regional flavor and it has the makings of being a long drawn out affair.
The Hawks, who finished the regular season 19 points clear of the Broncos in the standings, had to win the final two meetings with Humboldt just to draw even in the season series between the rivals.
Humboldt, who opened the season with eight wins in their first nine games, captured the first meeting 2-1 in overtime on Sept. 23 before Nipawin rebounded three weeks later with a convincing 6-2 decision on Oct. 14. The Broncos then won back-to-back meetings in early January by 6-2 and 2-1 verdicts, but the Hawks answered with a pair of victories of their own when they won 4-1 and 3-2 in overtime when they were in the heat of a battle with the Flin Flon Bombers for first place in the Sherwood Division over the final six weeks of the regular season.
The Hawks finished the regular season with 20 wins in their final 23 games only to drop back to the No. 4 seed when they fell to the Bombers 4-0 on the final night of the regular schedule. Humboldt, meanwhile, had points in six of its last 10 games – including wins in their final two outings – to secure the No. 5 seed and set up the showdown with Nipawin.
Nipawin, overall, was slightly better offensively then Humboldt outscoring them 200-178, but the biggest difference between the two was defensively where the Hawks allowed just 118 goals against compared to the Broncos’ 178.
A big reason for that separation was the play of SGEU Most Valuable Player and SaskTel Goaltender of the Year Kristian Stead. The 20-year-old Stead led the league in shutouts with seven, wins with 29 and was tied with Taryn Kotchorek of the Battlefords North Stars in save percentage at 93.6 per cent despite playing in 10 extra games. Stead was also third in goals-against average at 1.97.
Humboldt’s answer to Stead is a 20-year-old of their own – Garrett Mason. The Okotoks, Alta., product was the league’s workhorse in goal appearing in 49 games and posting a 2.83 GAA to go with a 91.9 save percentage. Mason was third in wins with 25, but he played in almost 200 more minutes than any other goalie in the league so the 10-day break since the regular schedule ended should benefit him more than anyone.
Both Stead and Mason appeared in four meetings in the season series between the Hawks and Broncos and there is little doubt both will get the bulk of the workload in the post-season.
Offensively, the Hawks scored by committee against the Broncos with Josh Bly, Eric Bolden and Grant Baetsen leading the way with three goals and one assist each while Keegan Kjargaard was the top point producer with five assists. For the Broncos it was the big three of Chris Van Os-Shaw, Trevor Posch and Logan Schatz piling it up against the Hawks as that trio combined for 22 points led by Van Os-Shaw’s three goals and six assists.
Special teams could be a factor in this series as both teams were sent to the penalty box on a regular basis. Humboldt finished the season series going 7/32 with the man advantage while Nipawin was just 4/40.
The Hawks made some significant player moves during the season as they added Bly (from Kindersley), Bolden (returned from college), Tanner Thompson (from La Ronge) and Keegan Milligan (from Melville). Nipawin also has Brandan Arnold back from the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos and while he never played in any games against Humboldt he collected 14 points in just nine regular-season games.
The Broncos also made a few changes during the season when they brought in Tristen Elder (from La Ronge via Cobourg), Cole Young (from Kindersley) and Brett Horn (from the Battlefords). Humboldt sent their leading scorer at the time, Daniel McKitrick, to Cobourg in exchange for Elder.
With this being a regional series it is going to be following an alternate home-game format with Game 1 to be played in Nipawin on Friday and switching to Humboldt on Saturday. The series will return to Nipawin on Tuesday and then head back to Humboldt on Thursday. Should more games be needed they will be played in Nipawin on Mar. 25, Humboldt on Mar. 27 and Nipawin on Mar. 28.
The Hawks are looking to take that next step as they were semi-finalists in each of the last two years before losing out to the eventual champions from Melfort while Humboldt is making a return to the post-season after a one-year absence.
This one undoubtedly will have plenty of fan interest and if the season series is any indication it shouldn’t disappoint those following it.