By Dave Leaderhouse
The playoffs are just over two weeks away, but the fans in Nipawin get an early taste of that kind of atmosphere on Saturday when the Hawks host the Flin Flon Bombers in a Sherwood Division showdown at the Cage.
First place will be on the line as the two clubs will either be tied – depending on what happens when the Hawks host Humboldt on Friday – or Flin Flon will remain two points in front with Nipawin still holding a game in hand when the two rivals collide for the second time this week.
The Hawks have won 14 of their last 15 games, including a 7-3 decision in Flin Flon on Tuesday, to erase a double-digit deficit and they needed to put a streak like that together as the Bombers have also been red-hot having gone 13-4-0-0 since the Christmas break.
Nipawin had a 13-game winning streak snapped last Saturday when they were doubled 4-2 by the league-leading Battlefords North Stars, but they rebounded nicely with a sound decision in Flin Flon to set up a crucial weekend that will set the table for a wild two-week conclusion to the regular season.
The Sherwood Division champion is the last to be determined as the North Stars long ago laid claim to their second straight Finning Division title and with one win in either game this weekend against the Melfort Mustangs on Friday or Humboldt on Saturday they will lock up the overall point’s race and the No. 1 seed heading into the post-season.
The Estevan Bruins, too, need just a win against either the La Ronge Ice Wolves on Friday or the Notre Dame Hounds on Saturday and they will be out of reach by everyone chasing them in the Viterra Division. That will give them a top-three seeding heading into the post-season and while they still have a legitimate shot at finishing second overall, they will pretty much have to run the table in their remaining nine games to have a chance of overtaking Flin Flon or Nipawin considering the torrid pace those two have been on in the past six weeks.
The game on Friday between Nipawin and Humboldt is not only important for the Hawks in their chase of the Bombers, but it also holds plenty of significance for the Broncos as they try to hold down their current position of fifth place overall.
The Broncos, who need just a single point against either Nipawin on Friday or the Battlefords on Saturday to secure a playoff berth and a return to the post-season after missing out last year, are in a battle with the Yorkton Terriers, Weyburn Red Wings and the surging Notre Dame Hounds for a top-six placing and a bye in the opening Wild Card round. The Broncos are just three points clear of Yorkton while Weyburn is another point back and Notre Dame is but one more behind the Red Wings.
The Kindersley Klippers and Melfort Mustangs are also still in the mix in that battle, but their primary goal is to hold off the Melville Millionaires for the final playoff berth.
Yorkton, which has the fewest games remaining of all 12 teams, has the toughest road to overtake Humboldt or remain in a top-six position. The Terriers have won their last three games to move past Weyburn in the Viterra Division standings, but the Red Wings have two games in hand and that will increase to three after Yorkton hosts Kindersley on Friday.
A Yorkton victory over the Klippers – combined with a Melville loss against either Notre Dame on Friday or Kindersley on Saturday – will also nail down a playoff spot, but they will have to sit back and watch when the Red Wings host La Ronge on Saturday and then get ready for a critical showdown in Weyburn on Monday. After that contest against the Red Wings, the Terriers will have just three games remaining over the final two weeks of the regular season.
Notre Dame, winners of their last four games, needs to continue their solid play this weekend at home against Melville on Friday and in Estevan on Saturday. The Hounds, who have games in hand on everyone, can all but secure a playoff berth with a win over the Millionaires, but more importantly it will allow them to keep those in front within reach and possibly give them some breathing room over those who are chasing them as Notre Dame right now is in a position to either get into a top-six spot or to have home-ice advantage in the Wild Card round or if they falter they could be a visiting team in that best-of-five opening round.
For Melville it’s simple math: win and there is still a chance, but lose and it will be a second straight season without making the playoffs. A single Millionaire loss this weekend will put Humboldt out of reach while two setbacks will put a stamp on Yorkton’s, Weyburn’s and Notre Dame’s playoff passports. That will leave just Kindersley and Melfort as teams to possibly overtake, but a winless weekend would lower the chances considerably for that to occur.
NOTES: Nipawin certainly can’t look past Friday’s game against Humboldt in anticipation of the showdown against Flin Flon as the Broncos have won three of the four previous meetings this year against the Hawks. The Hawks and Broncos will also square off on Monday bringing Nipawin even in games played with the Bombers and if one is looking at the remainder of the schedule one has to think the final game of the regular season – a Hawks’ visit to the Whitney Forum in Flin Flon – might be a scheduler’s dream with everything on the line for the Sherwood Division crown…The Broncos and Bombers will undoubtedly get a steady diet of Kristian Stead this weekend as the recently signed University of Alaska at Anchorage netminder will be Nipawin’s final line of defence. Stead has been brilliant this year in recording the most wins with 25, the best save percentage at .937 and the most shutouts with six. He has appeared in the third-most games at 36 and has the third-best goals-against average at 1.97.
La Ronge at Estevan
Battlefords at Melfort
Humboldt at Nipawin
Melville at Notre Dame
Kindersley at Yorkton
Humboldt at Battlefords
Notre Dame at Estevan
Kindersley at Melville
Flin Flon at Nipawin
La Ronge at Weyburn