By Dave Leaderhouse
The first mission of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s regular season has been accomplished as the 10 teams that will move on to the post-season have now been determined.
That was finalized earlier in the week when the Melville Millionaires punched their ticket to the playoffs with a 7-0 victory over the La Ronge Ice Wolves, eliminating their Highway 10 rivals from Yorkton. La Ronge will also see their season come to an end in two weeks as they were mathematically eliminated just over a week ago.
What is left is a bunch of unknowns as the only other thing that has been firmed up is that the Battlefords North Stars are the Global Ag Risk Solutions champion for the third straight year. The Battlefords have, at worst, the No. 2 seed locked up, but they are in a heated battle with the Nipawin Hawks for first place overall as the Hawks are just two points up in that race with Nipawin holding a game in hand.
Nipawin, which had their 30-game streak with at least one point snapped last weekend, not only have the North Stars to contend with, but they still have some work to do to put the Melfort Mustangs out of reach in the Sherwood Division race. The Mustangs, who have owned Nipawin this year winning six of the eight meetings, are seven points behind the Hawks with those two rivals still having a pair of head-to-head meetings left on the schedule.
The Hawks have a home-and-home series with the Flin Flon Bombers this weekend while the Mustangs host the Battlefords and Notre Dame Hounds. Any combination of Nipawin wins and Melfort losses totalling three during the remainder of the schedule gives the Hawks the title, but with Nipawin coming back to everyone with losses in their last two outings the door is still open for Melfort to catch them and still be in the conversation for first place overall. That puts even more importance on their showdown with the North Stars on Friday.
Still with Melfort, one more win gives the Mustangs, at the worst, a top-four seed for the playoffs which translates to home-ice advantage when the quarter-final round begins. The Mustangs are eight points up on the Humboldt Broncos with Humboldt having just five games left on the schedule. The Broncos, who have been one of the hottest teams of late winning eight of their last 10 games, are in La Ronge this weekend for a pair of matches and should they gain even a split up north they will finish no worse than fifth overall as two more points outdistances them from Notre Dame, the Weyburn Red Wings and Kindersley Klippers.
That next position, sixth overall, is going to take the entire schedule to finalize. Notre Dame and Weyburn have both stumbled a bit down the stretch while Kindersley, with points in eight of their last 10 games and a number of games in hand, are separated by just four points.
Weyburn picked up a huge victory on Wednesday when they went into Estevan and edged the Bruins. Not only was it the first time the Red Wings beat the Bruins this year, but it brought Weyburn to within a single point of Notre Dame in the race for the final spot to avoid the opening best-of-three Wild Card round and also kept their hopes of winning the Viterra Division title alive. The Red Wings trail the Bruins by five points in that race with those southeastern rivals squaring off once again on Friday in Weyburn. Should Estevan win that game then they would need just one more win or Weyburn loss to successfully defend their Viterra Division crown. A Red Wings victory, however, makes things even more interesting and puts Estevan in danger of falling out of a top-three position into the battle with Notre Dame, Weyburn and Kindersley for that sixth position.
Weyburn also has a home game with Melville on the weekend while Kindersley hosts the Yorkton Terriers for a pair and Notre Dame has just the lone game in Melfort. That four-point separation between those three could be wiped right out or some of the dust could settle. Stay tuned!
The final two teams to have clinched playoff spots, Flin Flon and Melville, look destined to be the road teams in the Wild Card round. Flin Flon could still catch the three in front of them as they have as many as three games in hand, but it would take a colossal collapse by any one of them for the Bombers to get home-ice advantage in the best-of-three Wild Card series. Melville, who has the longest current point streak intact at four games, could catch Flin Flon, but all that would accomplish at this stage is where they would travel to to open the Wild Card round.
There is still so much left to be settled and while this weekend likely won’t solve anything it certainly will set the table nicely for the final two weeks of the regular schedule.
Nipawin Hawks at Flin Flon
Estevan at Weyburn
Yorkton at Kindersley
Humboldt at La Ronge
Battlefords at Melfort
Flin Flon at Nipawin
Melville at Weyburn
Yorkton at Kindersley
Humboldt at La Ronge
Notre Dame at Melfort