By Dave Leaderhouse
If the power of healing is in the game then that process gets a big test on Saturday when the Canalta Cup championship gets underway with the Estevan Bruins facing the Nipawin Hawks.
Just over a week after the bus crash that claimed 16 lives from the Humboldt Broncos, the first step in the healing process takes centre stage with the red-hot Bruins opening up the best-of-seven series at the Cage in Nipawin.
Emotions will be raw as pre-game ceremonies are expected to remember those who lost their lives in the tragic accident and also for the 13 others that continue to recover from the injuries they sustained while enroute to Nipawin for the fifth game of a hard-fought semi-final series with the Hawks.
The league’s board of governors had an emergency meeting on Wednesday to decide how to best proceed from the tragedy and with the blessing of the Humboldt Broncos board of directors it was unanimous that the league carry on both as a way of healing and also to honour the Broncos themselves.
The Hawks, who were leading the series with Humboldt 3-1 following a triple overtime decision in Game 4, retain home-ice advantage in the final series as they were not only the Sherwood Division champions this year, but they also posted the best regular-season record at 43-8-3-4.
The Bruins have been almost unbeatable during the playoffs going 8-1 to get past the Kindersley Klippers and Battlefords North Stars. Estevan, which captured its second straight Viterra Division title this year, has averaged almost five goals per game during the post-season while limiting the opposition to less than three and that number would be considerably less had they not allowed nine in their lone loss on their march to the league final.
A lot has happened since the Hawks and Bruins last faced each other as it is closing in on five months since their last meeting.
The league finalists faced other four times in a four-week span early in the season, but they haven’t squared off since Nov. 21 when Nipawin completed a four-game sweep with a 2-1 victory.
While the sweep might put Nipawin as heavy favourites to claim their first title in almost 30 years, that isn’t the case at all as all four games were decided by one goal with two going into extra time. The Bruins, who last won the league championship 20 years ago, have also added 20-year-old netminder Bo Didur to the fold since the two teams last faced each other with Didur going 7-0 in the playoffs and posting a 2.36 goals-against average and .927 save percentage during that span.
The Hawks will counter with Declan Hobbs between the pipes and his league-best 1.83 GAA and .941 save percentage has helped Nipawin boast the stingiest defence so far in the playoffs, similar to what happened during the regular season.
Up front, the Bruins are loaded with plenty of scoring threats as Michael McChesney, Jake Fletcher, Zach Goberis and Kaelen Holt are all among the top 10 in playoff scoring while Nipawin’s Brandan Arnold is third overall and leads the league with nine goals in nine games. The Hawks also have IBAS defenceman of the year Josh McDougall who has continued his stellar play in the post-season scoring twice and posting a league-leading 10 assists through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The series will continue on Sunday in Nipawin before switching to Estevan for games three and four on Tuesday and Wednesday. Should the series need more than the minimum games, subsequent contests will be in Nipawin on April 20, Estevan on April 22 and Nipawin on April 24. The winner of the series will then take on the Manitoba champion for the Anavet Cup and a berth in the RBC Cup slated for Chilliwack, B.C., in mid May.
Heavy hearts are going to dominate this series, but the healing has to begin and large crowds are expected throughout the series to encourage the players to be strong and push forward.