By Dave Leaderhouse
It took the entire regular schedule to finalize the playoff seeds and then in the Wild Card round extra time was even required to determine the match-ups for the quarter-finals.
Now that the dust has settled the eight remaining teams continue their quest for the Canalta Cup championship beginning on Friday and there is no clear-cut favourite in any of the four quarter-final pairings.
The Nipawin Hawks, the regular season and Sherwood Division champions who had an impressive stretch with 30 straight games with recording at least one point, might be favoured in their series against the Flin Flon Bombers, but the Bombers are riding an emotional high after bouncing back with two straight wins to dispatch the Notre Dame Hounds in the Wild Card round.
The Battlefords North Stars, the defending league champions and winners of the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division for a third straight season, might also have a slight advantage on the Weyburn Red Wings, but they too are facing a team that rebounded from an early deficit against the Melville Millionaires and capped off their comeback with a Cade Kowalski overtime marker in the deciding game of their Wild Card round.
The Melfort Mustangs and Humboldt Broncos have known for a month they would be squaring off in the quarter-finals and with each team having 10 days off they should be well rested to renew their fierce rivalry while the Estevan Bruins, winners of the Viterra Division for a second straight year, will have their hands full with a surging Kindersley Klippers squad.
Following is a brief synopsis of what happened in the regular season for each match-up. As the saying goes, what happens in the regular season is wiped off the slate when the playoffs begin, but this might provide some insight of what to expect.
Nipawin (1) vs Flin Flon (9)
The Hawks finished 37 points ahead of the Bombers in the regular season and in eight head-to-head meetings were 6-1-0-1. Nipawin outscored Flin Flon 31-15 in their season series with the majority of that difference being in the four games played at the Cage where the Hawks won all four meetings by a combined 18-4 margin.
Declan Hobbs, the co-winner of the SaskTel goaltender of the year award, was perfect in his four starts against the Bombers while rookie Jake Anthony was 2-1-0-1. Brenden Newton got into four games for Flin Flon posting a 1-3-0-0 mark with Colten Lancaster seeing action in three games and going 1-2-0-0. Newton played in every second of the series against Notre Dame and it is expected that trend will continue against Nipawin.
Offensively, Nate Hooper enjoyed the most success against the Hawks picking up two goals and five assists while Calvon Boots registered 2-4-6 totals for Flin Flon. Nipawin, however, is going to have to be well aware of Donavan Houle-Villeneuve who had six goals in the three-game series against Notre Dame including five tallies in the two victories in Wilcox.
For Nipawin, a number of players put up some big numbers against the Bombers with Michael Grant leading the way with six goals and three assists. Brandan Arnold led all scorers with four goals and seven assists and IBAS defenceman of the year Josh McDougall scored twice and assisted on seven others. Brett Harasymuk also had a strong season series collecting eight points on three goals and five helpers.
Nipawin was 10/40 on the power-play against Flin Flon while the Bombers were 5/41. The Hawks also held a distinct advantage in shots on goal 289-246 leaving the Bombers with a couple of areas where they have to tighten up in order to have any success against Nipawin.
The Hawks are looking for a fourth straight appearance in the semi-final round while Flin Flon is seeking a third straight trip to the league final. These two always play each other tough so while the regular season results certainly favour the Hawks, nothing can be taken for granted when seven games or fewer can determine the outcome.
Battlefords (2) vs Weyburn (7)
Goaltending could be the deciding factor in this series.
The Battlefords have Taryn Kotchorek, the league leader in shutouts during the regular season with five and 14 overall in his three full seasons with the North Stars, while Weyburn will counter with Arik Weersink, the team’s workhorse in goal appearing in 43 games during the regular campaign and then posting a brilliant 1.55 goals-against average and .962 save percentage in the comeback win over Melville in the Wild Card round.
The North Stars dropped the first meeting against Weyburn this year, 1-0 in the Battlefords, but they went on to win the next three tilts by a combined 11-4 margin. Weersink, naturally, was the goaltender of record for Weyburn in all four meetings while Kotchorek was 2-1-0-0.
Offensively, the Battlefords have a big edge with the league scoring leader, RBC player of the year and SGEU most valuable player Layne Young leading the way. Young, who finished the season with 107 points, had seven of those against Weyburn. MacGregor Sinclair also enjoyed some success against the Red Wings picking up five points on two goals and three helpers while Cole Johnson had four points in just two games after joining the Battlefords at the trade deadline in January.
For the Red Wings, co-winner of the Direct West rookie of the year honours, Cade Kowalski, was in on three of the five goals Weyburn scored against the Battlefords while Tyran Brown scored two of those five markers.
Special teams favoured the North Stars as the Battlefords were 4/13 with the man advantage while the Red Wings went 2/17. The Battlefords also held a decided edge in shots on goal winning that battle 144-112.
If Weersink and the rest of the Red Wings can keep Young off the scoresheet, something that only happened seven times all season, then Weyburn has a better chance of pulling off an upset. They, however, will have to generate more offence and with Kotchorek, or even Joel Grzybowski, in the Battlefords’ goal that will be tough to do.
Estevan (3) vs Kindersley (6)
This series has the best chance of going the distance as Estevan and Kindersley were two of the hottest teams down the stretch and in their regular-season series each team won twice with just one goal separating the two in their four meetings.
Kindersley won the first meeting 7-5 back on Sept. 22, but Estevan rebounded with a 3-2 overtime decision in early January. The Klippers then won 2-1 in Estevan before the Bruins evened the season series with a 3-2 shootout triumph in their final tilt.
Offensively, the Bruins were the No. 1 team in the league and scored 69 more goals than Kindersley overall, but with Justen Close, the co-winner of the SaskTel goaltender of the year award, the Klippers had a slightly better defensive record.
While Zach Goberis led the Bruins in scoring throughout the year it was Hayden Guilderson who had the most success against the Klippers scoring three times and setting up two others. Kaelen Holt collected four helpers in the games against Kindersley while Goberis finished with three assists.
For Kindersley, captain Tanner Thompson led the way with three goals and three assists while Nikolas Malencia and Brody Ryberg finished with 2-2-4 totals each.
Kindersley was 4/17 with the man advantage while Estevan was 3/22. Shots on goal favoured the Bruins 148-117 with Close going 1-0-1-1 in his three appearances against Estevan. Bo Didur only allowed three goals in his two starts against the Klippers and his play down the stretch was a big reason in Estevan tightening up their game defensively.
This series should be a long one and with each team having played well down the stretch, and tight against each other, there is no reason not to expect the same over the next 10 days.
Melfort (4) vs Humboldt (5)
Home ice might be the only advantage in this series, but even that isn’t a given as either team won on the road during their regular-season series.
Each team won three times in the six regular-season meetings with Melfort having a slight advantage as a result of the extra point they picked up in a shootout loss early in the season. The net result was each team scoring 15 times against each other with both clubs registering one blow-out win on home ice and the remaining contests going right down to the wire.
Evan Plotnik for Melfort, and Jacob Wasserman, a co-winner of the Direct West rookie of the year for Humboldt, saw the most action in goal for their respective teams, but an interesting note here is that the back-ups for each squad, Hunter Arps for the Mustangs and Parker Tobin for the Broncos, were perfect in their limited action during the regular season. Arps won both of his starts while Tobin was one-for-one. Plotnik finished the season series at 1-2-0-1 and Wasserman was 2-3-0-0.
Offensively, the team captains led the way for each club with Logan Schatz collecting eight points for Humboldt while Andrew Thompson had five goals for Melfort. The Broncos also had big performances from a pair of newcomers as Bryce Fiske had four points in his three games after relocating to Humboldt from La Ronge while Nick Schumlanski had five points in his pair of contests after being acquired from Flin Flon at the trade deadline. Overage defenceman Loch Morrison paced the Mustang attack against Humboldt scoring a pair of tallies while setting up five others and Carson Albrecht also enjoyed playing the rival Broncos as he netted a pair of markers and assisted on three others during the regular-season series.
Special teams were pretty much dead even with the Mustangs going 2/18 while Humboldt was 3/17, but the biggest difference was shots on goal with Melfort holding a decisive advantage 215-158.
Both teams will be well rested entering this series and with the close proximity between the two the atmosphere is expected to be electric. All signs point to the fans having plenty of games to get excited about.