By Dave Leaderhouse
More than 300 games are in the books, but it is the final 15 over the next five days that will finalize the landscape for the post-season as nine of the 12 teams still have no idea where they will finish or who they will ultimately meet in the playoffs.
The Battlefords North Stars, who will play the Kindersley Klippers in a home-and-home set this weekend to complete their schedule, know they are the No. 1 seed after running away with both the Olympic Building Division and overall point’s race. The North Stars will get almost two weeks off after Saturday’s finale as their regular-season performance earns them a bye for the opening Wild Card round.
Likewise, the Estevan Bruins can relax a bit as they have secured the No. 3 seed after capturing the Viterra Division banner. The Bruins, who will play the Weyburn Red Wings in a home-and-home series on the weekend before finishing the regular campaign with a stop in Melville on Tuesday, have enjoyed a solid season – especially after losing so many players to graduation last year after they hosted a very successful Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup.
The La Ronge Ice Wolves also know their final standing, but unfortunately it is not on a similar positive note. The Ice Wolves have struggled mightily this season winning just six games and their tumultuous season comes to an end this weekend with a home-and-home series of their own against the Flin Flon Bombers.
Those are the teams that know what the future has in store for them. The crystal ball is cloudier for the remaining nine franchises.
One division banner still has to be decided and with it the winner claims the No. 2 seed while the loser falls back to No. 4 overall.
The Nipawin Hawks, led by coach of the year Doug Johnson and most valuable player Kristian Stead, enter the final days of the regular schedule with a slim two-point edge on the Flin Flon Bombers. The Hawks will play the Melfort Mustangs in a home-and-home series this weekend while Flin Flon, as already mentioned, takes on La Ronge on back-to-back nights. Should nothing be settled after those games, the schedule makers couldn’t have asked for anything better with Nipawin heading to Flin Flon on Tuesday to wind up the regular schedule. If Nipawin is still two points ahead of Flin Flon on that final night they will need at least a point to secure the Sherwood Division crown because if the Bombers were to pull even with a win they would leap past Nipawin based on a better head-to-head record in the regular schedule.
Breaking down the Hawks and Bombers situation is rather simple; it is the next six positions in the standings that one needs a math degree to sort out.
The Humboldt Broncos begin the home stretch in fifth place, but they are just two points clear of the surging Notre Dame Hounds, three ahead of the Yorkton Terriers and four in front of the Weyburn Red Wings.
Those four teams are battling for the fifth and sixth positions overall so that they can avoid the opening Wild Card round and again the schedule makers have to be smiling as Humboldt and Notre Dame go head-to-head this weekend in yet another home-and-home match-up while Yorkton takes on its Highway 10 rivals, the Millionaires from Melville, on both Friday and Saturday. Weyburn, as mentioned, will face its southeastern rival Estevan to conclude its regular schedule this weekend.
If Notre Dame hopes to overtake Humboldt they will need to sweep the weekend series. The Hounds and Broncos have split the previous six meetings so if Notre Dame were to sweep this weekend, Humboldt couldn’t catch them even if they were to win their final game on Tuesday against Melfort as the Hounds would have the better head-to-head record against the Broncos.
Yorkton can finish anywhere from sixth to ninth depending on how they make out against Melville. If they sweep the Millionaires they will still need a lot of help to get past Notre Dame or Humboldt, but if they were to lose both ends against Melville, they could be overtaken by Weyburn and even Kindersley. The Klippers are four points back of the Terriers, but if they were to win both games against the Battlefords and the Terriers falter against Melville, Kindersley would get that tie-breaker after claiming victory in three of four head-to-head meetings against Yorkton. The Terriers would also lose a tie-breaker to Weyburn and Humboldt, but they do hold the advantage against Notre Dame as they won that season series.
Weyburn is pretty much in the same situation as the Terriers, with sixth place the best they can shoot for as no matter what happens in the Notre Dame-Humboldt match-up this weekend one of those two teams will be out of reach for the Red Wings. With a strong weekend, and again lots of help from others, the Red Wings could sneak into the sixth spot or fall as far back as ninth. Even though Estevan has nothing to gain in their final three games, one can be assured playing their closest rivals from Weyburn will invigorate them.
Kindersley might be a bit too far back of the logjam in the middle, but a sweep of the North Stars would certainly get them in the conversation for home-ice advantage in the Wild Card round. The Klippers can’t catch either Humboldt or Notre Dame so they are destined for the opening best-of-five series, but if they were to end the season with a couple of wins they could move past either Weyburn or Yorkton and lay claim to that all-important extra home game in the shortened series.
If all of that isn’t exciting enough the battle for the final playoff spot will undoubtedly come down to the final night on Tuesday. Melfort begins the stretch run with a slim one-point advantage over Melville with the Millionaires having closed the gap by claiming at least one point in their last five games. Both the Mustangs and Millionaires are in tough this weekend against regional rivals – Melfort vs Nipawin and Melville vs Yorkton – so Tuesday’s games where the Mustangs travel to Humboldt and Melville stays at home to entertain Estevan could determine who moves on and who has their season come to an end.
It has been a long time since so much hinged on the final slate of games. Fans in all centres should be thrilled to take in some action this weekend and beyond.
NOTES: It will take a massive output by either Flin Flon’s Greyson Reitmeier or Nipawin’s Josh Bly to overtake Notre Dame’s Ben Duperreault in the individual scoring race. The 20-year-old Duperreault holds a seven-point advantage including a league-leading 37 goals…Bly, should he play in all three of Nipawin’s remaining games, will have dressed in 63 games this year as he started the season with Kindersley who had a heavy schedule to begin the campaign before joining a Nipawin squad who had a bottom-heavy schedule to end the season…Three goaltenders with more than 25 starts each all enter the final weekend with goals-against averages of less than 2.00, something that hasn’t been seen in quite some time. The Battlefords’ duo of Taryn Kotchorek and Joel Grzybowski lead the way at 1.67 and 1.73, respectively, while Kristian Stead of the Hawks is at 1.97…Weyburn’s Carson Rose has the longest active point streak entering the final stretch having collected 12 goals and seven assists in his last 11 games. Lyndenn Pastachak of the Bruins has the longest such streak this year when he opened the season with 21 points in 15 games…Brandan Arnold of the Hawks is also listed as having an active streak as he had 12 points in six games before being recalled by the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos a month ago. Arnold is expected to be back in Nipawin this weekend when they take on the Mustangs…The playoffs begin on Thursday with the seventh-place team taking on the 10th-place club while No. 8 meets No. 9 in the other Wild Card match-up.
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Weyburn at Estevan
Battlefords at Kindersley
Melfort at Nipawin
Humboldt at Notre Dame
Melville at Yorkton
Kindersley at Battlefords
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Notre Dame at Humboldt
Nipawin at Melfort
Yorkton at Melville
Estevan at Weyburn
Nipawin at Flin Flon
Melfort at Humboldt
Estevan at Melville