By Dave Leaderhouse
Photo Credit: K & P Wilkes
Don’t let the 40-point difference in the regular-season standings fool you, the Battlefords North Stars have their hands full with the Weyburn Red Wings when the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s quarter-final round begins on Friday.
The North Stars, who ran away with both the Olympic Building Division and overall point’s titles to claim the No. 1 seed for the playoffs, were stretched to the limit in the four meetings with Weyburn this year.
All four games were decided by just a single goal with each team winning once in each other’s rink. The Red Wings are also coming off a convincing three-game sweep of the Kindersley Klippers setting up what could be a long hard battle for a chance to continue moving on for a Canalta Cup championship.
The Battlefords finished the regular season with a 48-9-1-0 mark and were 9-1-0-0 in their final 10 games of the regular season. The North Stars, while possessing some key offensive players, were dominant defensively as they allowed well below two goals per game led by the netminding tandem of Taryn Kotchorek and Joel Grzybowski. Kotchorek finished on top of the goaltending standings with a 1.61 goals-against average in 32 appearances while Grzybowski, a 17-year-old rookie, was close behind with a 1.66 GAA in 26 games. Together the duo recorded 11 shutouts.
Weyburn, meanwhile, were 25-26-3-4 in the regular season and allowed 74 more goals against than the Battlefords, but against Kindersley the Red Wings tightened up considerably with Carter Phair posting an impressive 1.20 GAA in his two-plus games of work. Phair was replaced halfway through the third game, but is expected to be in goal when the series opens on Friday.
In head-to-head meetings each team scored eight times with Weyburn winning the first clash on Oct 14 by a 4-3 margin before the next three meetings, all within an eight-day span in mid-January, ending in 2-1 decisions. When the Red Wings won that October contest it lit a spark under the Battlefords that resulted in the North Stars going on a 13-game winning streak. Then when they faced each other on Jan. 13, the Red Wings’ 2-1 victory ended another North Stars’ run at six straight wins.
Battlefords’ forward Coby Downs led all point producers in the season series with three goals and two assists while Layne Young of the North Stars and Braden Mellon of the Red Wings were the only others to register more than two points. Young had two goals and one helper with Mellon collecting three assists.
Weyburn’s Carson Rose, who finished the regular season with 22 points in his final 13 games, has continued his torrid streak in the post-season with six points over the final two games against Kindersley. Ian Parker and Jacob Wozney have also caught fire with points in each of the three wins over the Klippers.
During the regular season the Battlefords were clearly the better team on special teams finishing in the top two on both the power play and penalty killing while the Red Wings were in the bottom third of each category. In head-to-head meetings with Weyburn, however, it was almost a dead heat as each team only scored once with the man advantage as the North Stars were 1/20 while the Red Wings went 1/17.
The North Stars, who have not played since Mar. 4 when they completed their dominant season with back-to-back shutouts over Kindersley, will open the series at home with the first two games going Friday and Saturday at the North Battleford Civic Centre. The series will switch to Crescent Point Place for games on Monday and Tuesday and should it be extended beyond the minimum, Game 5 will be back in North Battleford on Thursday followed by Game 6 in Weyburn on Mar. 25 and Game 7 in the Battlefords on Mar. 27.
This series has the makings to be a long drawn-out affair and as the saying goes, anything can happen in the playoffs.