By Dave Leaderhouse
This is the time of the year where there will be just as many eyes on the scoreboard as there are on the ice as the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League heads into its final 11 days of the regular schedule.
All but two teams know their playoff fate with the Battlefords North Stars having locked up first-place overall and the La Ronge Ice Wolves playing out the string until their final game next Saturday.
The Ice Wolves, who haven’t won since Dec. 3 could be the spoiler of the party, however, as all five of their remaining games are against teams that have something to gain as far as playoff seeding is concerned.
La Ronge begins a four-game homestand on Friday when they host the Estevan Bruins and while the Bruins have nailed down a top-three seed with a Viterra Division championship they can still catch both the Flin Flon Bombers and Nipawin Hawks to move up to the No. 2 position.
After that the Ice Wolves will entertain the Humboldt Broncos on Saturday with the Broncos in a fight with four other teams just to remain in the top-six and avoid a best-of-five Wild Card round. It gets even more interesting on Tuesday when the Melfort Mustangs will visit the Mel Hegland Arena as the two-time defending champions are on a free fall having lost nine of their last 10 games and hold a precarious four-point advantage over the Melville Millionaires for the final playoff spot.
The Ice Wolves’ final two games are a home-and-home set against the Flin Flon Bombers next weekend and the Bombers are running neck and neck with the Nipawin Hawks for the Sherwood Division title.
A win by La Ronge in any one of those games would not only snap a 24-game winless streak, but would put a serious dent in any opponent’s chances of a better finish heading into the playoffs.
While the Battlefords are on cruise control having won their last eight games and the Ice Wolves try and gain some kind of solace by playing spoiler, every team between those two in the standings has some anxious moments in their future with so much yet to be determined.
As mentioned, Flin Flon and Nipawin are deadlocked atop the Sherwood Division with the winner getting a top-three seed while the loser finishes no worse than fourth overall. Both teams are guaranteed home-ice advantage in the quarter-final round.
Flin Flon is home to Humboldt and Melfort this weekend while Nipawin entertains the Battlefords and Estevan. Both teams will have home-and-home sets against lower-ranked teams next weekend – Flin Flon takes on La Ronge and Nipawin tackles Melfort – before the Bombers and Hawks meet in Flin Flon on the final night of the regular season.
While the race for the Sherwood Division banner has been epic for some time now, another really good battle that has taken shape in recent weeks is the one for the final two spots that will avoid the Wild Card round.
Humboldt looked to be a lock to avoid the extra series, but after a stretch where they have just four wins in their last 10 games they now find themselves just one point in front of the Notre Dame Hounds and Yorkton Terriers and two ahead of the Weyburn Red Wings.
After the Broncos tour through the north this weekend with stops in Flin Flon and La Ronge they play the red-hot Hounds in a crucial home-and-home set next weekend. But, the Hounds, who have points in their last seven games, have a tough slate of their own this weekend before the showdown with the Broncos as they are in Kindersley on Friday and the Battlefords on Saturday.
Yorkton has to sit around and watch this weekend as they have just three games left on the schedule, but Weyburn faces Melville in a critical home-and-home match-up this weekend with the results of that series having huge consequences on the final standings. Weyburn could jump up to as high as fifth overall or remain in the Wild Card picture with a pair of setbacks while the Millionaires could catch Melfort or fall right out of the playoff picture.
Kindersley could still be a player in the top-six mix, but with just three games remaining on the schedule and a minimum of four points to gain on those in front of them in order to muddy things up even more it looks like they will be in the Wild Card round. Both Melfort and Melville could catch them, but just one loss by Melville – or a single point by the Klippers against Notre Dame this weekend and the Battlefords next weekend – would nail down a post-season spot for Kindersley.
NOTES: With everything being so tight in several different races the league announced this week what the tie-breaking formulas will be. Should two teams be tied the first factor to be considered is the number of wins or total accumulated points between the two in head-to-head meetings. If that doesn’t resolve anything then it goes to most wins overall and if that doesn’t break the deadlock, goals-against average will be used…Notre Dame’s Ben Duperreault looks to have a lock on the individual scoring race as he holds a seven-point edge over Nipawin’s Josh Bly entering the final stretch of the regular season. One has to wonder how tight that race would have been, however, had the North Stars’ Coby Downs been in the Battlefords line-up the entire season. Downs, who recently committed to Norwich University for next season, began this year with the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League missing the Battlefords’ first 11 games, but with 25 points in his last 14 games has crept to within 10 of Duperreault. Downs is now just one game short of the longest consecutive point streak of the season as Estevan’s Lynnden Pastachak had 21 points in the Bruins’ first 15 games this year…The playoffs are set to begin March 9 with eight days set aside to complete the best-of-five Wild Card rounds. The combatants for both of those match-ups likely won’t be known until the final day of the regular schedule leaving little time for anyone to prepare for what lies ahead.
Estevan at La Ronge
Humboldt at Flin Flon
Notre Dame at Kindersley
Weyburn at Melville
Battlefords at Nipawin
Humboldt at La Ronge
Notre Dame at Battlefords
Melfort at Flin Flon
Estevan at Nipawin
Melville at Weyburn