By Dave Leaderhouse
A hectic opening to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s regular season now settles into a more normal routine as a full slate of games is on the weekend schedule with all but the league-leading Nipawin Hawks taking to the ice.
The 50th anniversary season began just over two weeks ago when the Humboldt Broncos made an emotional return before a national television audience and that was followed by the annual Showcase, which concluded in Warman on Wednesday.
The Showcase, which was held in the centrally-located Warman to accommodate the bevy of scouts that were out searching for future talent for their respective teams, had each club play a pair of contests over four days with four teams coming away from that event with perfect records.
Nipawin, who are the defending Canalta Cup champions, ran their record to a perfect 6-0-0-0 to open the season as they posted victories over the Yorkton Terriers and Notre Dame Hounds. After starting the season with a pair of setbacks, the Broncos stretched their current winning streak to four with triumphs over the Estevan Bruins and Melville Millionaires while the Battlefords North Stars, with wins over the La Ronge Ice Wolves and Weyburn Red Wings, and the Melfort Mustangs, who got past the Kindersley Klippers and Notre Dame, also came away from the Showcase with winning streaks intact.
The Hawks, who in the past have usually had slow starts to the season before pulling everything together, have taken a different route this year as their strong defensive play has been nothing short of spectacular to help lead their surge to the top of the standings.
In six games the Hawks have allowed a paltry eight goals against with netminders Declan Hobbs and Patrick Pugliese each posting unfathomable numbers as Hobbs has a 1.50 goals-against average and .961 save percentage in four starts while Pugliese, a 19-year-old from Pasadena, Cal, has allowed just one goal in each of his two starts for a 1.00 GAA and .958 save percentage.
Goaltending has also been a key to the early success of the Broncos as Dane Dow started in the first five games posting a 2.00 GAA and .929 save percentage before Rayce Ramsay, who just joined the club after failing to make the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers, got the nod in the Broncos’ most recent outing, a 2-1 decision over Melville.
With Nipawin getting a break this weekend before playing three games in four nights next week, both the Melfort Mustangs and Flin Flon Bombers will be looking to pull closer to the Hawks in the Sherwood Division standings as the Mustangs make the trip to La Ronge to face the winless Ice Hawks on Friday while the Bombers host Melville in a doubleheader on Friday and Saturday. The Mustangs enter the weekend five points back of the Hawks while Flin Flon is another point back.
Humboldt will be looking to break the deadlock atop the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division as they entertain Notre Dame on Friday before heading to Kindersley on Saturday for a showdown with the Klippers. The Broncos and Klippers begin play this weekend with identical 4-2-0-0 records, but Humboldt has turned things around with four straight wins while Kindersley has dropped two of its last three after opening the campaign with three straight victories.
Estevan, which also started the season with three straight wins before going winless at the Showcase, reclaimed top spot in the Viterra Division race after doubling up Kindersley in the lone game on Thursday. The Bruins, who last year led the league in goals scored enroute to an appearance in the league final, are once again the most explosive team offensively with TJ Irey and Turner Ripplinger one-two in the individual scoring race. Estevan resumes its lengthy road trip with a date in the Battlefords on Friday against the North Stars.
The Yorkton Terriers are involved in a pair of games this weekend as they will host Weyburn on Saturday before welcoming Notre Dame on Sunday. A pair of wins could find the Terriers sharing the division lead with Estevan if everything fell into place, but the same could also be said for Weyburn as they are just two points back of the Bruins. Melville, the fourth team in that tightly contested Viterra Division, could even do one better as a three-game sweep this weekend – they also play in La Ronge on Sunday following the doubleheader in Flin Flon – could find them leaping past everyone.
As the old saying goes, races aren’t settled in September, but quick starts certainly set the stage for the remainder of the season. With this being the final weekend of September, all three divisions could be tightly grouped or early frontrunners could be determined. It should be a thrilling three days of action.
SJHL NOTES – There are four players who have registered at least one point in each of their respective club’s games this year. Ben Hiltz from Weyburn has been involved in 50 per cent of the Red Wings’ scoring collecting 12 points in the first five games while Yorkton’s Jared Legien has nine points in the Terriers first five games. Others to have hit the scoresheet in every game so far are Austen Flaman from Nipawin (2-6-8 in six games) and Kindersley’s Kyle Bosch (2-4-6 in six games). Estevan defenceman Johnny Witzke had his perfect start snapped on Thursday as the veteran had nine points in the first five games and teammate Turner Ripplinger was held off the scoresheet in his first game with his new team, but has been on a tear since then collecting 13 points in the last five outings. Matthias Urbanski of the Battlefords was also held scoreless in their opener, but has since put up eight points in the last five games.
Estevan at Battlefords
Melville at Flin Flon
Notre Dame at Humboldt
Melfort at La Ronge
Melville at Flin Flon
Humboldt at Kindersley
Weyburn at Yorkton
Notre Dame at Yorkton
Melville at La Ronge