Time at home with family and friends for the Christmas holidays is over and it is now time to get back to work for the majority of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League teams as all but the Notre Dame Hounds and Weyburn Red Wings hit the ice this weekend.
Weyburn has already seen action after the festive season, losing both ends of a home-and-home set to the Estevan Bruins earlier this week, and Notre Dame doesn’t get into any game action until Tuesday, but for the rest it is the start of the stretch run with plenty of races yet to be settled.
The only two things that can almost certainly be determined entering the final two months of the regular schedule is that the defending league champion Battlefords North Stars will claim a fifth straight Global Ag Risk Solutions Division pennant and Yorkton Terrier captain Chantz Petruic will be the league’s leading scorer.
The North Stars, who are ranked sixth overall in the Canadian Junior Hockey League rankings, are 25 points clear of the rest of the teams in the divisional race meaning any combination of Battlefords wins and Humboldt losses totalling 10 will secure another pennant to hang from the rafters.
In past years a divisional title was guaranteed a top-three seeding for the post-season and while that has changed slightly this year to allow the top eight teams overall to be seeded by their final point totals it will take a monumental collapse for the North Stars not to be enjoying home-ice advantage for the quarter-final round at the very least.
The Battlefords begin the 2020 portion of the schedule riding a three-game winning streak, but they are taking on a team that swept them in a home-and-home set the last time they met just under a month ago. The North Stars are in Kindersley on Friday before returning home to entertain the Klippers on Saturday and with Kindersley fighting for their playoff lives this rivalry should be intense to say the least.
Kindersley is currently in the eighth and final playoff position, but they are just percentage points ahead of Notre Dame and the surging Estevan Bruins are closing in trailing both by just a single point with multiple games in hand.
As for Petruic, his 21-point lead in the individual scoring race looks like a lock, but Flin Flon’s Cole Rafuse is doing his best to keep him in sight. Rafuse has 21 points in his last nine games and with the Bombers having five games in hand on Petruic’s Terriers he could close the gap, but it will have to be a magical stretch run for anyone to overtake the current leader.
Petruic will lead the Terriers in a doubleheader this weekend against Humboldt while Rafuse and the rest of the Bombers will be looking for some revenge against the upstart La Ronge Ice Wolves in another home-and-home series.
Flin Flon was swept by the Ice Wolves in a pair of games just before the break and in the process allowed La Ronge to move into second place in the Sherwood Division just five points back of the front-running Bombers. Flin Flon does hold three games in hand on their northern counterparts and with the most explosive offence in the league the Bombers will need to utilize that to slow down the Ice Wolves, who entered the break as the hottest team having collected points in eight straight games.
The two other Sherwood Division clubs, the Nipawin Hawks and Melfort Mustangs, also resume their rivalry with a home-and-home set this weekend. Nipawin, the two-time defending regular-season champions, salvaged a split with the Mustangs in a similar home-and-home set just before the break, but the Hawks are perilously close to falling out of a playoff spot as they are just four points clear of Kindersley and Notre Dame with Humboldt sandwiched between them and Estevan closing in on all three.
Melfort, meanwhile, is one point back of La Ronge after the Ice Wolves’ recent run of success so the Sherwood Division has all the markings of going right down to the wire.
One other game this weekend has Estevan hosting the Melville Millionaires and with the Bruins sweeping Weyburn earlier this week the playoff battle got a little more intense. And, while a cursory look at the Viterra Division race looks like a runaway for the Terriers, the Bruins can make that very interesting as the 16-point advantage being enjoyed by Yorkton is somewhat slanted as Estevan holds six games in hand on the frontrunners.
The next couple of months will be heated, and throw in the annual MJHL/SJHL Showcase to be held in Regina in a couple of weeks, there is a lot of hockey to be played and plenty to be settled. It should be an exciting ride.
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Melfort at Nipawin
Humboldt at Yorkton
Battlefords at Kindersley
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Nipawin at Melfort
Melville at Estevan
Yorkton at Humboldt
Kindersley at Battlefords