By Dave Leaderhouse
Without a lot of fanfare the Melfort Mustangs have made the Sherwood Division a three-team race.
Through the early stages of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season it has been the Nipawin Hawks and Flin Flon Bombers taking turns at occupying top spot in that fierce battle. Melfort was lurking in the background as the Mustangs were the victims of a lighter schedule coming out of the gate, but that has all changed.
Melfort has made good on all of the games in hand they had on the frontrunners as victories in their last five games finds them tied with Nipawin for top spot while Flin Flon, who themselves now have games in hand on everyone, are just one point back.
Team defence has been the key to Melfort’s recent success as they have allowed just one goal in each of their last four outings and six in total in the five-game winning streak. Equally as impressive are the teams they have beaten during the run as they swept home-and-homes with Nipawin and the Kindersley Klippers along with leaving the Battlefords with a convincing 4-1 decision. Nipawin, Kindersley and the Battlefords are all top-six clubs with the latter two in a fierce fight of their own with the Humboldt Broncos in the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division. Humboldt, with four straight wins, have opened up a five-point lead in their divisional race and are three points clear of Melfort and Nipawin for first place overall.
That sets the stage for an interesting weekend as Melfort plays the struggling La Ronge Ice Wolves in a home-and-home set beginning on Saturday while Flin Flon heads to the Battlefords for a pair of games and Nipawin hosts Humboldt in a renewal of a long-standing rivalry. The Broncos also host the Notre Dame Hounds this weekend and the Hounds are just one point out of the top six, although they have played as many as six games more than those ahead of them in the standings. Kindersley has just a home game against the Weyburn Red Wings on the schedule so they will have to make the most of that just to keep everyone ahead of them in their sights.
The third divisional race is also a tight one as the Estevan Bruins lead the Yorkton Terriers by two points in the Viterra Division and those two clubs go head-to-head on Saturday. While the top team in the Viterra Division has fewer points than the top three teams in the Sherwood Division and the entire Global Ag Risks Solution Division, Estevan has scored the second most goals this year trailing just the high-octane offence being produced by the Bombers.
Two other games this weekend have the much-improved Melville Millionaires heading to Estevan on Friday while the Battlefords complete three home games in three nights when they entertain Weyburn on Sunday. Melville and Weyburn are tied for the final playoff spot with the Red Wings holding three games in hand.
The halfway point to the season is just around the corner, as is the first of the two trade deadlines, so the excitement will only continue to grow as there is no one single team pulling away from anyone.
SJHL NOTES – As tight as the divisional races are the same can be said for the individual scoring race. Flin Flon’s Brandson Hein continues to lead the way with 38 points, including a league-high 23 goals, but Melfort’s Justin Ball has closed that gap to two points thanks to a 20-game stretch where he has put up 33 points on 17 goals and 16 assists. Ball’s consecutive-game streak with at least one point is by far the longest this year and if it wasn’t for being held off the scoresheet in the Mustangs’ second game of the season he would have points in every game this year. Yorkton’s Jared Legien is tied with Ball with 36 points and with the Terriers, and Bombers, having played the fewest games of any team so far things could change in a hurry. Hein’s teammate, Nate Hooper, is just one more point back of Ball and Legien with Hooper being the top playmaker having collected 23 assists. Interesting enough, Hooper has the longest current goal-scoring streak intact entering the weekend as he has six goals in his last four games…Speaking of playmaking, Humboldt’s Michael Clarke has set up eight goals in the Broncos last five games while Melfort’s Tanner Zentner and Humboldt’s Owen Guenther both have six helpers in their last five and four games, respectively…Nipawin’s Declan Hobbs and Kindersley’s Justen Close, the co-winners of last year’s SaskTel top goaltender of the year award, continue to lead the way among netminders, but some first-year players in the league are putting up impressive numbers of their own. Hobbs’s partner in Nipawin, Patrick Pugliese, has a 2.05 goals-against average in eight appearances while Riley Kohonick of Notre Dame and Grant Boldt from Estevan are at 2.49 and 2.57, respectively. Pierce Diamond of the Bombers and Dane Dow of the Broncos, both with previous Junior “A” experience in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, are settling in nicely in the SJHL with 2.36 and 2.47 GAA’s. Dow and Notre Dame’s Andrew Henderson continue to be the workhorses for their respective teams as both have appeared in over 1100 minutes of action…While their numbers aren’t leading the way in either special team’s category, the Flin Flon Bombers are feasting on both the power play and penalty kill. The Bombers lead the league in power-play markers with 27 and shorthanded goals with nine. Melfort has the most effective power play at 24.5 per cent efficiency while the Kindersley Klippers lead the way with an 88.9 per cent rate on the penalty kill.
Flin Flon at Battlefords
Melville at Estevan
Humboldt at Nipawin
Flin Flon at Battlefords
Notre Dame at Humboldt
Weyburn at Kindersley
La Ronge at Melfort
Estevan at Yorkton
Weyburn at Battlefords
Melfort at La Ronge