By Dave Leaderhouse
The Christmas season is officially upon us and for most Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League teams this weekend puts the finishing touches on an incredibly exciting first half of the regular schedule.
The Notre Dame Hounds will be the first team to pack up for the holidays when they travel to Weyburn to face the Red Wings on Friday. The Hounds have had a bit of a roller-coaster first half, but they are firmly in a playoff spot and will be looking to creep to within one game of the .500 level should they pick up one more win before the break.
The Humboldt Broncos, La Ronge Ice Wolves, Melville Millionaires and Weyburn will all head home following Saturday’s action.
The Broncos have been the feel-good story early in the season as they have rebounded from the horrific tragedy last spring to sit in first place in the hotly-contested Global Ag Risk Solutions Division. Humboldt, which enters this weekend two points back of the Nipawin Hawks for first place overall, play the Melfort Mustangs in a home-and-home set beginning on Friday at the Northern Lights Palace.
It has been a struggle once again for the Ice Wolves as they are currently in last place overall and will need a strong second half to make a return to the post-season for the first time in three years. The Ice Wolves finish their first half with a home game against the Flin Flon Bombers on Friday before heading to Nipawin to take on the Hawks on Saturday.
Melville is the lone team to make a mid-season coaching change and so far that appears to have worked out as the Millionaires have won their last two outings to move into the final playoff position. Melville has a Highway 10 showdown with the Yorkton Terriers this weekend as they open at home on Friday before heading to Yorkton on Saturday.
Weyburn started the season on fire, but injuries and suspensions decimated their line-up resulting in the Red Wings currently sitting on the outside looking in for that final playoff berth. The Red Wings, who are just one point back of Melville for that final playoff spot, are also home to the Estevan Bruins on Saturday in addition to their Friday date with Notre Dame.
The Battlefords North Stars will complete their pre-Christmas schedule when they host Nipawin for the second time this week in one of two games to be played on Sunday. The North Stars, who blanked the Hawks 2-0 earlier in the week, have quietly moved into the upper echelon of the league as they are just three points back of the Broncos for the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division lead and they trail Nipawin by only five points for first place overall.
The other game on Sunday between Flin Flon and the surging Kindersley Klippers will also put a stamp on the first half for both of those clubs.
Flin Flon has played the fewest number of games of all teams and depending on what happens in their gruelling three-games-in-three-nights weekend – they also square off against Kindersley on Saturday in addition to their weekend-opening contest in La Ronge – they could become a much louder voice in the discussion for top spot in the Sherwood Division and overall lead. The Bombers trail Nipawin by nine points for both of those races, but they hold four games in hand on the Hawks.
Kindersley, meanwhile, enters the final full weekend as the hottest team in the league having collected at least one point in their last seven outings. As a result, the Klippers are within one point of Humboldt in their divisional battle and three points behind Nipawin for top spot overall. Kindersley also enjoys games in hand on both Humboldt and Nipawin.
The next two clubs to complete their pre-Christmas schedule are the Terriers and Bruins when the top two Viterra Division teams go head-to-head on Tuesday in Estevan.
Yorkton has been another feel-good story this year as they have gone 8-2-0-0 in their last 10 games to claim a five-point cushion over the Bruins for the divisional lead. The Terriers, who failed to make the post-season last year, already have five more wins than all of last season and they also hold five games in hand on Estevan so they have an opportunity to put even more space between them and the Bruins.
Estevan, which has hovered around the .500 mark all season, should have head coach and general manager Chris Lewgood back on Tuesday as he has been away for two weeks as part of the Team West coaching staff at the annual World Junior “A” Challenge being held in Bonnyville, Alta.
Finally, the pre-Christmas schedule comes to an end next weekend when Nipawin and Melfort finish things off with a crucial home-and-home series.
Both teams have been red-hot of late having collected points in eight of their last 10 games, but the Hawks, thanks to their smothering defence, hold a three-point edge on the Mustangs in the Sherwood Division and overall point’s races entering this weekend’s action. The Mustangs have a pair of games in hand on their fierce rivals and will continue to hold that advantage when they break for the holidays. That three-point separation could be more, or less, depending on what happens this weekend.
It has been a very entertaining first half of the season and the table is set for a stretch run that could be unmatched in the 49 previous years of the SJHL. The league would like to take this opportunity to wish all the players, staff, fans, volunteers and sponsors a very happy holiday season.
SJHL NOTES – The Battlefords and Kindersley will be the first teams back following the break when they play a home-and-home set on Dec. 28-29. A series of traditional rivalries – Flin Flon vs La Ronge, Melville vs Yorkton and Estevan vs Weyburn – will then bring in the New Year before the schedule gets back into full swing…In addition to all of the divisional and playoff races going on there is also a good battle going on in the individual scoring race. Melfort’s Justin Ball enters this weekend riding a 29-game point streak and with his 51 points in that span he has built up a six-point advantage on teammate Carson Albrecht and Flin Flon’s Brandson Hein. Ball, who also has 14 goals in his last 11 games, has been held off the scoresheet just once this year and that was the second game of the season back in mid-September…Nipawin has risen to the top of the standings thanks to their stifling defence as the Hawks enter this weekend having allowed just 62 goals against in 33 games. Not surprisingly, the Nipawin tandem of Declan Hobbs and Patrick Pugliese are well ahead of all other goalies with 1.75 and 1.83 goals-against averages, respectively. On the flip side, Nipawin has no one in the top 20 in scoring as their 86 goals scored is in the bottom third of all teams in the league.
Melfort at Humboldt
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Notre Dame at Weyburn
Melville at Yorkton
Flin Flon at Kindersley
Humboldt at Melfort
Yorkton at Melville
La Ronge at Nipawin
Estevan at Weyburn
Nipawin at Battlefords
Flin Flon at Kindersley
Yorkton at Estevan
Nipawin at Melfort
Melfort at Nipawin