By Dave Leaderhouse
How close are the three divisional races in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League? Well, entering this weekend the Melfort Mustangs lead the Sherwood Division by three points while the Battlefords North Stars and Estevan Bruins are one point clear of their closest rivals in the Olympic Buildings Division and Viterra Division races, respectively.
And, the way the schedule is this weekend, if everything were to happen that could happen all three of those teams could be the chasers instead of the leaders.
The Mustangs are at home this weekend for a pair of difficult tests beginning on Friday when they entertain the Nipawin Hawks, the team they are fending off for the divisional lead. Nipawin has closed the gap thanks to six straight wins including the last two in which they have outscored their opponents 19-3.
Nipawin, which holds two games in hand on Melfort, will also be in Flin Flon on Saturday while the Mustangs remain at the Northern Lights Palace to welcome the Weyburn Red Wings. Should the Hawks remain red-hot and the Mustangs falter then that race could flip although both the Hawks and Red Wings have their hands full as Melfort possesses the best home record at 12-1-0-0.
The Battlefords head south for the second time in three weeks with stops in Estevan on Friday and Notre Dame on Saturday with the latter possibly being a showdown for the divisional lead depending on what happens in Estevan.
The North Stars, who are slowly catching up in games played due to a light early schedule, have won their last seven games to pull ahead of the Hounds by a single point. The Battlefords edged the Bruins 5-4 two weeks ago when they were last in Estevan, but just prior to that Notre Dame was full marks in a 5-1 victory, the last time the North Stars tasted defeat.
Estevan, meanwhile, needs a strong game against the North Stars to hold off the Red Wings for the Viterra Division lead as Weyburn completes a gruelling portion of their schedule with games in La Ronge on Friday against the Ice Wolves before the date in Melfort on Saturday.
Since Oct. 24 the Red Wings have played 12 of 16 games away from the friendly confines of Crescent Point Place and despite that are still just one point out of the divisional lead, with two games in hand on the Bruins.
Following this weekend, the Red Wings will have one more road game in Melville next Wednesday before setting up camp at home with nine of their next 11 on home ice and both of those road games in that stretch being a short jaunt down the highway for a showdown with the Bruins.
There is a caveat for this weekend, however, as all of the aforementioned divisional leaders and their closest pursuers, with the exception of the Mustangs, will be without key players as nine SJHL hopefuls head to Calgary to try out for Team West for the upcoming World Junior “A” Challenge to be played in Truro, N.S., in mid-December.
Notre Dame will be without Tim Gould and Jared Hamm while the North Stars lose Levi Kleiboer with Josh McDougall from Nipawin, Ben Hiltz from Weyburn and Michael McChesney from Estevan also absent from the contending-team rosters. Other SJHL hopefuls include Jacob Wasserman from the Humboldt Broncos, Chrystopher Collin from the Flin Flon Bombers and Chantz Petruic from the Yorkton Terriers.
Flin Flon head coach and general manager Mike Reagan will also be away this weekend as he is the head coach this year for Team West. Reagan will be absent from the Bombers for nearly three weeks as he will leave with the final Team West club immediately following the selection camp in hopes of improving on their fifth-place finish from a year ago.
SJHL NOTES – The only other games this weekend have Humboldt and Yorkton engaging in a home-and-home series with the Melville Millionaires and Kindersley Klippers both being idle…Thanks to a six-assist effort in the Battlefords’ 10-2 win over La Ronge earlier this week, the SJHL has a new scoring leader in Layne Young. The veteran forward, who has been held off the scoresheet in just three games this year, is now three points up on Estevan’s Zach Goberis. What’s amazing is that Young’s 17 points in the last six games isn’t even the most productive current streak as his linemate MacGregor Sinclair has 19 points in his last seven outings, including 11 goals. Sinclair is now third overall, eight points back of Young and five in arrears of Goberis… Sinclair has not only been on a tear on the ice, but earlier this week he settled his future when it was announced he accepted a scholarship to attend Canisius College next year. Sinclair’s teammate, Levi Kleiboer, also confirmed that he will be moving on to the University of Maine in the future…With Nipawin having allowed a paltry six goals against in their last five games it is no surprise that the Hawks’ netminding tandem of Jake Anthony and Declan Hobbs lead the way with 1.76 and 2.07 goals-against averages, respectively. The Hounds’ Jacob Standen and Melfort’s Evan Plotnik are also among the leaders with 2.11 and 2.18 GAAs despite seeing a significant amount more of time between the pipes. Melville’s Colby Entz is the league workhorse in net having seen action in 23 of the Millionaires’ 29 games… Special teams have been a big factor in Melfort being the No. 1 team overall as the Mustangs have the best power-play rating at 25 per cent and the best penalty-killing result at 86.2 per cent. There is a clear line in the power-play stats with all six teams vying for the various division leads being at 20 per-cent efficiency or better while the remaining six teams are all below that benchmark…The North Stars have the best winning percentage at .848, but it hasn’t been a cake walk to get to 19-3-1-0 as more than a third of their games have needed extra time with another handful of contests being decided by two goals or less. Melville, surprisingly, has the most overtime wins at four which is almost half of their entire win total.
Nipawin at Melfort
Weyburn at La Ronge
Battlefords at Estevan
Nipawin at Flin Flon
Weyburn at Melfort
Yorkton at Humboldt
Battlefords at Notre Dame
Humboldt at Yorkton