By Dave Leaderhouse
One can always expect the unexpected, but so far in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs everything has kind of gone according to plan.
The top four teams from the regular season have all survived the opening rounds of the post-season and now they will meet in a pair of semi-finals as they continue their quest for a Canalta Cup championship.
The Battlefords North Stars, Flin Flon Bombers, Estevan Bruins and Nipawin Hawks were clearly in the upper echelon during the regular campaign and those four teams suffered just two losses combined in the quarter-final round to get to this stage.
The North Stars, who ran away with the Olympic Buildings Division and overall point’s title with a 48-9-1-0 record, swept the Weyburn Red Wings in four straight in their quarter-final match-up and they will now face the Viterra Division champion Estevan Bruins in one semi-final tilt. Estevan, which won its division by 16 points, needed five games to dispatch the Yorkton Terriers.
The other semi-final series has two teams that need no introduction to each other as Flin Flon and Nipawin were in a season-long battle for the Sherwood Division championship with the Bombers coming out on top despite both teams finishing the regular campaign with 83 points.
The Bombers, who laid claim to the title by virtue of a clear dominance in the season series between the rivals, took five games to dispose of the Notre Dame Hounds in their quarter-final match-up while the Hawks, who have been one of the hottest teams in the league since the Christmas break, swept past the Humboldt Broncos in their opening playoff tilt.
With the top four teams left standing one would expect long drawn-out affairs to see who continues on with their season and from looking at the head-to-head meetings the fans in each centre will certainly not be disappointed. Following is a brief synopsis of what took place when the Battlefords met Estevan and Flin Flon squared off against Nipawin during the regular season.
Battlefords vs. Estevan
The two divisional champions only saw each other four times during the regular season and the last time that happened was almost three months ago.
In the four meetings the North Stars outscored the Bruins 25-21, but the most intriguing fact of this match-up is that neither team won on home ice.
Estevan claimed the first game by a 4-3 margin thanks to a Michael McChesney power-play goal early in the third period, but the Battlefords got that one back when they met three weeks later in Estevan as the North Stars began a 13-game winning streak with a 10-3 rout.
The Battlefords didn’t taste defeat again until Nov. 19 when the Bruins made their final visit to the North Battleford Civic Centre as an 8-6 Bruins’ decision ended the North Stars’ lengthy run. The Battlefords then squared up the season series with a 6-3 triumph in Estevan on Jan. 6 when the two teams last faced each other.
Overall, the teams were pretty much on par with each other offensively as the Battlefords scored 223 goals in the regular season while Estevan lit the lamp 225 times. Defensively is where there is a glaring difference as the North Stars allowed almost 100 goals less with the Bruins having 201 goals scored against them compared to the league-low of 103 allowed by the Battlefords.
As a result the Battlefords boasted the league’s top two goaltenders with Taryn Kotchorek and Joel Grzybowski leading in several categories as they finished one-two in goals-against with 1.61 and 1.66 marks and combined for 11 shutouts. Kotchorek has been the go-to guy in the playoffs seeing action in all four games against Weyburn and he was 2-1 in games against Estevan during the regular schedule.
Nathan Alalouf has been given the reigns so far in the post-season playing every second in the series against Yorkton and he, too, saw the bulk of the work in the season series against the Battlefords going 1-2 in his three starts.
The Battlefords had two of the top five scorers in the league in Colby Downs (29-43-72) and Layne Young (27-44-71), but it was Brett Horn who put up the best numbers for the North Stars in the season series against the Bruins. Horn, who only played in 35 games during the regular campaign, had a goal and six helpers against the Bruins with Young and Downs chipping in with five points each. Both Downs and Young are among the early leaders in the playoff point race as the pair combined for 16 points in the series against the Red Wings.
Estevan will counter with a pretty potent line-up of its own as they too had three players among the top 15 in scoring during the regular season. Matt McNeil led the way with 31 goals and 38 assists while Jason Miller had 26-33-59 totals and Kaelen Holt put up career bests with 27 goals and 29 assists. Both McNeil and Holt led the way in the series against the North Stars with each collecting two goals and five helpers while Jake Fletcher enjoyed plenty of success against the Battlefords registering three goals and three assists in the four regular-season meetings.
Special teams could be a deciding factor in this match-up as the North Stars were first or second in both penalty killing and on the power play while the Bruins were fourth with the man advantage and middle of the pack while playing a man short. In the head-to-head meetings the Battlefords went 11/28 while Estevan was 6/26.
The series will open with the first two games in the Battlefords on Friday and Saturday before moving south for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Tuesday. Should it go beyond the minimum then Game 5 will be back in the Battlefords on Thursday with Game 6 to go in Estevan on April 8 and Game 7 slated for the Battlefords on April 10.
Flin Flon vs. Nipawin
Despite being equal in points with 83 each the season series between the Bombers and Hawks wasn’t even close.
Flin Flon won seven of eight meetings including that all important 4-0 decision on the final night of the regular season to nail down first place in the Sherwood Division and ultimately secure home-ice advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs (or longer depending on what happens in the other series).
The Bombers outscored the Hawks 28-16 in the season series with three of those games being shutouts.
It all started on opening weekend back in mid-September with the Bombers winning 4-3 in overtime on home ice and then blanking the Hawks the following night 2-0 in Nipawin. Two months later the Bombers left The Cage with another 4-3 decision and then in early December it was Flin Flon sweeping another home-and-home set this time by 4-1 and 3-2 margins.
Nipawin made some key acquisitions midway through the season with Josh Bly coming over from the Kindersley Klippers, Keegan Milligan joining the team from Melville and Eric Bolden returning from a stint at college. Brandan Arnold was also reassigned from the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos giving the Hawks some additional scoring strength.
As a result the Hawks turned it on during the second half of the season eliminating a double-digit deficit behind Flin Flon and thanks to a 13-game winning streak of their own late in the season challenged the Bombers for the division lead right down to the final night of the regular season.
With that bolstered line-up the Hawks finally beat Flin Flon 7-3 on Feb. 14, but the Bombers answered by winning the final two meetings by identical 4-0 verdicts.
Both teams have plenty of elite talent with Flin Flon possessing two-time defenceman of the year Eric Sinclair and co-scoring champion Greyson Reitmeier while this year’s top goaltender and league most valuable player was Nipawin netminder Kristian Stead.
With all of that star power it was somewhat surprising to see Flin Flon’s Rylee Zimmer being by far the most dominant player in the season series as the gifted forward had three goals and 10 assists to easily lead all players offensively. Reitmeier finished the series against Nipawin with three goals and five helpers while Kristian St. Onge also had a high level of success against the Hawks scoring five times and setting up two others. For Nipawin it was Bly (in only five games) and Grant Baetsen leading the way with five points each while a handful of others each had three points.
The netminding story is interesting in this series as Stead, who played every second in the sweep of Humboldt, was only 1-5 against the Bombers while Zac Robidoux, who dressed in every game against Notre Dame, only had two starts against the Hawks, but both were shutouts. Brenden Newton had a 4-1 record for the Bombers against the Hawks, but Robidoux who had a 1.85 goals-against average in the series against the Hounds, will undoubtedly get the nod.
Special teams will once again play a big role in this series with Flin Flon capitalizing on 11 of 32 opportunities with the man advantage during the regular-season meetings while the Hawks were 7/38. With each team having plenty of firepower and among the best defences and goaltenders in the league this certainly could be what determines who moves on to the league final.
The Bombers and Hawks will be doing the opposite of what the other semi-final is doing as the teams will switch venues after each game. After Friday’s opener in Flin Flon the series will move to Nipawin on Saturday before returning to northern Manitoba on Tuesday. Game 4 will once again be back in Nipawin on Wednesday with subsequent games, if needed, being scheduled for Friday in Flin Flon, April 9 in Nipawin and April 11 in Flin Flon.