By Dave Leaderhouse
It took some doing, for one team at least, but the top two seeds are the last two standing as the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League begins its championship final on Friday.
The Battlefords North Stars will meet the Flin Flon Bombers in a best-of-seven affair with the winner claiming the Canalta Cup and a trip to Penticton, B.C., for the Western Canada Cup.
The North Stars, who ran away with the Olympic Buildings Division and overall point’s title, have been idle for 10 days after sweeping the Estevan Bruins in their semi-final match-up while the Bombers needed to win their last three games, including a 3-0 decision in Game 7 on Tuesday, to get past the Nipawin Hawks.
The Battlefords, who have lost just three times since the Christmas break, are a perfect 8-0 in the post-season and they should be well rested as they have played just eight games in 41 days since the regular season ended at the beginning of March.
The Bombers on the other hand, needed to beat Nipawin on a storm-delayed final night of the regular season to land the No. 2 seed and the Sherwood Division crown before eliminating the Notre Dame Hounds in five games in the quarter-finals and then going the distance in the hard-fought semi-final tilt against the Hawks.
There will definitely be a feeling out period in the championship final as the North Stars and Bombers haven’t seen each other in four months with the last meeting between the two taking place on Dec. 16.
The Battlefords and Flin Flon squared off four times in the regular season with the North Stars winning three, but all of the contests were close as the final goal tally was 12-9 in favour of the Battlefords with the differential including an empty netter and shootout winner.
The two first hooked up in early October when the Battlefords swept the Bombers on back-to-back nights at the Whitney Forum. The North Stars needed a goal by Kendal Fransoo in the fourth round of the shootout to claim a 4-3 decision in the opener and then Joel Grzybowski stopped all 27 shots he faced the following night to lead the Battlefords to a 3-0 triumph.
Flin Flon got one of those back when the two met in the Battlefords just before Christmas with the Bombers skating to a 4-2 victory in the opener, but the North Stars clinched the season series two nights later with a 3-2 verdict in the final meeting.
Scoring was spread evenly for both teams in the season series as just North Star forward Layne Young averaged more than a point per game with a goal and four helpers in the four meetings. Keaton Holinaty, Brett Horn, Bryce Hall, Owen Lamb and Coby Downs all had three points for the North Stars while Nick Shumlanski, Braden Lacoursiere and Rylee Zimmer each had similar outputs for the Bombers. Overage forward Dondre Watson actually led the Flin Flon offence against the Battlefords, scoring twice and setting up two others, but he was moved at the trade deadline when the Bombers shuffled their line-up slightly.
The series should be interesting in that the Battlefords had the third best offence in the regular season with 223 goals scored and a league-low 103 goals against while the Bombers were the most explosive offensively with 245 goals scored and posted the third-best goals-against total with 150.
In the playoffs, however, the North Stars have moved into another level having outscored their opponents 47-18 while the Bombers are 34-24 with Flin Flon having tightened up their defence considerably in their final three outings allowing just two goals in their dramatic comeback against Nipawin.
For the Bombers to win their first league title since 1993 they will undoubtedly have to stop the Battlefords’ top two scorers as Downs and Young have run roughshod against their opponents in the post-season collecting a combined 38 points in just eight games. Downs has two goals and 18 assists while Young has put up 6-12-18 totals.
The Bombers, conversely, are being led by regular-season co-scoring champion Greyson Reitmeier and two-time defenceman of the year Eric Sinclair. Both have 12 points while Zimmer and Kristian St. Onge have also had strong playoff performances with 11 and 10 points, respectively.
Both teams are going to have to solve premiere netminding in order to claim the championship as the North Stars had the top two goaltenders in the regular season with Taryn Kotchorek and Grzybowski leading the way with 1.61 and 1.66 goals-against averages, respectively, while the Bombers have Brenden Newton and Zac Robidoux with the former having been sensational since coming on in relief early in Game 4 of the semi-final round against the Hawks. Newton shut the door for the remainder of a 4-1 loss once given the reigns and then allowed just two goals in the next three games to lead the Bombers to the comeback win over Nipawin.
Special teams will undoubtedly play a big role in the final outcome and in the four regular-season meetings between the two it was the Battlefords who had a slight advantage with the North Stars capitalizing on six of 19 chances with the extra man while the Bombers were just 2/17.
The Bombers are making a return trip to the league final as they took the Melfort Mustangs to six games last spring while the North Stars, who were upset by Flin Flon in six games in the semi-final round last year, are in the championship final for the first time since 2006 and they are looking to end a stretch of 17 years between league titles.
The first two games of the series will be played in the Battlefords on Friday and Saturday with Games 3 and 4 scheduled for northern Manitoba on Tuesday and Wednesday. Additional games are scheduled for next Friday back in the Battlefords, April 23 in Flin Flon and April 25 in the Battlefords.
If the series does go the limit the winner will have just a few days to get ready for the Western Canada Cup as that championship begins April 29 in Penticton. The WCC features the four Western Canada provincial champions and the host team and currently it is the Whitecourt Wolverines and Brooks Bandits squaring off for the Alberta Junior Hockey League title and the OCN Blizzard leading the Portage Terriers in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League championship final. The British Columbia Junior Hockey League final is for bragging rights only as both Penticton and Chilliwack will be heading to the WCC as Penticton is already assured a spot as the host team.