By Dave Leaderhouse
It might be unbearably cold outside, but the temperature is about to turn up considerably on the ice as the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League kicks off its second half of the regular schedule with a series of home-and-home matches this weekend.
The Kindersley Klippers and Battlefords North Stars are the first two teams to get back to work after the Christmas break with the North Stars looking to extend their six-game point streak when they host the Klippers in the lone game on Friday.
The Battlefords have moved to their customary position atop the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division standings thanks to their current run of success, but they are still six points back of the Sherwood Division leading Nipawin Hawks in the overall point’s race.
Nipawin has built up that cushion with an amazing run of their own in which they have not suffered a regulation-time loss in 16 games and with the Hawks idle until Jan. 5 the North Stars can close that gap considerably this weekend.
Despite being 18 points clear of the Klippers in the divisional standings, the Battlefords have to enter this weekend’s series with Kindersley with a bit of caution. After sweeping the Klippers on opening weekend, and not allowing Kindersley a goal in the process, the last three meetings between the rivals have been nail biters with Kindersley winning once and losing the other two in shootouts.
Kindersley will host the Battlefords in the return match on Saturday with six other teams also getting back to work that night.
The La Ronge Ice Wolves, who already have more wins than they accumulated all of last year, will head to Flin Flon to take on the Bombers; the Estevan Bruins make the hour trip up to Weyburn to face the Red Wings in a Viterra Division showdown; and the Yorkton Terriers travel the short distance down Highway 10 for their traditional New Year’s Day weekend clash with the Melville Millionaires.
The Ice Wolves begin the second half just eight points back of the Bombers for the 10th and final playoff spot so this weekend is critical if they have any thoughts of extending their season beyond the beginning of March.
La Ronge takes on a Bomber team that limped into the break with losses in nine of their last 11 outings, but they did win their final game (5-3 over Kindersley) before Christmas and they will also have head coach and general manager Mike Reagan back behind the bench in addition to having rookie sensation Chrystopher Collin back in the line-up. Both Regan and Collin were away from the club for three weeks as they helped Team West capture the gold medal at the World Junior “A” Challenge in Truro, N.S.
The Ice Wolves and Bombers will complete their home-and-home set in La Ronge with the lone game on New Year’s Eve.
While the Ice Wolves need a big weekend to get back in the conversation for a post-season berth, the same can be said for the Terriers, who are seven points back of the Bombers and nine in arrears of the Millionaires.
Yorkton has shown a marked improvement since making a coaching change in early November, but keeping the puck out of their own net has indeed been an issue as they have the league’s worst goal differential at -90. Losing 16-year-old netminder Nolan Maier to the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades after he competed at the world under-17 championships held in northern B.C. at the start of November hasn’t helped, but the Terriers need to find a way to tighten up play in their own end if they, too, want to make it a race to the end to grab a playoff berth.
The Millionaires, who have had 25 per cent of their games go into extra time (behind only the Battlefords and Humboldt Broncos for most in the league), will make the return trip to Yorkton on New Year’s Day.
The final match-up has Estevan and Weyburn not only renewing a long-standing rivalry, but first place in the Viterra Division is also on the line.
The Bruins currently sit two points clear of the Red Wings, but Weyburn holds two games in hand with the Red Wings closing that gap with points in their final four games before the break.
Estevan has the most explosive offense in the league with 156 goals scored in their first 35 games, but they are also in the bottom half in goals allowed with 121. Weyburn, in contrast, doesn’t score as much with just 111 goals so far, but their 92 goals against has them among the league leaders in that department.
The Bruins take to the road for the opener of this crucial series on Saturday and then will return home for the first of six straight at Affinity Place on New Year’s Day. Weyburn will also enjoy some home cooking to begin the second half as they will play eight of their next 10 after the weekend doubleheader at Crescent Point Place and both of those road games in January are just outside an hour of travel time as they will be back in Estevan for another match on the 19th and in Notre Dame on the 24th.
The other four teams in the league – Nipawin, Humboldt, Notre Dame and the Melfort Mustangs, will all have another week to stay warm and get ready for the second half with all four returning to action on Jan. 5. The Mustangs have the most pressing schedule of the four as they will be without a home rink for first week of January as the Northern Lights Palace will be the site of the 2018 Scotties Tournament of Hearts provincial women’s curling championships. Melfort will therefore be practising elsewhere in addition to beginning the second half with a tough swing through the south with stops in Estevan and Weyburn next weekend.
It should be a thrilling second half and the action will be augmented by the inaugural SJHL/MJHL Player Showcase, which is slated for Jan. 15-16 at the Co-operators Centre in Regina. There is also the Jan. 10 trade deadline looming so fans should buckle up for what promises to be a great stretch of action.
Kindersley at Battlefords
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Yorkton at Melville
Estevan at Weyburn
Battlefords at Kindersley
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Melville at Yorkton
Weyburn at Estevan