By Dave Leaderhouse
The traditions that are commonly associated with Christmas are now behind us; well almost all of them.
While the gift exchanges, big meals and a break from everyday life have been completed the return of Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League action begins on Friday with the first of four traditional rivalries kicking off a holiday weekend set of home-and-home games.
The Battlefords North Stars hit the road for a short trip to Kindersley to face the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division-leading Klippers with those same clubs also being the lone combatants on Saturday’s schedule, this time in the Battlefords.
The Melville Millionaires and Yorkton Terriers and the Weyburn Red Wings and Estevan Bruins are the next pairings to get back to work with their first matches taking place on Sunday. The Flin Flon Bombers and La Ronge Ice Wolves will get the spotlight to themselves on Monday with all three of these clashes completing the second-half kick-off on New Year’s Day.
Kindersley was the hottest team in the league prior to the break having collected points in nine straight games. As a result of that impressive run they have opened up a three-point lead over the Humboldt Broncos for the divisional lead and are just four back of the league-leading Nipawin Hawks with three games in hand.
The Battlefords were also on a bit of a roll before the holidays as they had won three in a row and had collected points in eight of their last 10 outings. The North Stars trail the Klippers by four points meaning a weekend sweep would put them into a tie for the divisional lead and bring them closer to the leaders for the overall point’s title.
The Highway 10 battle between Yorkton and Melville always has plenty of drama and this weekend will be no different. Yorkton has done a remarkable job of turning around their fortunes as they have gone from missing the playoffs a year ago to holding a comfortable lead in the Viterra Division standings.
The Terriers are six points clear of the defending divisional champion Bruins and they also hold four games in hand on Estevan. Melville, meanwhile, is in a battle with Weyburn and La Ronge for the final playoff berth, but they have played at a .500 clip since making a coaching change at the end of November.
Yorkton and Melville ended the first half with a home-and-home set with the home team coming out victorious in both of those matches. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues this time around.
Estevan has just 21 games left on the regular schedule and nine of those will be against their rivals from Weyburn, beginning with this weekend’s action.
The Bruins, who will have head coach and general manager Chris Lewgood back from his time with Team West at the World Junior “A” Challenge prior to the holidays, are going to need to put a streak together if they hope to catch the upstart Terriers. Estevan, like Yorkton, have had little trouble scoring goals, but keeping it out of their own net has definitely been an issue.
For Weyburn, the disappointing first half has to be put behind them. A coaching change that saw Wes Rudy relieved of his duties in favour of Kyle Haines just before the break might be the spark that is needed, but the bottom line is the Red Wings can ill afford to have any kind of a slump if they hope to catch Melville for the final playoff spot. There is only three points separating those two clubs, but with each passing game that margin becomes larger.
For Flin Flon and La Ronge the math doesn’t get much simpler: both need to put together lengthy winning streaks if they hope to catch those in front of them.
The Bombers, who have played the fewest games of any team so far this season, are 12 points back of the Sherwood Division-leading Nipawin Hawks, but they do have five games in hand on the frontrunners. La Ronge, simply put, has to win as they face an uphill battle to catch Melville for the final playoff spot. The Ice Wolves are 11 points back of that position and need to have a quick start to the second half if they hope to have any chance of getting back into the playoff hunt.
The remaining four teams – Nipawin, Melfort Mustangs, Notre Dame Hounds and Humboldt Broncos – all get back to work right after the calendar flips to 2019 with Humboldt and Notre Dame squaring off on Wednesday while Nipawin and Melfort will have another home-and-home set next weekend. The Hawks and Mustangs were the last two teams to break for the holidays as they split a doubleheader leaving Nipawin with a two-point edge over Melfort for both the Sherwood Division and overall point’s leads.
SJHL NOTES – While the divisional and playoff races will be hotly contested heading down the stretch, another big question that has to be answered is will Melfort’s Justin Ball ever be held off the scoresheet again? It has been 33 games since that last occurred and in that span Ball has collected 62 points, including 36 goals. Ball now has a nine-point lead over linemate Carson Albrecht in the individual scoring race and at his current pace he will surely surpass the 100-point plateau to become just the second player to do so in the last nine seasons (Battlefords Layne Young had 107 last year). Ball, who has 39 goals in total this year, should also surpass the 50-goal mark to become the first player to reach that level since La Ronge’s Travis Eggum accomplished the feat at the beginning of this decade…With the schedule now moving into the stretch run there are a couple of interesting things to take note of. After this weekend’s action, the Battlefords will have just five home games over the next two months as they enjoyed home cooking for the bulk of the first half. On the other side of the coin, Nipawin, Humboldt, Estevan and Melville each have just eight road games left with all four of those having short commutes to close rivals for half of them…Games are almost certainly to get even tighter heading towards the finish line and so far Humboldt has seen the most extra-time action having played in 10 games that were decided by either overtime or a shootout. The Broncos have done very well in those instances having picked up the extra point on seven occasions. Flin Flon and La Ronge have been pushed beyond regulation time just twice each with the Ice Wolves being the only club not have been stretched to a shootout.
Battlefords at Kindersley
Kindersley at Battlefords
Melville at Yorkton
Weyburn at Estevan
Flin Flon at La Ronge
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Yorkton at Melville
Estevan at Weyburn