By Dave Leaderhouse
ICE WOLVES LOOKING TO END HECTIC WEEK WITH STRONG SHOWING AGAINST ESTEVAN
As the old saying goes there is nowhere to go but up for the La Ronge Ice Wolves.
A 2-12-0-1 start forced the Ice Wolves’ board of directors to make a decision and they did just that when they announced early this week that head coach and general manager Shawn Martin was relieved of his duties after three-plus years with the team.
Almost immediately after that decision was made associate coach Matt Hehr left the team leaving the Ice Wolves with assistant coach Eric Bell running the show and to give credit where credit is due, the players responded with an inspired performance in their next outing only to lose 5-4 in a shootout to the Weyburn Red Wings on Wednesday.
Now the Ice Wolves have to take on another of the elite teams on Friday when the Estevan Bruins roll into the Mel Hegland Arena and the silver lining in all of this is they will have a full week off after that contest to regroup and get ready for a hectic stretch that will see them play five times in eight nights including four on the road.
The Ice Wolves were 69-96-10-10 under Martin and during his time reached the playoffs just once – last spring when they swept the Yorkton Terriers in the best-of-five Wild Card Series before bowing out to the eventual Canalta Cup champion Melfort Mustangs in four straight in the quarter-final round.
There was plenty of optimism to start this season as a result of that return trip to the post-season, but the Ice Wolves never came together scoring a league low 26 goals in the 15 games with Martin behind the bench while also surrendering a staggering 71 tallies in that same span.
Those numbers don’t bode well with the high-flying Bruins coming to town as Estevan has surprised many with its explosive start scoring 69 times in its first 15 games. The Bruins, who were left to rebuild its squad after hosting the 2016 Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup last spring, have won its last three games to gain a share of the Viterra Division lead with Weyburn and they also hold a pair of games in hand on the Red Wings.
Both Estevan and Weyburn will remain in the northern part of the province this weekend as the Bruins will play three games in three nights with stops in Flin Flon on Saturday and Melfort on Sunday after their match in La Ronge on Friday while the Red Wings have moved on to Flin Flon for a Friday date with the Bombers before heading to Nipawin on Saturday to complete their northern trek.
There are three more games on the slate on Friday with all three having a bearing on the Finning Division standings.
The division-leading Humboldt Broncos head to Melville to face the Millionaires and they will be looking to secure two points to stay ahead of the charging Battlefords North Stars. Humboldt has been the division and league leaders all year, but the North Stars have won their last four to narrow the gap to just three points.
The Battlefords will be home to the Yorkton Terriers on Friday with that being just their seventh home date of the season as they have already put up plenty of miles having played 11 of their first 17 on the road. That will change over the next several weeks, however, as Friday’s game kicks off a two-game homestand and sees the North Stars play eight of their next 10 at the North Battleford Civic Centre.
The other game on Friday has the remaining Finning Division combatants squaring off with Notre Dame heading to Kindersley to take on the Klippers. Both of those clubs will be looking to get back into the win column and stay within striking distance of the Broncos and the North Stars, but they will both need to put together lengthy winning streaks to close that gap.
Saturday’s schedule has most of the same dancers, just different partners.
In addition to Weyburn moving on to Nipawin and Estevan heading off to Flin Flon, Notre Dame will travel to the Battlefords, Yorkton ventures into Kindersley and Humboldt makes a stop in Melfort.
All of these games will once again have a bearing on the respective divisional races with Nipawin and Flin Flon entering the weekend with just one point separating them in the Sherwood Division standings, Weyburn and Estevan share the Viterra Division lead and the Broncos and North Stars continue to slug it out for top spot in the Finning Division.
Sunday’s lone game is, as mentioned earlier, Estevan completing its grueling northern swing with a stop in Melfort.
NOTES: Special teams play a big factor in the outcome of most games and there are some interesting twists in those two areas with the Nipawin Hawks having the best penalty-killing record on home ice (87.9%) and the best power-play on the road (33.3%) while the Battlefords North Stars are just the reverse leading the way on the power-play on home ice (26.5%) and penalty killing on the road (88.1%). One of the biggest surprises in special teams is the Battlefords being dead last on the penalty kill at home operating at just 70.8% efficiency… Another bit of noteworthy news is that Humboldt has yet to lose in regulation time on home ice going 9-0-0-1 with Nipawin also being solid at The Cage having posted a 5-1-0-0 ledger. On the flip side, the Battlefords have been road warriors going 8-3-0-0 while on the road with Estevan also enjoying life on the bus having gone 5-1-0-1 when being the visitors. Yorkton, meanwhile, is the lone team not to post a win while away from the friendly confines…Overtime games have been very common this year with both Flin Flon and Humboldt leading the way in extra-time matches with five each. The Broncos have been lights out winning two of those in overtime and two more in a shootout…Notre Dame’s Ben Duperreault has moved into the individual points lead with 11 goals and 15 assists. That is one better than Humboldt’s Chris Van Os-Shaw who is tied with Layne Young of the Battlefords and Estevan’s Kaelen Holt for the most goals with 12 each…Young and Keegan Kjargaard of the Nipawin Hawks have the longest point streaks going at the moment with each having collected points in their last four games going into this weekend’s action. Young has six goals and one assist during his run while Kjargaard has five goals and three assists…Nathan Hargrave of the Red Wings and Humboldt’s Garrett Mason continue to be the workhorses in goal with both having appeared in 14 games for their respective clubs. Joel Gryzbowski of the North Stars, however, leads the way in save percentage at .948 and goals-against average at 1.29 after allowing just nine goals on 172 shots in his seven starts.
Weyburn at Flin Flon
Estevan at La Ronge
Yorkton at Battlefords
Notre Dame at Kindersley
Humboldt at Melville
Estevan at Flin Flon
Notre Dame at Battlefords
Yorkton at Kindersley
Humboldt at Melfort
Weyburn at Nipawin
Estevan at Melfort