By Dave Leaderhouse
SJHL FANS HAVING THRILLING WEEKEND SCHEDULE OF GAMES TO WHET THE APPETITE
If top-end hockey action is what fans are looking for then this weekend’s Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League schedule has plenty to whet the appetite.
Friday’s action alone has the top five teams taking to the ice along with the hottest club, the Nipawin Hawks, kicking off a grueling three-games-in-three-nights swing through southern Saskatchewan. Throw in three tight divisional battles early in the season and the anticipation level can’t get much higher.
Every game has a significant bearing on the standings despite the regular schedule just reaching the quarter-mark.
Two of the most explosive teams square off when the Finning Division-leading Humboldt Broncos travel to the Battlefords to take on the North Stars and with the surprising Broncos holding a five-point cushion on the Battlefords for the division lead this game could set the stage for what lies ahead.
A Humboldt win would accomplish two things: first it would increase their lead to seven points over the North Stars, but it would go a long way to making the rest of the league believers that they are for real and not just off to a fast start while everyone else settles in.
The Broncos have already won 11 times in just 14 starts where last year they missed the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade and recorded just 17 victories the entire season.
For the North Stars, the defending regular-season and Finning Division champions, they need to win this head-to-head battle to not only move closer to the Broncos, but to also build off their most impressive showing of the season, a 10-3 rout of the Estevan Bruins in their last outing.
Goaltending will be at a premium in this match-up as Humboldt will undoubtedly start Garrett Mason, the league’s workhorse between the pipes, while the Battlefords will counter with either Joel Gryzbowski or Taryn Kotchorek, both of whom have posted impressive numbers early in the campaign.
Mason has faced the most shots (350) and appeared in the most games (12) of any goalie in the league while Gryzbowski has the best goals-against-average (1.21) in five starts and Kotchorek is 5-2-0-0 to go with a 2.47 GAA.
Both the North Stars and Broncos are back in action on Saturday with the Battlefords heading to La Ronge to face the Ice Wolves while Humboldt returns home to take on the Yorkton Terriers.
The other three games on Friday also offer up plenty of excitement as the Flin Flon Bombers will try and turn things around when they host the Kindersley Klipppers in the first of two at the Whitney Forum on the weekend while the Viterra Division leaders, Estevan and the Weyburn Red Wings, are both at home with the Bruins hosting the charging Nipawin Hawks while the Red Wings entertain the Melville Millionaires.
Flin Flon started the season with points in seven of its first eight games, but they have managed just a single point in their last six and are coming off four straight losses last week including back-to-back shutouts to complete their swing through the southeastern portion of the province.
The Bombers, who were Canalta Cup finalists a year ago, are now entrenched in a wicked battle for top spot in the Sherwood Division as they are tied with the Hawks with 14 points, but Flin Flon has played four more games than Nipawin. The Melfort Mustangs, who have regrouped from an eight-game winless skid with victories in their last two games, are only two points out of the Sherwood Division lead. Melfort is the only team that is idle this weekend.
While the weekend double header is important for the Bombers it is of equal urgency for the Klippers as Kindersley is now on a four-game losing streak after falling to the Ice Wolves 3-2 in La Ronge on Wednesday. Kindersley has slipped to two games below .500 as a result of the recent skid so they will need a strong weekend to keep those in front of them in the Finning Division standings within their reach.
Estevan, another early-season surprise after the Bruins had to rebuild their team after hosting the 2016 Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup last spring, rebounded nicely from their blowout loss to the North Stars last weekend with a convincing 7-2 triumph in Melville on Wednesday against the Millionaires.
That win moved the Bruins into a first-place tie with Weyburn for the Viterra Division lead, but they will have their hands full on Friday with the Hawks coming to town.
Nipawin, who started the season with four losses, albeit two were in overtime, have now won six in a row to move into the tie with Flin Flon for the Sherwood Division lead. Without a single scorer in the league’s top 20 the Hawks are by far the stingiest in their own end having allowed just 19 goals against in their first 10 games.
Veteran netminder Kristian Stead has been a big part of that as he has a sparkling .947 save percentage in his eight starts to go with a 1.63 goals-against average.
The Hawks have relied on a scoring-by-committee approach, but veterans Brett Harasymuk (6-6-12) and Keegan Kjargaard (4-7-11) lead the way offensively.
Nipawin will continue its swing through the south on Saturday with a stop in Weyburn before completing the trip with the lone game on Sunday when they will face the Ben Duperreault-led Notre Dame Hounds. Duperreault has been on fire of late riding a six-game point streak in which he has tallied eight goals and set up four others. That production has propelled him to the top of the league scoring lead where he shares the top berth with Humboldt’s Chris Van Os-Shaw as both have identical totals with 11 goals and 11 assists.
NOTES: Humboldt and Estevan, who lead the league in goals with 63 and 59 respectively, not surprisingly hold down seven of the top 10 spots in the individual scoring race. In addition to Van Os-Shaw, the Broncos also have Daniel McKitrick (10-10-20) and Trevor Posch (9-9-18) while the Bruins’ Kaelen Holt (10-5-15), Zach Goberis (5-10-15), Matt McNeill (6-18-14) and Lynnden Pastachak (5-9-14) have also cracked the Top 10…Humboldt has yet to lose on home ice as they are a perfect 8-0-0 at the Elgar Peterson Arena…The Melfort Mustangs lead the league in short-handed goals against at four, which is the exact same number they allowed all of last year in 58 games. Humboldt, meanwhile, has shored up considerably in that department as they have just allowed two shorties this year after giving up a league worst 16 a year ago.
Kindersley at Flin Flon
Humboldt at Battlefords
Nipawin at Estevan
Melville at Weyburn
Kindersley at Flin Flon
Battlefords at La Ronge
Yorkton at Humboldt
Nipawin at Weyburn
Nipawin at Notre Dame