By Dave Leaderhouse
FINAL MONTH OF REGULAR SCHEDULE BEGINS WITH MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
With a month left in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s regular schedule some things are finally starting to get settled, but more questions remain than answers as the stretch run begins in earnest with a full slate of games this weekend.
Let’s start with what has already been answered.
The Battlefords North Stars were the first team to clinch a playoff spot last weekend and earlier this week, without even playing, they nailed down their second straight Finning Division title as their closest rival, the Humboldt Broncos, fell out of reach when they lost 4-3 to the Klippers in Kindersley.
That gives the North Stars a top-three seeding going into the playoffs, but what once looked liked a certainty for them to repeat as regular-season champions as well is now being threatened by the Flin Flon Bombers, a club that has gone 12 games without a regulation loss.
The Bombers, who were the second team to guarantee themselves a berth in the post-season when they opened up a grueling four-games-in-five-nights road swing on Wednesday with a 5-1 decision in Melfort over the Mustangs, are now just six points back of the North Stars for the overall lead after they followed that up with a 6-1 triumph in Melville on Thursday.
Flin Flon, which concludes its extended road trip with stops in Notre Dame on Saturday and Estevan on Sunday, are once again eight points clear of the Nipawin Hawks for the Sherwood Division lead, but here is where the questions come into play.
The Hawks, which have also been white hot with wins in its last nine games, has three games in hand on the Bombers and the schedule makers must have had a crystal ball of sorts as Nipawin and Flin Flon have three head-to-head meetings left on the schedule including a game at the Whitney Forum on the final night of the regular season.
Nipawin can become the third team to officially nail down a playoff berth on Friday when they open a home-and-home series in Melfort against the Mustangs. The Hawks, who will be without sniper Brandan Arnold (12 points in six games) after the 19-year-old winger was recalled by the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos earlier this week, can move out of reach of the 11th-place Melville Millionaires with a win against the Mustangs (a Melville loss in Humboldt would also seal the deal). They would also close that gap between themselves and the Bombers for the division lead, a position that would guarantee a top-three seeding going into the playoffs.
Another team that has put together an impressive run is the Kindersley Klippers as their six straight wins have moved them from being in a battle for a playoff spot to challenging for a top-six position, which avoids an opening best-of-five Wild Card round.
The Klippers, which resumes an eight-game homestand with a match against the struggling La Ronge Ice Wolves on Saturday, are just two points back of the sixth-place Weyburn Red Wings, but they are also just one point clear of both the Mustangs and Yorkton Terriers. The Terriers and Red Wings also meet in Yorkton on Saturday in what will most certainly have a playoff atmosphere to it.
With Weyburn, Kindersley, Melfort and Yorkton being separated by just three points in that battle for the final top-six position both teams buffering either side of that grouping are also playing for their playoff lives.
The Humboldt Broncos, who started the season with eight wins in their first nine games, are just six points away from falling out of a top-six position while the Notre Dame Hounds, with points in their last two games, have moved six points in front of Melville for the final playoff spot. Notre Dame, which will play the Terriers in a neutral-site game in Fort Qu’Appelle on Friday before heading home to take on the Bombers on Saturday, are also just two points back of the grouping battling it out for sixth place overall.
Melville needs to put the brakes on a four-game losing streak when they visit Humboldt on Friday as the Millionaires are losing ground in their chase to return to the playoffs for the first time in two years.
NOTES: The Flin Flon Bombers finally made it onto the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s Top 20 list when they were listed at No. 20 in the recent rankings. The Battlefords North Stars are the only other SJHL squad on that list as they remain at No. 8…Flin Flon’s recent streak has surged them past both the North Stars and Estevan Bruins to become the most offensive team in the league. Led by Greyson Reitmeier’s 60 points, the Bombers have scored 185 times this year while the North Stars and Bruins both have 176 goals. Reitmeier, who is joined by teammates Jason Lavallee (22-28-50), Rylee Zimmer (16-32-48) and Nick Shumlanski (13-31-44) in the top 20 in individual scoring, is still six points behind Notre Dame’s Ben Duperreault for the scoring lead. Duperreault aided his own cause with a four-point night in the Hounds’ 8-2 rout in Estevan on Wednesday… Duperreault now has 10 points in his last six games matching the current streaks put up by Nipawin’s Eric Bolden (7-3-10), Chaz Smedsrud of the Hounds (7-6-13), Cody Hodgson of the Klippers (3-8-11) and the aforementioned Brandan Arnold of the Hawks (5-7-12) before his return to Swift Current. Hodgson with eight assists in his last six games has the longest active streak in that category while Bolden and Smedsrud have seven goals in their last six and five games, respectively…One final stat of interest to throw out there involves overtime. The Melfort Mustangs are the most battle tough when it comes to playing beyond regulation time as 11 of their games have been decided either in the extra session or shootout. Weyburn has also had to work extra time in 10 of its games while at the other end of the spectrum the Battlefords, Melville and Kindersley have only been extended beyond regulation time on four occasions each.
La Ronge at Battlefords
Melville at Humboldt
Nipawin at Melfort
Yorkton at Notre Dame
Flin Flon at Notre Dame
Battlefords at Humboldt
La Ronge at Kindersley
Melfort at Nipawin
Weyburn at Yorkton
Flin Flon at Estevan