By Dave Leaderhouse
With exactly one month left on the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s regular schedule most of the pieces of the playoff puzzle have been set out: now they just have to be put into place to form a clear picture.
Eight of the 10 post-season berths have already been claimed with the Flin Flon Bombers expected to join that group, maybe as early as this weekend. That leaves one final spot and a home-and-home series between the Melville Millionaires and Yorkton Terriers this weekend could all but settle that issue or it could make things even more interesting between the Highway 10 rivals.
Entering this weekend, the Millionaires sit 12 points in front of the Terriers with both clubs having 12 games remaining on the schedule. A weekend sweep by Melville would likely put the final touches on their return to the post-season, but should Yorkton win both ends of the doubleheader then things tighten up considerably.
Melville and Yorkton have met six times this season with the Millionaires winning four of those. The Millionaires have won all three meetings on home ice, and in convincing fashion. Melville has outscored Yorkton 17-4 in the three games played at the Horizon Credit Union Centre while the Terriers hold a slight edge in the three games played in Yorkton winning twice and outscoring the visitors 12-10.
The fierce rivals will have one more home-and-home series to kick off the final week of the regular season in early March and in order for those games to be meaningful the Terriers need a big weekend this time around.
The La Ronge Ice Wolves are still mathematically in the race for that final playoff berth as well, but the magic number is down to four meaning any combination of Melville wins or La Ronge losses equalling that number puts the Ice Wolves on the sidelines for the fifth time in the past six seasons. La Ronge has their hands full this weekend with stops in the Battlefords and Kindersley so the start of a lengthy winning streak has to begin in two tough venues for opposing teams.
With the final playoff spot being somewhat murky, the rest of the post-season landscape is also a bit cloudy.
The league-leading Nipawin Hawks, who are riding an impressive 29-game stretch with at least one point, are idle this weekend, but their lead atop the Sherwood Division and overall point’s race are safe, for now, no matter what happens in games played this weekend.
The Hawks are 11 points in front of the Melfort Mustangs for the Sherwood Division lead with the Mustangs looking to close that gap with a home-and-home series against the Flin Flon on Friday and Saturday. Nipawin is also six points clear of the Battlefords North Stars for top spot overall, but the two-time defending regular-season champions could trim that advantage to just two points with home games against La Ronge and the Notre Dame Hounds to complete a rare three-games-in-three nights homestand.
While the North Stars can’t catch Nipawin for first place overall this weekend, they could nail down their third straight Global Ag Risk Solutions Division banner should they sweep their visitors and hope the Weyburn Red Wings get at least a split in their doubleheader in Humboldt against the Broncos.
That Weyburn-Humboldt match-up is intriguing for a couple of reasons.
Entering this weekend, the Red Wings sit in seventh place overall, but they are just five points back of the fifth-place Broncos and they also face the same deficit in the race for the Viterra Division crown, which is currently held by the Estevan Bruins, who are also idle this weekend.
Sandwiched between the Broncos and Red Wings are Notre Dame as the Hounds hold down that final spot that avoids an opening-round best-of-five Wild Card playoff series. Notre Dame, like La Ronge, has their hands full this weekend as they are also in Kindersley and the Battlefords and the Hounds, while they have been fairly proficient on home ice, they have struggled in road games going just 8-11-1-2. Notre Dame also has one of the tougher schedules remaining as they play seven of their final 11 games on the road.
As it stands right now, Nipawin, Battlefords and Melfort will all claim top-four berths and have home-ice advantage when the quarter-final round gets underway. The Mustangs would need a colossal collapse for that not to happen.
Estevan is presently in the driver’s seat to be the other top-four seed, but they still have four head-to-head meetings with the Red Wings left on the schedule so that race is far from settled.
As mentioned, positions five through seven are going right down to the wire and one cannot forget Kindersley as they are just eight points back of Weyburn with a number of games in hand on everyone in front of them.
The Klippers, while still in the hunt for a top-six spot, are also looking over their shoulders at Flin Flon as the Bombers are just three points behind Kindersley. The importance of that race is simple: the seventh and eighth seeds get home-ice advantage in the shortened Wild Card round and as it stands right now Kindersley and Flin Flon would square off in one of those match-ups: it is just a matter of who would get the extra game at home.
Not much will be settled this weekend, but every game has so much bearing on what can take place over the final month of the schedule. Every game truly does take on a higher level of importance this time of the year.
SJHL NOTES – The playoff picture might be unsettled, but the individual scoring race is crystal clear. Battlefords forward Layne Young is running away with that title – the only question now is how much will he outdistance the others by? Entering the weekend, Young had 91 points, 23 more than Humboldt’s Logan Schatz. Young has almost as many assists as Schatz has points; in fact Young’s assist total alone would have him in fourth place in the overall point’s race… The goaltending race is all but settled as well. Nipawin’s duo of Declan Hobbs and Jake Anthony are the lone netminders to have goals-against averages of under 2.00, which is not surprising considering the Hawks have allowed 20 fewer goals than anyone else in the league…Young’s rise to the top of the scoring race came as a result of a pair of impressive runs in which he tallied 31 and 29 points in 14 and 12 game streaks, respectively. In comparison, the two current stretches that are intact for this weekend are eight games each for Nick Shumlanski of the Humboldt Broncos and Chaz Smedsrud of the Notre Dame Hounds. Shumlanski has 10 points during that span while Smedsrud is up to 13…While shootouts will be eliminated in the playoffs, needing extra time to determine the final outcome is inevitable as the competition is that much higher. Estevan and the Battlefords have the most experience so far in that department with each club being stretched beyond regulation time on 13 occasions. What makes the Battlefords’ record even more impressive is they have won 11 of their extra-time games. An interesting side note on this topic is Nipawin has only prevailed on three of nine games when regulation time didn’t settle matters.
Flin Flon at Melfort
La Ronge at Battlefords
Melville at Yorkton
Weyburn at Humboldt
Notre Dame at Kindersley
Melfort at Flin Flon
La Ronge at Kindersley
Yorkton at Melville
Weyburn at Humboldt
Notre Dame at Battlefords