HUMBOLDT, MELFORT, NIPAWIN — The horses are ready to gallop into the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs.
The Junior A league’s postseason opens this weekend after being unable to name a champion the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Humboldt Broncos (45-13-0-0) earned the second seed – just a point behind the Estevan Bruins (43-10-2-3) – and will face the seventh-seeded La Ronge Ice Wolves (29-24-1-4). The Melfort Mustangs (34-15-4-5) could earn the third seed, depending on the results of the Battlefords North Stars-Notre Dame Hounds March 14. They will play sixth-seeded Yorkton Terriers (29-22-1-6).
“Definitely looking forward to playoffs – specifically the playoff grind and mentality each game. Also the loud crowds,” Melfort captain Ben Tkachuk said.
The Nipawin Hawks (17-35-0-6) missed the SJHL postseason for the first time since 2010-11. The team was 11th in the standings in the 12-team league.
The Broncos were 3-1-0-0 against the Ice Wolves, their first-round opponent, this season. Head coach Scott Barney said the La Ronge team is strong and has great goaltending.
“Obviously, we want to use our home ice advantage,” Broncos head coach Scott Barney said. “Hopefully we get a full rink here at the [Elgar Petersen Arena]. Our fans have been great all season like they always are. Hopefully that continues here in the playoffs.”
The Global Ag Risk Solutions Division champs boast a deep lineup – with four of the league’s top 11 scorers. Connor McGrath led the SJHL with 84 points and 50 assists in 56 games. Also placing in the top 11 in scoring were: Alec Saretzky (seventh, 62 points in 58 games), Matthew Perkins (ninth, 59 in 57), and Braiden Koran (11th, 56 in 55). Homegrown defenceman Noah Barlage was second in the SJHL in defencemen points with 42 in 58 games. Goalie Rayce Ramsay paced the league with a record 41 wins and was second in both goals against average (1.98) and save percentage (.930).
Goalie Xavier Cannon played in 30 games for La Ronge this season and had a 3.08 GAA and a .910 save percentage. Dawson Smith got into 29 contests and posted a 3.75 GAA and a .893 save percentage. Brandon Della Paolera had 56 points in 58 games to lead the Ice Wolves. Teammate Gavin Mattey scored a team-high 28 goals and was second in points with 51 in 57 games. Mkyllan Couture and Liam McInnis tied for the blueline lead on the team with 17 points each. Couture split the season between La Ronge and Nipawin. McInnis was with Melfort and the Ice Wolves.
With a 5-4 victory last week, the Mustangs clinched the Sherwood Division title. The squad’s focus now turns to the Terriers, who they went 3-1-0-0 against in the regular season.
The Mustangs have had solid goaltending this season. Joel Favreau has a 2.74 GAA in 26 games, while James Venne has a 2.76 in 33 contests.
Up front, Melfort is led by Nolan Doell’s 60 points, which he posted in 56 SJHL games. He was acquired during the season from La Ronge and had 18 goals and 34 points in 31 games for the Mustangs. Tkachuk was second on the squad with 56 points in as many games. Doell had 33 goals split between the Ice Wolves and Melfort, while Curtis Hammond scored 28 in 56 games for the Mustangs. Defenceman Mark Snarr, who split his season between Kindersley and Melfort, posted 22 points in 48 SJHL games to lead the Mustangs in blue line scoring.
Yorkton’s Kael DePape was fourth this season in the SJHL in goals against average at 2.33 and sixth in save percentage (.916). Kishuan Gervais led the Terriers with 22 goals. Gervais and Steven Norum tied for the team lead with 42 points. Norum played 52 games, while Gervais got into 46. Former Bronco Zach McIntyre posted 38 points in 46 games split between Yorkton and Melville. Tanner Sklaruk led the team’s defencemen with 32 points.
It was a challenging season for the Hawks. After 11 and a half seasons, the organization parted ways with head coach and general manager Doug Johnson in early December with the team sporting a 10-12-0-5 record. Former Hawks standout Tad Kozun took over on an interim basis. He started the season as an assistant coach after a pro career. The Hawks were 7-23-0-1 under Kozun. He said he was proud of the resiliency the team showed this season.
“We’ve gone through a lot of challenges and a lot of things they can’t control,” Kozun said. “The way they’ve taken it head on and pushed through everything like that, it’s kudos to their character. … Obviously, we’d like to be in playoffs. The way they rebounded throughout the year was nice to see.”
Three Hawks age out this season. Captain Cole Beamin, a defenceman, spent four years with the organization. Kozun said the “amount of time and commitment he put into this organization is second to none.” Christian Albertson spent two seasons with the Hawks after spending his rookie campaign with the Mustangs. He paced the team with 14 goals this season and is “one of the best kids you can have on your team, truly cares about every individual on the team.” Fellow forward Kye Whillans was acquired in a trade this season. Kozun praised him for battling through injuries and working hard.
The Hawks could potentially return a number of players. Rylan Lefebvre led the squad with 28 points in 48 games. Carson Dobson was second with 24 in 54 contests. Both goalies – Chase Hamm (3.15 GAA) and Harmon Laser-Hume (3.65) – could return. Kozun said the organization is excited about the future.
“Going forward, the opportunities some of these kids were put in and some of them thrived in, they will be able to take that next step next year and really be able to make that jump because they’ve already been in those positions and know what to expect,” Kozun said. “They know what their summers need to consist of to really be that impact player next year.”
The SJHL last week
Tuesday, March 8 in Flin Flon
Melfort 3, Flin Flon 1
Mustangs Scorers: Nolan Doell, Logan Cox, Trenton Curtis
Bombers Scorers: Mason Kaspick, Drew Kuzma
Goalies: Joel Favreau, Melfort, 37 saves on 39 shots; Cal Schell, Flin Flon, 27 on 30
Notes: After Flin Flon took a 2-0 first period lead, Melfort scored three straight goals in the second. Neither team lit the lamp in the third as the Mustangs hung on for the win.
Tuesday, March 8 in North Battleford
Battlefords 7, Nipawin 1
Hawks Scorer: Braxton Buckberger
North Stars Scorers: Bradley Blake (2), Steven Kesserling (2), Emmett Wurst, Colby Bear, Dylan Esau
Goalies: Harmon Laser-Hume, Nipawin, 38 saves on 45 shots; Austin Schwab, Battlefords, 26 on 27
Notes: After a 1-1 first period, the North Stars scored three in the second and a trio of goals in the third.
Thursday, March 10 in Melfort
Melfort 5, Flin Flon 4
Mustangs Scorers: Leyton Holoien (2), Ben Tkachuk, Nolan Doell, Logan Cox
Bombers Scorers: Gabriel Shipper (2), Xavier Lapointe, Rylan Thiessen
Goalies: Joel Favreau, Melfort, 21 saves on 25 shots; Cal Schell, Flin Flon, 30 on 35
Notes: After Melfort opened the scoring, Flin Flon scored twice to hold a 2-1 lead at the first intermission. The Bombers increased their lead to 3-1 in the second period. The Mustangs reeled off three goals to take a 4-3 lead before the end of the second session. Flin Flon tied things up in the third at 4-4, but Holoien scored his second of the contest to give Melfort the win. The victory clinched the Sherwood Division for the Mustangs.
Friday, March 11 in Kindersley
Humboldt 8, Kindersley 1
Broncos Scorers: Connor McGrath (2), Noah Barlage, Jerzy Orchard, Matthew Perkins, Ethan Zielke, Alec Saretzky, Cage Newans
Klippers Scorer: Tylin Hilbig
Goalies: Rayce Ramsay, Humboldt, 17 saves on 18 shots; Brett Sweet, Kindersley, 47 on 55
Notes: The Broncos capped the regular season in dominant fashion. Thirteen Broncos recorded at least a point.
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs start this Friday. The No. 2 seeded Humboldt Broncos (45-13-0-0) will play the No. 7 La Ronge Ice Wolves (29-24-1-4) . Melfort (34-15-4-5), the third seed, plays No. 6 Yorkton (29-22-1-6). The Nipawin Hawks (17-35-0-6) missed the playoffs.