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Previewing the SJHL quarter-finals

The first round of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs went pretty much according to plan this past week, as the Notre Dame Hounds knocked out the two-time defending league champion Melfort Mustangs and the Weyburn Red Wings swept aside th

The first round of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs went pretty much according to plan this past week, as the Notre Dame Hounds knocked out the two-time defending league champion Melfort Mustangs and the Weyburn Red Wings swept aside the Kindersley Klippers.

Thanks to those results, the top eight teams in the regular season standings are still alive in the race for the Canalta Cup when the quarter-final round officially begins Friday night.

Before I get to my predictions for those four series, let’s bid farewell to the two teams that failed to get out of their best-of-five matchups.

10) Melfort Mustangs – 21-30-3-4 – 3rd in Sherwood Division – Lost 3-1 to Notre Dame in First Round

I didn’t think the Mustangs would be a stone-cold lock to become the first SJHL team to win three straight titles since the Humboldt Broncos accomplished that feat from 2007-2009, but I expected a lot more out of the reigning league champions.

Granted they did sell off a few of their veteran pieces, such as eventual SJHL defenceman of the year Eric Sinclair (who was first traded to Melville and eventually went to Flin Flon), but the Mustangs were in the mix for a mid-table finish before a dramatic late-season slide almost saw the Melville Millionaires overtake them for the final playoff spot.

When it comes to next season, leading scorer Dakota Boutin is eligible to return for a final campaign in the SJHL, but he announced on Twitter Wednesday that he will be heading south of the border to play for the NCAA’s Northern Michigan Wildcats.

While it will be tough to replace Boutin, the Mustangs can return top forwards Kalem Zary and Reed Gunville along with the ever-versatile Tyler Heidt, who moved from offence to defence during the season and was a finalist for the SJHL’s rookie of the year award.

Derrick Hucul and Evan Plotnik are both eligible to return in between the pipes, but a name to keep an eye out for is affiliated player Hunter Arps, who is coming off another strong season with the Moose Jaw Generals of the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League.

9) Kindersley Klippers – 25-30-3-0 – 4th in Olympic Buildings Division – Lost 3-0 to Weyburn in First Round

To put it mildly, the Klippers were a bit of an odd team to try and follow.

Although they had some strong showings in the middle of several roster changes, the Klippers also lost all 10 regular season meetings to the Battlefords North Stars and gave the La Ronge Ice Wolves three of their six wins during the regular season, which left me scratching my head.

Looking towards the future, the Klippers do have a solid group of 1997-born forwards that can return in Cody Hodgson, Cole Plotnikoff, Sam Binfet and Jordan Funk, who all cracked the 30-point plateau this year.

Andrew McCann, who had 29 points, can also return on the blueline and could be a contender for the SJHL’s top defenceman award next season.

The biggest returning piece, in my opinion, is netminder Justen Close. After two excellent seasons in the Midget AAA ranks with the Tisdale Trojans, the 18-year-old had a solid rookie campaign with his hometown team as he put up a 12-11-2 record with a 2.93 goals against average.

I’m still slack-jawed that he didn’t get a look in the playoffs, but that’s another story for another day.

Now let’s turn our attention to the quarter-final predictions, starting of course with the matchup that most readers will be keeping an eye on.

1) Battlefords North Stars vs. 8) Weyburn Red Wings

Last Playoff Meeting: 2000 Final (Battlefords won 4-3 – Weyburn last beat Battlefords 4-0 in 1997 Final – Weyburn also defeated Battlefords 4-1 in 1995 Final)

Season Series: Series tied at 2-2 (Both teams tied in goals at 8-8)

Season Series Scoring Leader:

Battlefords – Coby Downs – 5 points

Weyburn – Braden Mellon – 3 points

Season Series Goaltending Leader:

Battlefords – Joel Grzybowski – 1-2 record with a 2.32 goals against average

Weyburn – Shaun Fleming – 1-1 record with a 2.17 goals against average

Prediction: Battlefords in 6

The regular season series between these two was extremely close, as the Red Wings did a great job of limiting the North Stars in the goal scoring department.

Granted, I’m expecting the North Stars to find the net on a regular basis in this series, and it’s going to be hard to keep that offence on their heels over the course of a seven-game battle, but there have been times where the top team in the regular season standings have been in tightly contested affairs against teams they are well ahead of in the league table.

I said this going into the first round, but the Red Wings are a team that I think is much better than it’s eighth place ranking indicates, as they are a solid side from top to bottom and are coming off a clean sweep of the Klippers.

One thing to keep an eye on here is the goaltending matchup. I mentioned Grzybowski and Fleming already, but Taryn Kotchorek and Carter Phair should both see some ice time in this series.

As part of the split in goaltending duties that the North Stars have done all season, Kotchorek only made one start against the Red Wings as he turned aside 20 shots in a dramatic 2-1 win at the Civic Centre on January 14th.

Phair, who had a 2-0 record and a 1.20 goals against average against the Klippers before leaving the third game of the series after a collision with Josh Patrician Sunday night in Kindersley, made 29 saves in a 2-1 loss in Weyburn on January 7th and had a 27-save shutout going on January 13th in North Battleford when he was forced to leave the game early in the third period following a collision with MacGregor Sinclair.

In the end, the North Stars should advance to the semifinals, but I think it will be a tighter battle than it looks on paper.

2) Flin Flon Bombers vs. 7) Notre Dame Hounds

Last Playoff Meeting: 2015 Quarter-Final (Notre Dame won 4-3 – Only Playoff Meeting)

Season Series: Series tied at 2-2 (Flin Flon outscored Notre Dame 12-11)

Season Series Scoring Leader:

Flin Flon – Kristian St. Onge and Rylee Zimmer – 4 points

Notre Dame – Ben Duperreault – 8 points

Season Series Goaltending Leader:

Flin Flon – Brenden Newton – 2-1 record with a 2.36 goals against average

Notre Dame – Benjamin Patt – 1-1 record with a 3.00 goals against average

Prediction: Flin Flon in 5

This is another series that could end up closer than I’m predicting it to be, but I feel like the Bombers have too much depth on their side at forward and defence.

Forwards Chaz Smedsrud and Chance Longjohn put up some good numbers for the Hounds in their series against the Mustangs, and Patt played well in between the pipes, but Notre Dame will only go as far as their dynamic duo of Adam Dawe and Duperreault will take them.

Another key factor to keep an eye will be what the Bombers do in goal. Like the North Stars, they have split time this season between netminders Newton and Zac Robidoux.

3) Estevan Bruins vs. 6) Yorkton Terriers

Last Playoff Meeting: 2013 Quarter-Final (Yorkton won 4-1 – Estevan last beat Yorkton 4-2 in 1993 Quarter-Final – Yorkton has won last six playoff meetings)

Season Series: Estevan 4-2 (Estevan outscored Yorkton 23-16)

Season Series Scoring Leader:

Estevan – Zach Goberis – 10 points

Yorkton – Jared Legien – 6 points

Season Series Goaltending Leader:

Estevan – Curtis Meger – 3-0 record with a 2.68 goals against average

Yorkton – Matt Vernon – 2-1 record with a 2.03 goals against average

Prediction: Estevan in 5

While the Bruins did give up the third most number of goals in the SJHL this year with 201, they can find the back of the net at a moment’s notice and they have several weapons throughout the lineup.

Although the Terries do have couple of good players on offence in Jared Legien and Dakota Odgers, who had 21 points in 19 games after starting the season with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors, I don’t know if they have the horses to keep up with the Bruins.

One difference from the season series that may be in Yorkton’s favour will be in goal, as Nathan Hargrave only faced Estevan in a Terriers uniform, as he made 53 saves in a back-and-forth 5-4 loss on February 7th.

He also took on the Bruins as a member of the Weyburn Red Wings on September 30th, but he was given the hook after allowing three goals in the first period in an eventual 6-1 loss.

4) Nipawin Hawks vs. 5) Humboldt Broncos

Last Playoff Meeting: 2008 Quarter-Final (Humboldt won 4-2 – Humboldt has won all five playoff series against Nipawin – They also advanced along with Kindersley in a three-way round-robin series in 2000)

Season Series: Tied at 3-3 (Nipawin outscored Humboldt 17-15)

Season Series Scoring Leader:

Humboldt – Chris Van Os-Shaw – 9 points

Nipawin – Keegan Kjargaard – 5 points

Season Series Goaltending Leader:

Humboldt – Garrett Mason – 1-3 record with a 3.56 goals against average

Nipawin – Kristian Stead – 2-2 record with a 2.73 goals against average

Prediction: Nipawin in 6

As someone who has watched his beloved Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds lose to the Erie Otters in the last three years in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, I’m always someone who is intrigued by playoff history between teams, and the fact that Nipawin has never beaten Humboldt makes me think this series could be a lot interesting than most are expecting.

Yes, the Hawks were red-hot in the second half of the season and just missed out on winning the Sherwood Division. Plus, they have a very potent offence and they also have the SJHL’s top goaltender and most valuable player award winner in Kristian Stead.

However, the Broncos aren’t a team you should sleep on. Van Os-Shaw arguably could have been a finalist for many of the year-end awards in the league, while Trevor Posch and Logan Schatz averaged nearly a point per game this season.

Connor Swystun has put together a solid campaign on defence and Mason is an absolute workhorse in goal, although his numbers against the Hawks haven’t been the best.

If Humboldt gets clicking, there’s a chance they can pull off an upset. However, given what the Hawks have done over the last couple of months, they are still my pick to advance to the semifinals.