So far, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs have gone according to the script with the top four teams advancing into the semifinals, which kick off tonight in Flin Flon and North Battleford.
No matter what happens in the coming weeks, we are guarteened to have a long championship drought, as the Battlefords North Stars are the most recent team to win the Canalta Cup back in 2000.
Looking at the other teams, the Estevan Bruins last hoisted the hardware in 1999, the Flin Flon Bombers won their only league title in 1993 and the Nipawin Hawks haven’t captured a championship since 1990.
Before we get to predicting what will happen in the semifinals, let’s take a look at the four teams that saw their seasons end in the quarter-finals.
8) Weyburn Red Wings – 25-26-3-4 – 3rd in Viterra Division – Lost 4-0 to Battlefords in Quarter-Final
I’ve written this a few times in this space, but the Red Wings were a team that could have been higher in the league standings if they were consistent all season long, which is something head coach Wes Rudy alluded to after they were knocked out by the North Stars.
Other than a tightly-contested fourth and deciding game in Weyburn, the way that the Red Wings played in the series really wasn’t indicative of their talent as they ended up being knocked out of the quarter-final for the third straight year.
You have to wonder how things could have gone if goaltenders Carter Phair and Shaun Fleming were healthy to face the North Stars, but that’s another story for another day.
Looking towards the future, the Red Wings are going to lose a number of forwards due to graduation, but the defensive side of things looks solid with blueliner Mike Eskra and Phair more than likely coming back for another campaign.
7) Notre Dame Hounds – 26-23-7-2 – 3rd in Olympic Buildings Division – Lost 4-1 to Flin Flon in Quarter-Final
The Hounds had a lot of ups and downs during the season but they had a nice finish to the regular season campaign and just missed out on avoiding the Survivor Series round.
They played well for the most part against the Bombers, but they certainly missed the presences of rookie of the year Adam Dawe, who missed the first three games of the series after being injured in the deciding game against the Melfort Mustangs.
While Dawe is still eligible to play in the SJHL for three more seasons, he’s set to move on to the NCAA’s Maine Black Bears next fall, and co-player of the year winner Ben Duperreault appears to be heading to the University of Regina, which leaves two massive holes for the Hounds to try and fill.
Chaz Smedsrud might be the guy that leads the offence for the Hounds next year, as he put up 33 points in his first year in junior hockey and had a good playoff run after a strong career in the Minnesota high school ranks.
The Hounds always have players coming up from their own midget program or other SMAAAHL teams, and one guy to keep an eye out for is Jared Hamm. He had 61 points for the Beardy’s Blackhawks this year and also got some experience during the playoffs with the Hounds.
6) Yorkton Terriers – 28-25-5-0 – 2nd in Viterra Division – Lost 4-1 to Estevan in Quarter-Final
As North Stars play-by-play man Nathan Kanter will tell you, the Terriers probably deserved a better fate in their first round series with the Bruins as they had a number of one-goal losses in their playoff series.
Like the Hounds, the Terriers had a bit of a yo-yo time in the standings, but they had an excellent finish to the regular season to avoid playing in the first round as they continue to work their way back up from their RBC Cup triumph in 2014.
The Terriers offence could be pretty fun to watch when the 2017-18 campaign gets underway. Jared Legien will more than likely build off of the 56 points he put up after coming back from the WHL’s Kootenay Ice, and I fully expect twin brothers Carson and McKenzie Welke to have bounce-back performances.
They are going to lose two key parts of the team come next season, however, as defenceman Regan Seiferling is headed to the NCAA with the RIT Tigers and netminder Nathan Hargrave is graduating from the junior ranks.
5) Humboldt Broncos – 31-25-1-1 – 2nd in Olympic Buildings Division – Lost 4-0 to Nipawin in Quarter-Final
After missing the playoffs for the first time since 1980 last season, this was obviously a marked improvement for the Broncos.
However, this is a still a case of what could have been for the team. They started off strong but injuries and lineup juggling (which included rookie Erik Gardiner joining the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets around Christmas time) proved to be hurtful in the second half.
The Broncos will lose workhorse netminder Garret Mason to graduation, but the overall defence looks pretty solid with a number of players coming back to help out whoever it is that leads the way in goal.
However, it will be the Broncos offence that’s worth keeping an eye on next year. Chris Van Os-Shaw should have another excellent campaign, especially with full seasons from Tristen Elder (who was acquired from the OJHL’s Cobourg Cougars after starting the season with the La Ronge Ice Wolves) and Logan Schatz (who only suited up in 31 games due to injuries).
The Broncos also have a couple of high-scoring midget AAA players that played for them this season that might crack the opening night roster in Quinton Ong and Tian Rask, who both surpassed the 50-point mark with the Saskatoon Contacts and Beardy’s Blackhawks respectively.
Now, without further delay, let’s get to our semifinal previews.
1) Battlefords North Stars vs. 4) Estevan Bruins
Last Playoff Meeting: 2015 First Round (Battlefords won 3-2 – Estevan last defeated Battlefords 4-1 in 1985 Semifinal)
Season Series: Tied 2-2 (Battlefords outscored Estevan 25-18)
Season Series Scoring Leader:
Battlefords – Troy Gerein, Brett Horn (later traded to Humboldt) and Connor Sych – 7 points
Estevan – Kaelan Holt and Matt McNeil – 7 points
Season Series Goaltending Leader:
Battlefords – Taryn Kotchorek – 2-1 record with a 3.37 goals against average
Estevan – Nathan Alalouf – 1-2 record with a 5.42 goals against average
Prediction: Battlefords in five
I should note that the goal margin between the sides is a bit out of wack due to a 10-3 victory the North Stars picked up in Estevan back in October, but I digress.
If this series turns into a run-and-gun track meet, like we saw at the Civic Centre in November when the Bruins picked up an 8-6 win, then all bets are off for this matchup as both sides can score at the drop of a hat.
However, given the amount of goals that the Bruins have allowed this year and the overall defensive depth that the North Stars have, I think that is going to be the difference in this series and tilts the scales in Battlefords’ favour.
With that said, Bruins netminder Nathan Alalouf put up some pretty decent numbers compared to North Stars goaltender Taryn Kotchorek during the quarter-finals, and that might prove to be a big factor if he can keep up that level of play.
2) Flin Flon Bombers vs. 3) Nipawin Hawks
Last Playoff Meeting: 2013 Quarter-Final (Flin Flon won 4-2 – Nipawin last defeated Flin Flon 4-1 in 2001 Semifinal)
Season Series: Flin Flon 7-1 (Flin Flon outscored Nipawin 28-16)
Season Series Scoring Leader:
Flin Flon – Rylee Zimmer – 12 points
Nipawin – Grant Baetsen and Josh Bly – 5 points
Season Series Goaltending Leader:
Flin Flon – Brenden Newton – 4-1 record with a 2.45 goals against average (Zac Robidoux had a 2-0 record with a 0.96 goals against average)
Nipawin – Kristian Stead – 1-5 record with a 3.39 goals against average
Prediction: Flin Flon in six
When putting together this article, I was stunned to see that the regular season series between the two sides was so lopsided, considering how close their battle was to get the Sherwood Division title.
Hawks netminder Kristian Stead should continue to be on top of his game in this round and the Hawks scoring depth has become much improved since the trade deadline, which should allow them to get a few more goals past the Bombers.
However, Zac Robidoux had back-to-back shutouts over the Hawks in their final two meetings of the regular season, which makes things pretty interesting.
The Bombers can match up with the Hawks depth wise and their regular season advantage has me picking them here, but it should be much tighter than what we have seen througouth the 2016-17 campaign.