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SJHL playoffs preview: Who plays who and what to expect

All eight teams will be in action Friday night to begin the playoffs
The lonely end of the rink.

The SJHL playoff picture is locked down and all four first-round matchups are now clear. How do the eight playoff teams match up?

The top two teams in the SJHL, Estevan and Humboldt, broke away from the pack late in the season. They will face Notre Dame and La Ronge respectively in the first round.

Estevan (1) vs. Notre Dame (2)

The Bruins, who will host this year’s Centennial Cup tournament, are assured a spot in the national title chase. With that in mind, head coach and general manager Jason Tatarnic has assembled a murderer’s row of ringers, studs and major junior talent, bringing in league-leading goal scorer Mark Rumsey from Nova Scotia, Olivier Pouliot from Quebec and Mikol Sartor from Manitoba to helm the first line. Estevan boasts the league’s deepest roster, with seven players who cleared 40 points this season.

Dayton Deics, Billy Sowa and Nolan Jones lead off a stacked defensive crew and WHL veteran Boston Bilous will man the crease, along with rookie backup Cam Hrdlicka - both have put up excellent numbers this season. The Bruins have scored more than twice as many goals as they’ve given up - 262 to 124 - and enter the playoffs on a four-game winning streak.

The Hounds are not to be trifled with though - they boast the SJHL’s top line in Kevin Anderson, Elliot Dutil and Connor Nolan, who finished second, fourth and sixth in league scoring. With Dutil the triggerman and Anderson - a Princeton Tigers commit - and Nolan feeding him, the trio has been hard to top.

The Hounds boast a top young goalie in Austin Elliott, who has spent time with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades this year. The tricky thing for Notre Dame is depth - after the top three players, Nik Sombrowski and his 37 points is the next guy up, with no other forwards on the team clearing 30 points this year.

Games between the two teams this season have been high-scoring, with Estevan putting up at least seven goals in each of their four matchups. Notre Dame eked out a 8-7 win back on Feb. 6, but the Bruins took the remaining three games 9-0, 7-1 and 7-0.

Humboldt (2) vs. La Ronge (7)

In the 2-vs.-7 matchup, Humboldt will play the La Ronge Ice Wolves. The Broncos boast arguably the SJHL’s top skater in Connor McGrath, who put up 84 points in 56 games, with Alec Saretzky, Matt Perkins and Braiden Koran all riding shotgun. Both McGrath and Perkins have been long-listed as possible picks in this year’s NHL draft and both have secured NCAA Division I scholarships - if they get picked, they will be the first players since 2005 to be picked from the SJHL to the show.

In a time when the teams in the SJHL often roll two lines tops, rarely drop the gloves and rely on a pair of netminders, the Broncos are throwbacks. Five players on the Broncos’ forward core are point-per-game guys, with newcomer Jerzy Orchard and Lucas Ceccarelli not far behind. The Broncos also boast a trio of knuckle-chuckers - Connor Casparie, Cage Newans and Sam Marburg - who have triple-digit penalty minutes. At the middle of it all is possible SJHL MVP Rayce Ramsay, who has been a workhorse in the Broncos net, playing 50 of 58 games and setting a new league record with 41 wins on the year.

Despite starting the season slow, La Ronge’s resurgence has been one of the biggest stories of the season’s second half. After trading captain Nolan Doell to their in-division rivals Melfort, the Wolves somehow improved, with Brandon Della Paolera, Aaron Greyeyes and Gavin Mattey picking up the slack. Nate Looft and Bryan Gilman got some help from veteran Mkyllan Couture on the blueline, stabilizing what was the team’s greatest weakness.

There are questions about La Ronge, mostly in the crease. Whenever he has played, 20-year-old Xavier Cannon has shown he can be one of the league’s top netminders. However, he has missed large stretches of the season, replaced by rookie Dawson Smith, who has played well but not as well as Cannon has. If Cannon is in net, La Ronge has a chance. If Smith plays, things will be harder.

The Ice Wolves lead the league in penalty minutes, having taken the equivalent of over 26 hours’ worth of PIMs this year. That may be their downfall, as on the season, La Ronge has had the worst penalty kill of any team in the league, killing off only 74 per cent of those penalties.

Humboldt has a 3-1 advantage over La Ronge in the season series, but haven't played the Ice Wolves since way back on Nov. 25 - long before the Ice Wolves' fortunes changed around Christmas time. Those games were occasionally lopsided - a 10-2 Humboldt win on Nov. 12 and a 5-1 Bronco win the very next night come to mind - but La Ronge also beat higher-ranked Estevan three times in four games this year.

Melfort (3) vs. Yorkton (6)

The 3-vs.-6 series will pit Melfort and Yorkton. The Mustangs were the league’s sleeping giants through the first half but woke up in a big way down the stretch, climbing from also-ran status to a Sherwood division title and going into the playoffs on an eight-game win streak and 10-game point streak.

Melfort is dangerous in all flavours. The ‘Stangs are one of the league’s most consistent offences, scoring in 57 of 58 games - Cal Schell and the Bombers being the combobreakers way back on Nov. 12. Nolan Doell brings the flash while Ben Tkachuk and Curtis Hammond bring quiet resolve on the offence - and all three bring results, with each clearing 50 points this season. Marco Lopez and Carter Anderson are not far behind.

Need defence? Trevor Blevins’ boys always have you covered there, with players like Leyton Holoien, Hayden Tuba and Lucas Ochitwa poised on the point. Need good goaltending? How about the tandem of Joel Favreau and James Venne, who despite being rookies, have turned in solid seasons? Need grit? Enter Tye Scherger, Hammond and Boston Maxwell, all of whom have sat in the box for over 120 minutes this year. Need special teams? The Mustangs have the SJHL’s most potent powerplay.

The Terriers have run hot and cold this season but have found consistent goaltending in a pair of youngsters. Kael DePape may not be old enough to buy beer in his home rink, but he’s kept the team in it some nights, putting up sterling numbers. Backup Tresor Wotton has been just as good in limited appearances.

On offence, the Terriers won’t bowl anyone over with highlight-reel goals - no Terriers cleared point-per-game pace this season and only two players scored more than 20 goals. However, what they lack in top-tier talent they make up for with depth - nine Terriers, including defenders Tanner Sklaruk and Tyson Janzen, got 30 points or more this season. Kamsack native Kishaun Gervais, back from the WHL for one last junior ride with his “hometown” team, leads the way - and while he may be listed at only 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, don’t think he’ll hesitate to fight back if needed. Janzen and Jasper are among the league’s most underrated players on the back end.

Melfort and Yorkton played each other four times this season, with the Mustangs claiming three of four wins but the Terriers winning the last game on Dec. 3, coming away with a 6-2 W.

Battlefords (4) vs. Flin Flon (5)

A loss by the Battlefords North Stars on the final day of the season locked them into fourth place in the league, with home-ice advantage over the fifth-place Bombers. The two sides have had a back-and-forth battle in their four games against each other this season, tying the season series two-all.

The Bombers have had an up and down season - at its peak, the Bombers were in rarefied air, going on long winning and point streaks and being named as one of Canada’s top junior A hockey clubs. The team may be at its lowest point of the year heading into playoffs, having had a rough end to February and an equally tough start of March.

In order to advance, the Bombers need to find ways to fix the ills that plagued their last month. Key to fixing that will be captain Zak Smith, a former Red Deer Rebel who led the team in scoring by forwards. Xavier Lapointe’s point presence on the powerplay will be vital for the Bombers, as will Cole Vardy and good play from defenders like Reece Richmond and Rylan Thiessen. Bomber head coach and general manager Mike Reagan has preached consistency all season long - it’s time to see if that message has been heard.

Up front, the Bombers haven’t yet had a single game this season with a full-strength forward corps - Matt Raymond was injured in preseason and came back, but not before Jaeden Mercier left the lineup. When Mercier came in, top rookie Jeremi Tremblay was hurt. The Bombers will hope to get some injury front luck going into the first series, but Tremblay won't be back and neither will forward Cole Duperreault, who was hurt in the team's last home game.

Their opponents are the Stars, assembled by head coach and general manager Brayden Klimosko and Reagan’s former second-in-command, Garry Childerhose, now in his first year as a Stars assistant coach. Battlefords has seen key contributions from veteran forwards like captain Ryland McNinch and leading scorer Dylan Esau, who had four points in the Stars’ four games against Flin Flon. Both are veterans of the 2020 Stars club that seemed to be on course for a league final had COVID-19 not got in the way.

Battlefords also boast a solid defensive core, built perfectly to suit Klimosko's preferred style. While the D group isn't te most offensively inclined - only one defender had more than 30 points this season - players like Sam Witt, Riley Little and Tynan Ewart will be crucial to the Stars' playoff fortunes.

The Stars have seen more volatility in the crease than Klimosko usually sees, with their main starter, ex-Humboldt Bronco Michael Harroch, having not played in a month. Whether or not Harroch plays playoff hockey remains to be seen, but the two ‘tenders left in his stead - 20-year-old Austin Schwab and rookie Lowen Kenyon - will do their best to be up to the task.

The Bombers defeated the Stars in their first two games this year, but the Stars finished strong and beat the Bombers in both return dates. In all four games, the home team won.

All eight teams will be in action Friday night to begin the playoffs.

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