Voice of the N.D. Hounds
February dawns in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, meaning we only have one more full month of regular-season games! Get yourself out to an SJHL rink…there are going to be some real wars to the finish:
1. Nipawin Running Away? – I have to throw more respect the way of Doug Johnson and his Nipawin Hawks. So often I watch this team, and while they have a solid roster, with absolutely elite goaltending (Declan Hobbs can EASILY be a WHL starter, in my opinion), the best part of this club is that they find a way, by hook or by crook, to simply win hockey games. Call it cliché, but honestly, I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly how they’ve bottled this magic. There are no accidents when it comes to winning in hockey though: they work extremely hard, stick to their systems, trust their goaltending, and find just enough offence. Another six-game unbeaten run might have them running away with the No. 1 seed into the playoffs, as they have a six-point edge on Kindersley heading into the final 10 games of the regular campaign.
2. Estevan Figuring It Out? – Even with a seven-game win streak, it’s still hard to say! I’m sure my outstanding broadcast colleagues Rob Mahon and Austin Arvay, Estevan and Weyburn’s play-by-play guys, respectively, are getting sick of each other, as the Bruins recent streak has coincided with an incredible five (yes, 5) matchups with the Red Wings since Dec. 15. While it has been a very difficult time in Weyburn, and another of those wins came in the midst of some very real turmoil in Melfort, the old adage that “you can only beat who’s in front of you” rings true; still, Chris Lewgood’s Bruins still have something to prove to me in the area of consistency. A Jan. 26 shootout home win against Nipawin is impressive though, and I’ve been saying all along that this is a fantastic Estevan team if they could just figure out the line between belligerence, and sitting in the box all game. So, with a pretty manageable February schedule, the onus remains on the Bruins to keep this going. A seven-game win streak is impressive no matter what.
3. The Hounds Beast Line – One of the tests that those Bruins will have to deal with in February is the Notre Dame Hounds top line of Jakob Breault, between Marshall Wilton and Jarrett Penner. Those three have been consistently difficult to stop since they were put together in late November, but with the chemistry clearly now in place, they were an absolute force this past weekend as the Hounds, still beat-up as they are, managed four out of a possible six points in La Ronge, Flin Flon, and Nipawin. That line combined for eight goals, and 21 points over the trip, and with characteristics that really complement each other – not to mention they are three outstanding young men – it is going to be a challenge for any defence-corps around the league to deal with them. The great news for ND in terms of depth is that Nolan Renwick, Zack Kosteniuk, and Conor MacLean are all back and looking very good, so here’s hoping the Hounds can stay healthy! Watch out for the BWP line though…just nasty.
4. Yorkton’s Bloody Nose – Tough times in Yorkton as the Terriers have dropped four points off the pace for the Viterra Division, and find themselves in ninth in the league, and in the survivor spots as February begins. Three losses in a row were given an exclamation mark on Saturday, as the Battlefords North Stars came into the Farrell Agencies Arena and dropped a 9-1 beating on Matt Hehr’s men. No reason to panic Terriers fans, this team has had downs, and then parlayed their considerable talent into quick bounce backsall year! A big-time showdown Tuesday night with the division-rival Estevan Bruins in town is a perfect place for Jered Legien and his crew to redeem themselves. It’ll be a great race to the finish in the Viterra, as both the Terriers and Bruins have pretty manageable schedules from mid-February on.
5. Back On TV! – Speaking of the Terriers, the SJHL on provincial television returns with a big-boy Saturday night tilt in Kindersley, with Yorkton in town. It’ll be a fascinating clash of styles, between Clayton Jardine’s Klippers and their system-first, press-you-all-over-the-ice mentality, and Hehr’s high-octane, high-skilled group of Terriers. Find it on MaxTV, channel 49 or 349, or on the MaxTV Stream! It’s also a battle between the clearest goaltending situation in the league, with Kindersley’s Justen Close as my pick for the SJHL’s best, and a Yorkton team still trying to figure out whether to ride veteran Andrew Henderson, or rookie Ryan Ouellette. Should be a great game!
6. G.A.R. (Global Ag Risk) Wars – You can call me biased if you want (I’m sure some do), but I still say that the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division is the most intense and tight from top to bottom. Four points separate first-place Kindersley from third-place Humboldt, and if anyone has been watching fourth-placed Notre Dame out there, it is clear to see how much better the league’s second youngest team has been in the second half of the year. There are absolutely no easy nights in the GAR. To put it another way, if ND is the last-place team in the division right now at 51 points, the other last-placed-clubs, Weyburn and La Ronge, have 34 and 22 points, respectively. Everyone is good, everyone has a winning record, everyone has over 20 wins on the campaign. What a slog!
7. Respect to La Ronge – The Hounds were in La Ronge last Thursday, and I have to give head coach Evan Vossen and his Ice Wolves so much credit. They have been out of the playoff picture for a long time, traded away pretty much all their veterans, and still they are playing and competing their hearts out. It takes a special group to still be tuned in, and in watching the Wolves, I have no doubt that they are. Well done to all those guys up there! I am an enormous fan of Jake Gudjonson by the way…that guy makes my SJHL all-underrated team all day long…just doesn’t lose face-offs.
8. How High Will Ball Go? – Through 47 games, Melfort’s Justin Ball is still scoring! At time of writing he has 46 goals, which, with 11 games remaining on the Mustangs’ schedule, is the most since 2015-16 when Belarus-born Battlefords North Stars power-forward Igor Leonenko had 47. How high will he go? Certainly, he’ll eclipse the 50-mark, something nobody has done since Travis Eggumput in 58 in 2010-11, during La Ronge’s most recent glory days. I guess nothing is for sure, but what an impressive year!
9. Matty Lukacs! – Speaking of impressive, kudos to Notre Dame goaltender Matty Lukacs who, after 32 career SJHL appearances, finally recorded a technical – if not official – shutout. Coming in relief of Riley Kohonick in Friday night’s wild 7-6 Hound win in Flin Flon, Lukacs made three stops in 20:42 of Notre Dame dominance, and was in net when Marshall Wilton potted the overtime winner. He got the win as a result, and did not give up a goal…so…shutout?
10. Well Done Middagh! (bonus) – Last Wednesday was the always awesome Bell Let’s Talk Day, where stories of the individual struggles with Mental Illness come out, and people everyone finally feel free to be up front, open, and honest with what they are dealing with in silence. It’s a great day, it should be every day, but great for Bell to keep this going! I have to send an especially loud shout out to University of Regina Cougars defenceman Emily Middagh for choosing to talk about her issues on CTV News Regina (https://regina.ctvnews.ca/service-dog-helps-u-of-r-hockey-player-deal-with-stress-of-sports-1.4274199), explaining her use of a service dog, and talking about her year at NCAA Division I’s St. Lawrence Univerity. Eloquent, honest, and not worried about being a macho-woman! So great Emily!
11. PS…What A Boring Super Bowl…Sorry, had to get that in.
(Follow Jamie on Twitter at @neugsie)