Voice of the ND Hounds
The end to the 2018-19 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season was as epic as was expected, after a year of intense parity and drama. Cannot wait for the playoffs to kick off!
Here are my 10 things from this past week:
1. It's Playoff Time Baby! – That’s right! All 58 games of the regular season are done, the dress rehearsal is over, and it’s time to get ready for the dance. The Wild Card/Survivor Series Best-of-Three Play-in Rounds (whatever you want to call them) will start on Friday, as the No. 7 Flin Flon Bombers will take on the No. 10 Weyburn Red Wings, while the No. 8 Yorkton Terriers will battle the No. 9 Notre Dame Hounds. The Round 1 series’ that will take place in two weeks, that we know for sure, will pit the Viterra Division champion Estevan Bruins, the No. 3 seed, against the No. 6 seeded Humboldt Broncos; and the No.4 Melfort Mustangs against the No. 5 Kindersley Klippers. It’s all going to be epic! Stay tuned to the league website for game times!
2. Nipawin No. 1 Again! – Head coach Doug Johnson’s men are the regular season champs for a second year in a row, and they did it with a staggering total of 20 one-goal wins out of 38 overall. Their two goaltenders, Declan Hobbs and Patrick Pugliese, were magnificent all season long, and astoundingly both had goals-against-averages under 2.00, and save percentages north of .930 (just nuts!). They deserve a ton of credit, but so too do Johnson’s skaters, who stick so effectively to his system, and are so incredibly hard to play against, all the while dealing with incredible turnover from last year’s Canalta Cup championship team. The Hawks are also the fourth youngest team in the SJHL, with two of their Top 3 scorers, Austen Flaman and Jake Tremblay, born in 2000. Impressive year by the Hawks!
3. Weyburn Finds A Way In – They left it late, but huge kudos to head coach Kyle Haines and his Red Wings for overcoming all sorts of in-season turmoil, and finding a way to grab that final playoff spot. It looked like the Melville Millionaires had one foot in the playoff door by late February, but two Red Wing victories over the Mils on Feb 23 and 27, and an overtime win at home to their rivals the Estevan Bruins on March 1 put the pressure on Melville, and so it is the Wings who are in! More on their series in a bit.
4. Award Winners – The SJHL announced the regular season awards last week, and I don’t have any complaints. They go as follows: Player of the Year: Carson Albrecht, Melfort Mustangs; MVP: Justin Ball, Melfort Mustangs; Top Defenceman: CodySpagrud, Battlefords North Stars; Top Goaltender: Justen Close, Kindersley Klippers; Rookie of the Year: Luke Spadafora, Melville Millionaires; Coach of the Year: Clayton Jardine, Kindersley Klippers. For me the Top Player is Justin Ball, and the MVP is Justen Close, but I’m just splitting hairs. All these awards were well-earned! Here’s my one Notre Dame-slanted take: The Hounds 2001-born centreman Nolan Renwick is the best rookie in the league in my opinion, but I completely understand that he did not win the award because he missed too much time to injury. Spadafora is a star in the making for sure, and is definitely deserving. Maybe make Close co-goalie of the year with Nipawin’s Declan Hobbs?
5. Key guys coming back – Speaking of guys that missed time to injury, a whole bunch of teams around the league will be getting key vets back just in time for the playoffs to start. This is great news for everyone; the best hockey happens when the best players are playing, period. Yorkton gave Jared Legien sparing minutes in their meaningless final game of the year on March 5 in Weyburn, after the long-time WHLer had missed just over a month. The Flin Flon Bombers were thrilled to give minutes to their No. 1 defenceman Calvon Boots after the all-star out of Alaska was on the shelf since Jan. 29. Manitoba’s entry into the SJHL was also missing thelong-time Quebec Major Junior League defender Tyler Higgins for most of the month of February, leaving the Bombers to struggle down the stretch. Battlefords has key forward Elijah Loon-Stewardson back, though I have no information if/when all-star centreman Matthias Urbanski will make his return this year. ND looks good to get veteran forwards Jared Hamm, their captain, and Conor MacLean back as well, just in time to start the Survivor Series against Yorkton. These guys are all game changers!
6. Battlefords Great Brothers – Speaking of Loon-Stewardson, I got to watch him and his younger brother Quintin this past weekend, and boy are they gamers! They both contribute offensively, but I’m sure their head coach Brayden Klimosko loves their tenacity, toughness (they have both fought this year), and energy as well. They play hard, and look to be crucially important figures as secondary scoring options behind the top Stars line of Owen Lamb, Braydon Buziak, and MacGregor Sinclair for this playoff run. The brothers are worth the price of admission, and both will be back next year too! Look out folks!
7. Humboldt Story – I have already written many times about how impressed I am with the work head coach Scott Barney, and his assistant Troy Smith have done in getting the Humboldt Broncos back on track in the 2019 calendar year, but it’s all going to be put to the serious test right away. The Broncos, and the story that they are, are not going to have home-ice advantage in Round 1, despite earning seven (yes, 7!) more points than their division-winning opponents from Estevan; though, like the Broncos, the Bruins have really been a juggernaut since the year changed to 2019. It will be a very interesting series, cannot wait for it to get going!
8. Survivor Series 1: Flin Flon-Weyburn – I’m going to go ahead and call this one ‘The Kowalski Bowl’, as the Red Wings dealt their captain, and superstar Cade Kowalski to the Bombers back just before the trade deadline. On paper, Flin Flon has a lot more skill and depth than Weyburn, but in no world do expect this to be an easy ride for Mike Reagan’s Bombers. The Red Wings are also pretty much fully healthy, something they have not been most of the year, so if either Ben Laidlaw or Cody Levesque can keep the Wings close in the games, then an upset is far from impossible. Still, with a Top 9 forward group as dynamic as any in the SJHL, the Bombers are favoured, and it would be tough for me to bet against them moving on in this one, especially if Gabriel Waked is at worst passible in net.
9. Survivor Series 2: Yorkton-Notre Dame – How do you pick this one? Really small margins. They split the season series, Legien, Kurri Woodford, and Cody Dubas are back for Yorkton, Jared Hamm and Conor MacLean are back for Notre Dame, and both teams have proven capable of some real greatness. It is entirely possible that all four goaltenders involved will see some sort of minutes, as they have over the last few weeks, and at the risk of sounding cliché, whichever team can get better net minding will emerge victorious. Notre Dame has had the much tougher schedule of late, which has turned into a four-game losing streak heading into the post-season. Meanwhile the Terriers have taken six of their last eight, preying on the likes of Melville, Weyburn, and La Ronge. So, will form, or the level of recent competition be more important? It’s a pick’em series for sure.
10. UofS Offence Disappears (bonus) – Both the Universities of Alberta and Saskatchewanwill be heading to the USports National Championship March 14-17 in Lethbridge, but for the Huskies to fall to the Bears as they did in the Canada West Final, one game away from victory, is tough. Alberta’s team defence, and the elite goaltending of ex-Moose Jaw Warrior Zach Sawchenko was the difference, as the Bears outscored the UofS 4-0 in two losses to take the championship in Saskatoon. The margins at the end of this year were as small as were anticipated, as Alberta and Saskatchewan were clearly the top dogs in CanWest all year, and both will have great shots at the USports title this year.
(Follow Jamie on Twitter at @neugsie)