Voice of the ND Hounds
It was a news-filled week in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
Here are my 10 things!:
1. The Canalta Cup Final Is Set – Not surprised at all to see that the Battlefords North Stars, and Melfort Mustangs will be doing battle,starting Friday, for the Canalta Cup! Brayden Klimosko’s Stars swept the Yorkton Terriers in Round 2, but it was a real battle, and the Terriers deserve a ton of credit for pushing back like they did. That being said, what a clinic by Battlefords. Melfort had a longer, tougher battle against the Estevan Bruins, who truly were only the smallest bit underdogs in the semis. More on them later!
2. Beautiful Job In Humboldt – Have to pause to mention the beautiful job done by the parents and organizers in Humboldt for the service commemorating the crash on its one-year anniversary last Saturday. I was there myself, and the emotion and tastefulness of the event was right on. Broncos chaplain Sean Brandow spoke again, like he did in the memorial service soon after the crash itself, and his sermon was tremendous. What a brave, incredible group of people in that organization, and especially the parents and survivors, who chose to invite the nation into the midst of their pain, likely in spite of their need to simply have the time to breath and heal. Well done all around.
3. Melfort Storylines – The Mustangs have been brilliant at home this post-season, and I guess that old adage that ‘you aren’t in trouble till you lose at home in the playoffs’ rings true. Melfort is 6-0 at Northern Lights Palace, where they have outscored the opposition 23-9, (against two very good teams in Kindersley and Estevan, by the way). In their three defeats so far in the playoffs, the Mustangs’ superstars Carson Albrecht and Justin Ball have combined for one point; in the wins they have combined for 28 points…pretty stark contrast! My ex-factor for the club is George King. The speedy winger with WHL experience was not involved enough for me in the series against Estevan, but he has plenty of tools out in the open ice, and with Battlefords’ in-zone defensive structure as locked-in as it has been, finding offence in the transition will have to be big for the Mustangs. You also know Ball and Albrecht will be targets No. 1 and 2 for the pesky Stars, who are masters at getting under the skin. It will be interesting to see if the Melfort power play can find a bit of consistency, after it dominated the regular season, but sits at only 17.4 per cent in the post-season.
4. Battlefords Storylines – Meanwhile the Stars special teams have been absolutely sensational, which is especially huge for a team not gifted with as much pure offence as the clubs they have already knocked off (Flin Flon and Yorkton). Battlefords’ power play was the best of the teams in the semi-finals, but their match-up against the gritty Melfort Mustangs penalty kill, who are clicking at an impressive 88.9 per cent, might be what decides the final. Only the Stars themselves have had a more suffocating PK than the ‘Stangs, so Special Teams in general will be a huge story, as they almost always are in the biggest games. The North Stars’ 2000-born rookie left-winger Quintin Loon-Stewardson has continued his fantastic play from the second half of the season, with six multi-point games out of 11 contests so far in the playoffs, and his line with his brother Elijah, and WHL vet Braydon Buziak, have been a revelation for coach Klimosko. Can Battlefords find enough offence, especially in Melfort, to match Justin Ball and Carson Albrecht’s output? If anyone has the D-Corps to shut them down, captain Cody Spagrud, the super underrated Matthew Fletcher, and company might be the group to do it.
5. La Ronge Finds A ‘Killer’ Coach – The Ice Wolves have replaced interim Gaelan Patterson with long-time minor professional head coach, and former NHL player Kevin Kaminski. A native of Churchbridge, SK, ‘Killer’ Kaminski’s official appointment was reported previously by Rod Pedersen on this website, so I won’t take up too much time on it. I think the La Ronge community has stuck through a bunch of real thin years with the Ice Wolves, with coaches coming and going constantly, so it’s great to see someone of some real pedigree, and experience stepping in. With the likes of all-stars Zach Bannister and Antonio Di Paolo, a 2000-born goaltender in Jordan Frey, who was very solid down the stretch (the Wolves’ excellent broadcaster Braden Malsbury is really high on Frey), and an extremely underrated top centreman in Jake Gudjonson, Kaminski is coming into a situation with a decently stocked cupboard, especially if they can add a couple more pieces to augment those guys who had plenty of ice time and opportunity this year, after the trade deadline sell-off of the veterans. Hope it works out!
7. The Adams Family – Also have to shout out the Melville Millionaires for rewarding Kyle Adams for the work he did after replacing Devin Windle as head coach and general manager mid-season. The Mils have taken off Adams’ interim tag, and replaced it with a two-year deal, and I cannot speak highly enough of this move. Adams has some work to do to build around the incredible talent of Rookie of the Year Luke Spadafora (not to mention, work to keep him in Melville); but with speed and skill pieces Tristan Shewchuck, Luke Nkwama, and Aiden Steinke likely back, he at least has a start. Lots of work to do, but Kyle has some great connections in Alberta and Ontario, and around the hockey world after his various experiences, so I expect Melville will improve very fast next year. Just like in La Ronge, great move by the Mils!
8. Grzybowski’s Streak – I did a podcast with Battlefords goaltender Joel Grzybowski this past week, and did all I could to not anger the hockey gods, and mention his 198-minute shutout streak, that continues after he blanked the final three games of his club’s sweep of the Yorkton Terriers. I purposely did not mention the goaltenders in the storylines because it’s low-hanging fruit: both Grzybowski and Melfort’s Noah Giesbrecht have been sensational. Go to Mustangs broadcaster Mat Barrett’s social media to see the highlight of a save Giesbrecht made in Game 6 against Estevan! Wow wowwow. These games are going to be low-scoring and tense, and these two men are poised to be huge reasons why. I just got my promotion to Captain Obvious, but whoever can be just a little bit better between these two guys will go a very long way in deciding the final. Here are the stats in the playoffs at time of writing: for Grzybowski, a 1.40 goals-against average, and a .959 save percentage; for Giesbrecht, a 1.99 GAA, and a .941 save percentage, both after more-than reasonable sample sizes. These guys are the real deal, folks.
9. Fans, Take A Bow – Pretty great to see two of the Top 4 average attendances get rewarded with the final. The fine folks of both Battlefords and Melfort have come out in droves, with the Stars averaging 1,414-per-game at the North Battleford Civic Centre, and the Mustangs getting 1,211 at the Northern Lights Palace. Both places have been fortresses as a result, and I’m sure they will be just bouncing for these tilts! Game 1 is Friday night in the Battlefords!
10. Hats Off To Tisdale (Bonus) – Congrats to the Tisdale Trojans Midget AAA for toppling the Notre Dame Hounds, Brandon Wheat Kings, and Thunder Bay Kings in the TelusWest Regionals, and booking a spot in the up-coming Telus Cup in T-Bay, Ontario. The host Trojans showed no signs of rust after falling in the second round of the provincial playoffs to the Saskatoon Blazers, and for a group of young men to stay focussed with a layover before a big tournament like that is pretty impressive! Potential future Kamloops Blazers and Tisdale winger Kalen Ukrainetz led the tournament with nine points, while Saskatchewan’s top statistical midget goaltender Tanner Marten was very good. Long-time Estevan Bruins AA player Dawson Schaff, who has been a revelation in the playoffs, scored the winner in overtime, in the championship game against Thunder Bay last Sunday.
(Follow Jamie on Twitter at @neugsie)