Wednesday, April 24, 2019
ON TO THE ANAVET: NEUGSIE'S AROUND THE SJHL
Voice of the ND Hounds
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League is officially over after the Battlefords North Stars knocked off the Melfort Mustangs in a five game Canalta Cup series.
Here are my 10 things!
1. Hail to the Champs! – It isn’t hard to imagine that the Mustangs finally ran out of steam, as the juggernaut Stars cruised to a 7-2, final-clinching win Friday night in North Battleford. Hometown boy Braydon Buziak led the way with three points, including the game-winner, and captured a small measure of redemption after the Regina Pats dealt him away during their Memorial Cup hosting season in the WHL a year ago. So many storylines jump off the page from this Battlefords team, and their run to the club’s second championship in three years. Another one is the explosion of 2000-born winger Quintin Loon-Stewardson, equal parts skill and grit, who had 28 points in 51 regular season games, and 19 points in 16 post-season tilts. He, along with older brother Elijah, were very good all season, but both took another step forward in the playoffs, brilliantly fitting alongside Buziak on the Stars top line, and taking the pressure off of veteran and talented combination of Owen Lamb and MacGregor Sinclair. Having two lines that would definitely be No. 1 units almost anywhere in the league is massive, a level of depth up front that I truly believe that the Mustangs lacked (with no disrespect intended). I ran with the Stars as my pick throughout the playoffs, and though I’m not one to say I told you so…
2. MVP A Clear Choice? – Yes, it was. Joel Grzybowski, take another bow. A 200-plus minute shutout streak in the playoffs, and ridiculous stats: a 1.68 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage, all after clearly playing the most minutes of any SJHL goaltender during the regular season, all adds up to a magical playoff for the Hafford native. Certainly he had the best, healthiest, and most complete D-Corps playing in front of him, but stats like that do not happen by fluke. Grzybowski has played in 10 WHL games, so he won’t be going the U.S. College route, but his rights are owned by the Tri-City Americans, who have another 1999-born goaltender, and a 2002 backup likely looking to return next year, so the Grzy-magic might continue into next season. Regardless, he has a lot to be proud of right now, and I can say from experience that he’s a very good young man to boot. Well done!
3. Kudos To Melfort’s Stars – You also have to send a whole bunch of kudos to the Melfort Mustangs, and especially the two men whose names I have typed about five billion times this season: Justin Ball and Carson Albrecht. The ‘Stangs dynamic duo ultimately combined for 15 points in the final, and gave absolutely everything they had left, but Battlefords bench boss Brayden Klimosko fed them a steady diet of Cody Spagrud, and with the exception of Game 4 (a game in which the Stars also won, though in a wild uncharacteristic 6-5 fashion), the Stars did a great job on them. And as much as I respect all the forwards on Melfort, they badly needed those two guys to run wild. Either way, what incredible SJHL careers for these two, along with their hulking centreman Tanner Zentner! The University of North Dakota is getting a guy ready to jump right in with Albrecht, while I’ll be keeping a close and interested eye on where Ball and Zentner end up!
4. Battlefords Ditches Home-ice – So, what’s next? The Stars move on to the Anavet Cup, a Best-of-Seven series with the Manitoba League champion Portage Terriers, to determine the spot in the 2019 Junior A National Championship (it is no longer called ‘The RBC Cup’). As Steinbach had home-ice advantage in last year’s series, Battlefords had the rights to open up this year’s rendition at the NB Civic Centre; but due to a conflict with a local rodeo, the series will once again kick off east of the provincial border, in the city about 85 kilometres west of Winnipeg. Home-ice is not completely lost, though, as Games 3, 4, and 5 will go in North Battleford Apr. 30, May 1, and May 2, respectively. I’m not really concerned with this, to be honest, because the Stars have proven equally adept at taking care of business on the road all year. More on Portage later!
5. Big Rumour Out Of La Ronge – Shifting gears for a second here, I am hearing a pretty damaging rumour out of La Ronge that their two-time all-star defenceman Antonio Di Paolo is jumping ship for his final season of junior next year. I have it from good authority that the highly talented offensive-minded blue liner from Saskatoon has signed on with a team in the North American Hockey League in the States. To his great credit, Di Paolo has put in a great shift for the fine folks in La Ronge, posting 62 points in 97 games over two frustrating campaigns for the northeastern Sask club. It’s also worth mentioning that he was a blossoming star for the Humboldt Broncos the year previous, and was dealt from Humboldt to La Ronge during that fateful season. It’s a blow to the Ice Wolves for sure, but hopefully Di Paolo gets the recognition he deserves down south!
7. The Surprise of the Playoffs Award Goes To… – If the success of Quintin Loon-Stewardson surprised some, it didn’t surprise me, so my “Fernando Pisani Award” for the biggest playoff surprise performer is Kaden Boser. The well-built 2000-born Saskatoon native scored four times, with no game-winners, in the regular campaign, and then followed it up with a hard-nosed post-season, in which he logged three games of double-digits in penalty minutes, and three game-winning goals, including the overtime winner in the 6-5 Game 4 victory in Melfort that seemed to break the backs of the Mustangs. He fought 20-year-old Mason Mullaney to set the tone in Game 1 of their Round 2 series against Yorkton, and then earned a suspension in Game 2 that did not let him play until Game 3 of the final. A tough kid that can score; is there a more classic Battlefords player than that?
8. What Does Portage Have? – So back to the present, as the Stars get set to take on another team called the Terriers, in the second iteration of the re-born Anavet Cup. Between 2013 and 2017, the champions of the MJ and the SJ competed with the Alberta and BC champs, and a host, for two spots in the national championship, but that idea was scrapped ahead of last year’s pretty epic tilt between the Steinbach Pistons and Nipawin Hawks. Back in 2017, Battlefords and Portage met up in the round robin of that Western Canada Cup, and it was Ty Enns, who just spent most of the year with the Kindersley Klippers, that sealed a 5-3 win for the Manitobans into an empty net. Neither club advanced to the RBC Cup that year, where some kid named Cale Makar and his Brooks Bandits had their heart broken by a scrappy Ontario Junior Hockey League club from Cobourg. But I digress into memory! These Terriers very much rely on scoring by committee, but they have skill up and down their line-up. Their captain a season ago, Chase Brakel, ditched Cornell in the NCAA to come back to one of the Manitoba league’s crown jewel organizations, and he has lit up the playoffs to the tune of 22 points in 15 games. Long-time Kootenay Ice and hulking defender Sam Huston has been brilliant as well, using a huge shot and wonderful composure, as well as a very solid partnership with fellow monster and one-time Prince Albert Raider (and Notre Dame Hound!) Cody Thompson, to be a real force throughout the MJHL campaign. The Wiesblatt brothers Ocean and Orca are as important to the Terriers as little brother Ozzy has been for the PA Raiders, as they continue their hunt for the Memorial Cup this year. Regina natives Peyton Gorski and Ty Barnstable have also been regulars at the SJHL/MJHL showcase for the Manitoba league all-stars, and will fixture importantly as well for the Terriers in this Anavet. It’ll be a great series folks!
9. Attendance in Melfort – On the TV broadcast of the Canalta Cup, Rod went at the elephant - or maybe the lack of elephants - in the room during that epic Game 4 in Melfort last Wednesday. I’m not going to belabour the point, but I have to agree with Pedersen…it’s the FINAL! Come on Mustangs fans, where were you? It’s the final! I can tell you one thing – the Battlefords came out in droves, and every seat in Portage was filled for their Game 7 win in the Turnbull Cup on Monday night, so the Anavet will be a blast! Anyways, that’s all I will say about it.
10. Couple Commits – I have to end by tipping my cap to long-time Yorkton man Cole Keenleyside for landing in Manitoba with Portage College. The man from the small southwest Saskatchewan village of Hazlet finished his career after playing in the fifth most regular season contests in the history of the Terriers, with 209. A hard-working, grinding, penalty-killing machine, Keenleyside teamed up with fellow 20-year-olds Quinten Hobbs and Dino Antoniadis to form a fantastic energy unit for Yorkton in their Cinderella run into the semi-finals this past year. Kudos to Keenleyside! I also have to note that the Weyburn Red Wings have made official the signing of excellent Saskatoon Blazers defenceman and captain Riley Little, a big man with a smart, safe game, and who I thought might have a shot at the Regina Pats, the club that drafted him. The Melfort Mustangs have also dipped into the B.C. Junior ‘B’ ranks by adding big 18-year-old defender Jaden Callen, who I hear Trevor Blevins is quite high on. I’ve had very varying experiences in terms of kids from the KIJHL, so we’ll see where Callen lands on that spectrum!
(Follow Jamie on Twitter at @neugsie)