It's finally that time of year again. The time of year when glory and gut wrenching disappointment are separated by a razor thin line. One goal/penalty/save can mean the difference between heading home in February or playing until May.
Ten teams will become eight, will become four, then two and finally one will remain... until it becomes two, then one, then five and so forth (man Junior A playoffs are complicated). Today's focus is on the ten becoming eight bit, and more importantly the fourth and fifth place teams battling to be fourth and earn a date with the Humboldt Broncos. I'm not a huge fan of the format, and I know any team that has ever finished fourth will agree, it's not much fun to play for spot you've already earned. That said, the Survivor series generally presents some very intriguing and entertaining hockey. Take last year's Bauer Conference victory by the Bombers, or the Bruins' dramatic OT win in game five over the Millionaires in the Sherwood series.
Combine the Survivor Series and the War in the North and you have the makings of a darn good series (not to mention something that sounds like a WWE pay-per-view). Some may call it a "healthy dislike" (Bob Beatty) others, may comment that they've hated the Bombers since the first meeting of the season (Pavlo Zerebecky). Any way you say it, the Wolves and Bombers have one of (if not the) nastiest rivalry in the league. 35 games including eleven playoff games in the last two years will do that to teams.
It's funny how a season series can look so different from either point of view. The Ice Wolves went 5-2-1-0 against Flin Flon this season, while the Bombers went 3-3-0-2 against La Ronge. So let's put this into playoff terms. The Wolves won five games while the Bombers won three. Of course, none of it matters, but we'll break it down nonetheless.
The Bombers won the first two meetings between the teams in Flin Flon. The weekend was quite the debacle for the Ice Wolves, losing 9-5 and 6-2. From there, the Ice Wolves dominated, winning five straight (three at the Mel (6-1, 8-1, 7-5), one at the JRMCC (3-2 SO) and one in Flin Flon (3-2 SO)). The Bombers got back in the season series with a stunning come from behind win in the second last game of the season scoring twice late in the third to even it up and Dylan Balaski scoring the OT winner. The later games in Flin Flon were highly entertaining affairs due in no small part to the heroics of Devin Buffalo who put on a show in Flin Flon.
Buffalo presents no small enigma when looking at this series. It's a complete Jekyll and Hyde situation. In Flin Flon, Buffalo has been very tough to beat and was a major reason the Bombers were able to get three points out of the later contests. In La Ronge, it's a different story. Of course the Mel is a tough place to play, but I don't know if I've seen such stark differences. How Buffalo plays could very well be the pivot for the series.
How teams use home ice will be the absolute key in this series. The Bombers weren't able to capture a victory in La Ronge in last year's playoffs. Coach Mike Reagan admitted the Mel is the toughest building to pick up a road win in an interview with the Star Phoenix. The Bombers haven't won in their last eight games at the Mel (including playoffs). They pulled out two wins early last season at the Mel, but since then it hasn't looked good with the Bomb Squad being outscored by La Ronge, 57-21 over that stretch. They'll need to overcome their current slide at the Mel to have a shot in this series.
The Whitney Forum hasn't been quite so unkind to the Ice Wolves over the last couple years, but they only one once in Flin Flon this season. The Pack's road woes have been well documented, and I agree with Mike Reagan that the Forum is probably the second toughest place to pick up a win. It's a fantastic atmosphere, but a little hostile and it can be an intimidating place. The Bombers play very well in front of their fans, and if they can grab home ice with a win in La Ronge, they could very well take the series.
How do the teams stack up statistically?
La Ronge vs Flin Flon
GF - 189 GF - 205
GA - 178 GA - 214
PP - 15.8(10) PP - 19.4(5)
PK - 83.0(2) PK - 79.1(9)
Hladun (20-31-51) Storzuk (22-36-58)
Enns (23-25 - 48) McCombie (25-32-57)
Boyer (20-26-46) Penner (21-30-51)
Carre (10-32-42) Blair (20-29-49)
The Bombers definitely feature some offensive punch. When the lineup is healthy, Riley Storzuck, Jay Young, Dillan McCombie, Cam Blair and Brett Penner offer plenty of goal scoring potential. Recently, players like Konrad Litke and Dylan Balaski have been able to help shoulder the load as well. The name of the game in the SJHL this season is scoring depth, and the Bombers have plenty.
Player to Watch: Dillan McCombie - This seventeen year old might not be in Flin Flon much longer if he has WHL aspirations. I can't imagine a team not taking a chance on the diminutive forward. Since becoming a much more disciplined player, McCombie has really showcased the goal scoring potential the Bombers saw in him when they brought him into the lineup as a sixteen year old last season. He has had the Wolves number at times this season and will factor in big time with the offence.
The Wolves don't have quite the same scoring depth as the Bombers and have struggled to put the puck in the net at times this season. That said, when they get on a roll, it can be a sight to behold. The Wolves will be looking for Skyler Hladun and Nathan Boyer to regain their scoring touch. Boyer hasn't scored since February 4th and Hladun has been held out of the goal column since notching a hat trick against the Bombers. Aaron Enns has been picking up some of the load down the stretch. Young players like Jared Iron and Wilson Dumais will be key cogs in the attack as they were generating plenty of chances in the last few games.
Player to Watch: Marc-Andre Carre - Going cold down the stretch led Carre to miss out on reaching the Wolves all time scoring record and the lowest point total in his SJHL career (42). Carre always seems to bring a little something extra to games against the Bombers and will be looked to drive the Ice Wolves offence once again. A strong playoff drive will be important for Carre if he wants to jump to the Pros next season.
The Wolves can be one of the best in the league, and was performing that way shortly after the holiday break. The return of Byron Sorenson helped solidify the top four. The acquisition of Brennan Ritchie may turn out to be one of the best deals of the year as he's a huge part of the Wolves D and will return next season. Down the stretch, the defence was prone to costly lapses and getting back the focus they had earlier in the season will be the key to playoff success.
Player to Watch: Matt Weisensel - One of the best shut down defenders in the SJHL, he also shows offensive promise playing with Sorenson. He hits hard and is almost impossible to shake off down low. You can expect any Bomber who gets hot during the series will see a lot of Weisensel.
Big guys like James McNulty and Brock Hounsell have been effective at limiting the Ice Wolves smaller forwards when battling against the wall. When the Wolves can force them to turn, though, look out. David Roper will be called on consistently to try and shut down M-A-C, while Tanner Clark will provide the offensive spark from the line.
Player to Watch: Brandt Weldon - One of the hottest players in the SJHL down the stretch, defencemen or otherwise. Weldon finished the year with fifteen goals and his emergence gives Flin Flon a definite threat on the blue-line.
I won't spend much time on the Flin Flon goaltending as I delved into it earlier in this post. Devin Buffalo was stunning in the Bombers' last meeting with La Ronge. If the rookie tender can play like that night in night out, the Bombers have a good chance of knocking off the champs. His challenge will be to bring the "Forum Devin Buffalo" to the Mel. Andy Desautels is more than capable as a back-up option should Buffalo struggle or suffer an injury. Though he has struggled at times this season, he has the potential along with Buffalo to be a top goalie in the league.
Alex Rajotte could very well be named the SJHL Goalie of the Year. When on his game, he's nigh unbeatable. Much of the Ice Wolves playoff hopes lay with the former Baie-Comeau Drakkar goalie. If he goes on a tear, the Wolves will be a tough team to beat. Interestingly enough, Myles Hovdebo comes into the playoffs with the hot streak in the wins/losses. 5-1-0-1 in his final seven starts, and it could have been better if he had some goal support in a 1-0 loss to Melfort to round out the season. Hovdebo is becoming better at bringing in his energy and playing more conservative. He has a few wins against Flin Flon this season and won't look out of place if he gets into the game.
The War in the North is one of the more entertaining rivalries you'll see in the SJHL. When you add in the playoff atmospheres of both the Mel Heglund Uniplex and Whitney Forum, you have the makings of a classic series.
Both teams will want to get it over with in three or four games so they can get into Humboldt on a role. We'll see who's the most prepared coming out of the gate. The Wolves stumbled down the stretch finishing with only three wins in their last ten games. The Bombers finished with five, but had wins over Humboldt, Battlefords, La Ronge and Nipawin. Every team they need to beat in the playoffs, Flin Flon has taken care of in the last few weeks.
I expect a pair of great tilts this weekend and I'm excited to get going.
Curtis and I will have the webcast starting at 7:25.
It's playoff time.