The Canalta Cup (then Credit Union) hasn't let the Bauer Conference for five years. The Ice Wolves managed the repeat the last couple of seasons while the Broncos owned the Provincial Crown for the three years before that. On the way to their first SJHL Title, the Ice Wolves had to overcome the Champs on the journey, and now, the same will have to be true for the Humboldt Broncos if they want to raise the Cup.
The Ice Wolves challenge is clear. Defeat the RBC Cup hosts who are ranked third in the country, didn't lose to the Wolves all year and was one point shy of a 90 point season. The Ice Wolves will have to, in a sense, slay the dragon to try and match the Broncos and their threepeat.
There are a lot of fun story lines in this matchup. The relationship between the coaches, the whole previous champs thing, the RBC Cup on the horizon for the Broncos. Obviously, by the regular season stats, the Ice Wolves are up against it. That's the beauty of the playoffs, it doesn't matter in the least. We'll still pour over the regular season in this breakdown of course, and reference those numbers repeatedly during the series, but it doesn't really matter. That will be the mentality from the Ice Wolves perspective. The Broncos would be happy for the regular season to carry over into the playoffs and continue their domination of the Wolves. How will it go down? The beauty of it is we don't have to wait long at all to find out.
The series gets going Friday night at the Elgar Peterson Arena. It was an absolute house of horrors for the Ice Wolves in the 2011-12 campaign and it will be there the Ice Wolves fate will be revealed. They need to steal but one game at the EPA to have a shot in the series, a task much easier said than done considering the Broncos' league best 23-4-1-1 record on home ice. Breaking that down into straight win/loss percentage, it's about 79%. Put that into a 4 game series and the Broncos hold a 3.16 share of the games at the EPA. Off the numbers, the Wolves need to find a way to get that .16 away from the Broncos. Preferably in the first game.
If there's a game the Ice Wolves hold the advantage in, it's Game 1 at the Elgar Peterson Arena. La Ronge is on a roll after sweeping the Bombers in the War in the North while the Broncos haven't played in nearly two weeks. Great for healing up, but the Wolves hope the Broncos will be a little sluggish out of the gate. I say hope, because Ice Wolves fans watched the Pack in a similar situation against the Bombers last year. People thought the Bombers may be able to sneak out a win early in the series. Doug Lindensmith scored 0:22 into a 7-3 victory for La Ronge. Not so sluggish. Can't say it will be the same, or different this year, we just don't know. The Wolves will just have to come out crashing and banging and play their game.
That crash and bang game will be the Wolves strength in this series. When the Wolves have been able to run with the Broncos, it's because they've been hitting everything in sight and causing problems that way. If they get into a run and gun, skating game, it will be a short series. I don't think the Broncos will back out of a physical game like some teams have when playing La Ronge this season, but it isn't their game. They would much rather get the puck out of the defensive zone and get the rush going three forwards across. If the puck is in their end for an extended period of time, that seriously goes against the "go, go, go" of the Humboldt gameplan. There's also that RBC Cup at the end of the line. Make no mistake, the Broncos are going to give everything they can to winning an SJHL Championship and walk in through the front door. However, it's the Ice Wolves job to plant that seed of doubt. Who wants to go into the corner when you know it's going to be an unpleasant ride? Even less so when you consider an injury could hurt your chances in the big tournament. La Ronge is looking for that split second of hesitation. The Wolves don't need to go out and play dirty, that would be a poor idea and, well, dirty. Matt Weisensel creates plenty of hesitation/intimidation down low by consistently laying the body. If the Wolves are going to win, it will be play like the road captain's that will get the Wolves there.
As mentioned, the Broncos are hungry to earn their way into the National Tournament rather than be there just as the host. With scoring depth like they have, it's tough to imagine them not reaching that goal. Every line Humboldt features can hurt you, and quickly. I think it's the Broncos' speed that most impresses me when watching them play. They are a very quick team, and with a defence that can burn the puck out of the zone on good first passes, they use that speed very well. As they've been able to do at the EPA this season, the Broncos will be looking to stretch the Ice Wolves out. When the Broncos have been successful in executing their high paced gameplan, the Wolves ended up on the wrong end of 8-1, 7-1 and 5-1 defeats at the EPA. Ugly to be sure.
This season's history certainly isn't on the side of the Ice Wolves, though there are a couple of things different for this go-round. Talking to Ron Holloway after the Wolves victory against the Bombers, he was emphatic while pointing out Byron Sorenson has yet to face the Broncos this year. That's a big factor for the Ice Wolves with the presence he adds. Expect Sorenson and Weisensel to log a ridiculous amount of minutes in this series. Holloway also claimed the Ice Wolves had "inside information" about the Broncos. Whatever that means. Likely just the coach's usual sense of humour, but who knows. Maybe if you say Humboldt Broncos backwards, it transports them to a different dimension.
How do the teams match up statistically?
La Ronge vs Humboldt
GF - 189 GF - 240
GA - 178 GA - 145
PP - 15.8(10) PP - 18.9(8)
PK - 83.0(2) PK - 84.1(1)
Hladun (20-31-51) Johnston (29-52-81)
Enns (23-25 - 48) Ciolfi (28-37-65)
Boyer (20-26-46) Glowa (16-31-47)
Carre (10-32-42) Marshall (13-25-38)
While most of the Broncos numbers may not be overly prolific (Andrew Johnston (29-52-81) aside), scoring depth is the name of the game. Ten players had thirty points or more this season with Humboldt, compared to half that for the Ice Wolves. The Broncos can certainly put up goals in a hurry as the Ice Wolves experienced a few times this season. Obviously the Johnston and Robbie Ciolfi (28-37-65) combination is something to look out for. Especially since both were particularly successful against La Ronge in the playoffs last year. Matt Glowa had eight of his 47 points against the Ice Wolves this season.
Player to Watch: Taylor Duzan - The diminutive sniper is talented enough on his own. Put him on a team like the Humboldt Broncos, and it's a little scary. He always seems to bring his best against the Ice Wolves and could have a big series.
Talking about scoring depth, the Ice Wolves got contributions from pretty much everywhere in their series with the Bombers. They'll need to keep that up if they want to move along in the post-season. Just as important will be a strong back-check as La Ronge knows the Broncos will be racing down the ice at every opportunity. Zac Ashdown is the hot hand right now as he led the Survivor Series with six points. The Ice Wolves due to injuries didn't get to ice their 'A' lineup many times this season. We saw it a couple times against the Bombers and it looked good. The third and fourth lines became more of a 3A/B. That's the depth Bob Beatty has been searching for this season.
Player to Watch: Nathan Boyer - It took a few games, but Boyer broke out of his goal scoring slump in a big way in Game Two of the Survivor Series and followed it up scoring a shorthanded game winner in game three. One of the top emerging talents in the SJHL, this year's playoffs could be the jumping off point for a great 20-year old season.
As already mentioned, Matt Weisensel and Byron Sorenson will see a lot of ice time. That's not to say the Wolves are a two pairing team, they're just that good. Ben Bula and Brennan Ritchie follow up with a strong offence (Ritchie)/defence (Bula) pairing. Alex Vandenameele and Louis-Joseph Sawyer provide a pretty strong third pairing that could definitely be top four on some other teams. They'll have to be respectful of the Broncos' speed without giving up too much space.
Player to Watch: Byron Sorenson - After joining the team late in the season, Sorenson was at a wedding the last time the Broncos and Wolves played. He hasn't seen the Broncos yet, and they haven't had to deal with him. The Sorenson/Weisensel pairing will be key to the Wolves chances.
As frighteningly deep as the forward ranks. The addition of Johnathan Parisien really helped fill out the back end. Guys like Kameron Ballas and Nathan Hudema quietly go about their business as two defenders. Josh Roach and Matt Backhouse do things a little more a little more flashy and through all of this you're wondering which is the top pairing. Good question.
Player to Watch: Josh Roach - One of the premiere offensive defencemen in the SJHL, Roach's two way game also improved this year. He's a handful when joining the rush and his blast of a shot causes all sorts of problems when Humboldt heads to the powerplay.
Matt Hrynkiw may not have captured the Goaltender of the Year Award, but man, he had the numbers this season to make it a reasonable thought. His 22-3-0 record was the runaway best in the league, his 2.38 goals against average was tops in the league and .921 Sv% was second. Terrifying numbers. Hrynkiw really took off after he got the nod as the number one guy for the rest of the season. Amazing what confidence can do. The Broncos also acquired Colin Dzijacky, who's no slouch. He featured a 9-1-1 record plus a 2.44 GAA and .904 Sv%. Whoever's in net will do rather nicely for the Broncos.
Alex Rajotte was named a runner up for the Goaltender of the Year Award, and he'll have to play like it against the Broncos. Of the five games he played against the RBC Hosts, Rajotte played well in 2.5 of them. In La Ronge he was fantastic in a pair of shootout losses, and the second half of the Wolves 5-1 loss to the Broncos when he prevented an embarrassment from taking place. He'll be considerably more busy in this round than the Survivor Series and if the Wolves upset the Broncos, could very well be the series MVP. Myles Hovdebo hasn't had much luck against Humboldt this season, but you can be sure he'll be ready for the opportunity should things not go well for Rajotte.
Make no mistake, the Ice Wolves are the underdogs in this series. They're going to have to play their best hockey every night. The Broncos are that good. The trick will be to not get too high or low after a win or loss. Even going down two games to none at the EPA isn't a death sentence, it will eliminate all room for error, but it won't be over.
The Wolves will probably have to win all of their home games to move on to the Bauer Conference Finals for a third straight year, and that means making the Mel as inhospitable as possible. That's where the fans in La Ronge come in. It was good and loud for the Survivor Series, but it's time to take it up a notch. That time will come next week, to get you warmed up, though, I'll have the broadcast of Games 1 and 2 from Humboldt this weekend.
The Pre-Game Show for Game 1 goes at 7:15 Friday night as we drop the puck on the Conference Semi-Finals.