Coming into this Bauer Conference Semi-Final with the Humboldt Broncos, the Ice Wolves players and coaching staff were confident they would only need to win one game in Humboldt. This of course rests on the Wolves winning all three of their games on home ice. Now they have a chance to make that a reality, or else be in some serious trouble.
The Ice Wolves' Bastion of Hope (also known as the Mel), saw the Wolves and Broncos clash in two very tight games this season. One, a 6-5 Humboldt win with the other going to the Broncos 3-2 in the shootout. Certainly the Wolves hope they can get the jump on Humboldt on home ice, but it's far from a guarantee.
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 Ice Wolves got off to a great start on home ice in the Survivor Series with a pair of wins on home ice to start out the playoffs. Friday's contest started out fast and furious with the Wolves getting the better of the early action, but letting their foot off the gas nearly cost them as the Bombers pulled themselves back into the contest. The Wolves collected themselves in time and took the 5-4 win, but it was clear what the Wolves needed to improve on. To gain playoff success, the Wolves need to put the pedal down and finish games out.
Saturday's game started slow, but the Wolves made adjustments in the second period and again came out on the right side of a flurry of action. A 4-1 lead after two periods quickly became 5-1 when Nathan Boyer scored his second of the game 20 seconds into the third. The game quieted from there until the Wolves popped another two on the powerplay, late, when the Bombers got into penalty trouble. A 7-1 beat down gave the Wolves their 2-0 lead in the series and showed they have the killer instinct to put teams away.
Also important for La Ronge, they were able to put some pucks behind Devin Buffalo in the third period. After allowing the fifth goal Friday, Buffalo shut down the Wolves for the remainder of that game and when he stepped in for Andy Desautels in the second Buffalo was fantastic as well. The third period marked a return to the norm for the Ice Wolves when they were able to get three by him at the Mel. A confident Devin Buffalo would be bad news for the Wolves heading to the Whitney Forum. Obviously the choice by Mike Reagan to put Desautels between the pipes for Game 2 will generate some discussion and I'll be sure to get his thoughts on the decision tonight in the pregame show.
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.
The Ice Wolves make a trip over the cut-across to visit their Northern Nemesis, the Flin Flon Bombers tonight at the Whitney Forum. The final instalment of the (regular season) War in the North has a fair bit on the line for the Ice Wolves while not as much immediate impact for the Bombers.
The Wolves, slim though their chances may be, still have a shot at third place if they can win their final two games. They need some serious help from the Bombers and Mustangs, but there's hope. The disappointing thing is the Ice Wolves, for a time this past week, held their own fate and couldn't convert. The Wolves wanted to come away, and felt they had a legitimate shot of coming away with six of eight points, but only got three. The Wolves entered the third period of each game with at least a chance to get a point or two.
Tonight they'll attempt to salvage five points out of the stretch of five on the road.
I was going to write this post in beautiful Melville, Saskatchewan tomorrow, but seeing as the schedule has shifted, I'll take care of it now.
The Ice Wolves were supposed to leave La Ronge today (Friday) and take it nice and easy down to Melville where they would await the home team to arrive back from Nipawin. Not so. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Wolves will now be head out tomorrow (Saturday) morning bright and early at 7:30. Obviously makes for a much tougher day schedule, and it means I don't get to sleep in. You may not care about the latter, but the former isn't to great for a team starting out on their most important road swing of the season. I can imagine most of the players aren't pleased, but they're pretty good at sleeping on the bus anyway.
Enough on the transportation. The Ice Wolves face off with the Millionaires for the first time since early December. It's the first time the Wolves play at the new Horizon Credit Union Centre and the first time the Wolves see the Mills since the trade deadline.
The Hawks have already taken the season series between the two teams, which takes some importance from this game. However, it's far from not mattering. Quite the opposite in fact. The Standings are ridiculously close, but with only a few games remaining, small gaps can become quite large very quickly. Take the Flin Flon Bombers. They sat only seven points back of the Hawks, and could have made it five last night. They lost, now the gap is nine, and the Hawks magic number is four points to fully eliminate the Bomb Squad from third place contention.
While the Ice Wolves aren't quite in that same boat, they will be rather quickly if they don't win tonight. With the slew of road games approaching for the Ice Wolves, winning their final two home games is beyond imperative (if you can have something past imperative). It's tough to find good help these days with the Hawks on such a hot streak. The Wolves are contending with a team that has points in sixteen straight. The next closest run in the league happens to be the Ice Wolves and Yorkton Terriers who have points in six straight. So if there was ever a time to cool off a team on a run it's tonight.
Tuesday's game at the Cage definitely had a playoff feel to it. The intensity was high and it was a treat to watch. I've come to expect fantastic games from the Ice Wolves and Hawks and they didn't disappoint. Though the game sat 1-0 Wolves for all but about three minutes, there was always the feeling the scoring could break out. I didn't think the game would finish tied at one, but that's where it ended up.
The pace was great and both teams were able to create some good chances despite some great defence on either side. The Wolves D did a great job of limiting the Hawks off the rush, though it would be a goal racing from the wing that tied it late. The Hawks showed why they're undefeated in the shootout as Davis Jones came up with a big save and two Hawks notched goals on beautiful moves.
It just seems like when teams are on a roll, they get that timely goal when they need it. I saw it in both games the Wolves played against Humboldt at the Mel and it was evident Tuesday when a giveaway in the neutral zone turned a quick rush into a goal. It was the perfect storm of events that created the tying goal. Where a player would normally dump the puck with a 1-0 lead, a cross ice pass was intercepted. Brady Zerr was forced to the outside like he should, Alex Rajotte came out, cut down the angle like he should, but Zerr's wrister beat him high glove save. Usually a save Rajotte makes, but not on that moment.
At this point of the season, every game a team plays is its biggest of the season. Even more so when said team is locked in an epic struggle for playoff positioning. That said, I mean it when I say this could be the biggest game of the season for the Ice Wolves... until tomorrow... and then Saturday... Seriously, the Ice Wolves and Nipawin Hawks are all but deadlocked for third place right now. The Hawks hold a two point edge, but have played one more game. It would be nice if they were on even terms in that regard, but alas, the schedule didn't cooperate.
So why is league game number 299 so important for the Ice Wolves?
That's what I'm here for.
The Ice Wolves only play one game this week, and the Melfort Mustangs drew the straw to make the trek up to visit the Mel Heglund Uniplex. It's the third time this season the teams come together, and the Ice Wolves have won all three, looking solid defensively in the process.
The Wolves have one shutout against Melfort, a game that was a goosegg until the last four seconds and in the latest meeting a goal midway through the third got the Mustangs on the board. It has been a tough season offensively for Melfort, but the Ice Wolves have taken that to another level in their meetings.
Despite their struggles, the Mustangs can claim something nobody else in the SJHL did. That was end the Humboldt Broncos' ridiculous winning streak. They slew the dragon and it's all but over for the RBC Hosts. Needless to say the Mustangs got a big boost in a season that hasn't had a whole ton of bright points. They're in action with Melville tonight (Friday) and it will be interesting to see if the momentum carries. If it does, and they can grab a win against the Mills, the Wolves may have their hands full.