The Ice Wolves welcome the Humboldt Broncos to the Mel tonight as La Ronge hopes to regain the third spot in the Bauer Conference.
So far, the season series has been all Humboldt with three wins over the Ice Wolves in their three meetings this season. The first two were disastrous for the Ice Wolves, 7-1 and 5-1 losses. The third was better on the scoreboard, but the Wolves defence and goaltending was pretty suspect. Since then Alex Rajotte has been on fire and the D has been vastly improved, partially through each other, but more on that later.
In an added twist to tonight's contest, it's the Teddy Bear Toss tonight for the final game at the Mel in 2011.
The Broncos have, in my opinion, the best transition game in the SJHL. They have great speed and skill up front, and it's incredible how quickly they can turn the puck up the ice. In previous meetings, this speed has really shown some of the youth on the Ice Wolves' blue line with a lot of odd man rushes caused by that moment of hesitation or poor decision. Andrew Johnston leads the group production-wise. His very good season isn't surprising anyone as he sits third in league scoring behind Blake Tatchell and Jesse Ross. Johnston told me at the beginning of the season he wanted to reach 100 points, well at the moment he's not far off the pace sitting on track for around 92.
Robbie Ciolfi has a history of success against the Wolves. The former Terrier has ten points in his last nine games against La Ronge going back to the SJHL Finals last season. New addition Taylor Duzan is something of an Ice Wolf killer as well, with four goals and an assist in three games against the Wolves. Joey Davies has been the surprise against the Wolves thus far, of his seven goals, four are against
La Ronge. The list really goes on, this is a team with plenty of success against the Wolves this season and it's easy to see why.
The Bronco defence dominated the Ice Wolves in the first two contests. The Wolves mustered pretty much nothing in the scoring department and few chances. Third game, not so much as the Ice Wolves finally found success against the Humboldt D with five goals in the game. The Broncos have a reasonably experienced group on the back end and most of them bring offence to the table with a strong two-way game. The Wolves need to get sticks on the ice to try and stop those long breakout passes that will be flying out of the Broncos' end.
The big news this week was Bronco goaltender, Deven Dubyk getting called up to the WHL. That leaves Matt Hrynkiw as the starter in Humboldt. I hesitate to call him a plan B, because he's actually got a better record and decent stats. Hrynkiw comes in 12-and-2 on the season with a couple of wins against La Ronge. In the first game, he wasn't too busy in a 7-1 Humboldt win, but had a tough outing in the Broncos' 6-5 victory in their last trip to the Mel.
It's all about the injuries right now for the Ice Wolves. Aaron Enns headlines the crew as he'll be out until the team comes back to play in January, at least, with a lower body injury. The Ice Wolves have trouble icing a full forward group right now with Wright, Eisbrenner and Wilson Dumais all injured as well. On that note, Dumais is a game-time decision tonight. On the back end, Brennan Ritchie will likely play tonight after missing one game with an upper body.
The Ice Wolves generated plenty of opportunities in their 3-0 win against Battlefords on Tuesday. It's impressive to see the offence the PK is demonstrating right now. Big components of that success are Nathan Boyer and Pat Tran. Boyer leads the league in shorthanded points (1-3-4) while Tran is right behind him with two goals and an assist. Even strength, the Wolves continue to get strong contributions from guys like Graham Smerek, Brett McNevin and Skyler Hladun. I really enjoy watching McNevin play as he is a great physical player with enough skill and speed to make things happen. Only complaint is he sometimes crosses the line into undisciplined penalties, but that has been getting better as the season progresses. Also something to keep an eye on is Marc-Andre Carre's ice time as the game progresses. With the shortened bench, he sees a lot of time and is regularly on the point for the full two minutes of the powerplay.
Matt Weisensel has been a workhorse on the back-end. It's tough to find a lot consistently wrong with his game. He led the shut down on the North Stars Tuesday night as Blake Tatchell had an Ice Wolf in his face almost every time he touched the puck. The Stars managed 58 shots on goal Tuesday, but most of them weren't of the overly dangerous variety. The shots from within the danger areas were generally blocked or tipped away. Despite the 58 shots, it was a pretty solid effort. With Brennan Ritchie coming back into the lineup,
Brett Hope will more than likely bounce back to his slot up front and stay on D for the powerplay.
In net, I wouldn't be surprised to see Alex Rajotte get both starts this weekend, barring another game like his last against the Broncos. That rough outing was the tail end of a few less than spectacular games for the Ice Wolves goalie. Since then, Rajotte has been stunning with a perfect 5-and-0 record. He features a .965 Sv%, 1.20 GAA and one shutout over that stretch. Those numbers have him into third in wins (14), first in save percentage (.920), fifth in goals against average (2.77), first in saves (768) and second in shutouts with three. With the break coming up right after these two games, the Wolves don't really have to worry about resting him and he's beyond hot right now. Of course, first we see how he plays against Humboldt. In two games, his numbers are not good (0-2, 5.53 GAA, .847 Sv%)
It's a pair of massive games for the Ice Wolves if they want to put themselves into a strong position to catch the Broncos for second during the stretch run. The Wolves schedule is such that it's a real possibility, but starting the chase nine points back (if they lose both) would be a tough road. Two wins, and it's a one run ball game. The importance of these back to back four point games can not be overstated. I'm expecting a great effort from both sides and a highly entertaining game. Couple that with Teddy Bear Toss night and there's every reason to be at the Mel's final game of 2011.
If you can't be there, I'll have the call on the Webcast starting shortly before puck drop (7:30 CST). Braden Malsbury from Global TV in Saskatoon will join me on colour commentary, giving Curtis the night off to enjoy Teddy Bear Night. My guess is he'll be cuddled up in a pile of them somewhere...
Last broadcast of 2011, so I hope you'll tune in!