Nipawin Hawks – Fighting for first
The Nipawin Hawks defending their Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) championship with only six regulars from last season has been documented many times in The Flashback.
On their 24-man roster, the Hawks have 13 players who are 18 years old or younger, only the Yorkton Terriers have the same amount and team has more.
With six returning players on a younger squad, a rebuilding year was expected on the outside looking in.
Earlier in the year, head coach Doug Johnson told northeastNOW his Hawks were still going to be a strong team but would probably have to win games differently.
To his credit, Johnson was correct. Halfway through 2018-19, the Hawks have scored about 1.3 fewer goals per game while surrendering 0.3 fewer goals against per game than their championship season pace.
What Johnson didn’t expect his young team with a defensive focus to be fighting for first in the SJHL.
“I didn’t expect to be fighting for first to be honest but that’s hockey,” Johnson said. “Usually coaches will not overestimate but have higher standards and expect guys to achieve more, but I don’t think anybody saw this coming.”
Along with Declan Hobbs leading the SJHL in all major goaltending categories (.942 save percentage, 1.78 goals against average, 14 wins, five shutouts), the Hawks have played structurally sound for the first half of the season as some of the younger players get accustomed to scoring in the SJHL.
While some players like 16-year-old Jaxsen Wiebe can score 15 points in 24 games (fifth best points-per-game among SJHL rookies) and 18-year-old Austen Flaman can lead the Hawks in goals and points (14 and 28 respectively) some need time to develop further.
Take Josh Lester, who recently turn 18. After he scored his first career SJHL on Dec. 1, Johnson mentioned how far he’s come along.
“He’s a guy who’s starting to understand what it takes to play junior hockey,” Johnson said. “He has a very nice skillset and I think what you see now is going to be what you see at the end of the year. He’s got a very high upside and is going to bring a lot of offence to our line-up.”
For a learning curve season, being first is as good a start as any SJHL can hope for. Although Johnson mentioned it’s important to keep competing to be first at the end of the season.
Just like his prediction of his team before the season, Johnson is right again.
Entering the weekend, the Hawks are tied with the Humboldt Broncos and Kindersley Klippers for first in the SJHL with 43 points, with the Melfort Mustangs two points behind with a game in hand.
One half of the season gone and there’s no clear front runner, so the Hawks game on Friday, Dec. 7 in Yorkton still has high stakes.
Melfort Mustangs – Brief reality check
For lack of a better word, the Melfort Mustangs 10-game win streak was awesome.
The Mustangs were a well-oiled machine for those 10 games, winning tight low-scoring affairs, blowing opponents out, getting crucial wins against top teams such as Nipawin Hawks, Kindersley Klippers, and Yorkton Terriers.
But like the 2007 New England Patriots' near perfect season and the Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania, the good times had to end.
The end came in an anticlimactic 5-2 loss at home against the Terriers on Nov. 30, where the Mustangs seemingly couldn’t get momentum going before they trailed 5-1 at the start of the third.
The next night was a better effort but the same result, with the Mustangs falling to the Estevan Bruins 4-3.
Perhaps there’s something different with Estevan’s tap water this season, as the Bruins have won all three meetings against the Mustangs this season.
Last weekend was a reminder that the entire season won’t go as smoothly as a 10-game win streak, although in all fairness the Mustangs have been struck with the unhealthy bug over the last week.
Jake Hobson and Boedy Donald, half of the Mustang top-four defence, didn’t play against Yorkton and Estevan. Kyle Schneider, who’s suddenly become an important cog in the bottom six, also unavailable.
Good news for the Mustangs is they still sit two points behind the Broncos, Hawks, and Klippers for first in the SJHL with games in hand on all of them.
With some healthy bodies and a three-game road trip beginning Dec. 7 in Melville, who’s to say the Mustangs can’t get on another little run?
Tisdale Trojans – Almost first
Speaking of streaks coming to an end, the Tisdale Trojans 12-game point streak ended with a 5-2 loss at home to the Regina Pat Canadians.
It came after the Trojans' best win of the season, a 5-0 shutout against the first place Saskatoon Blazers.
When it seemed like the Trojans couldn’t make a bigger statement after the shutout in Saskatoon, how they responded after the Regina loss might speak more volumes for what this team is capable of.
The Trojans returned the favour against Regina the next afternoon with a 5-2 win of their own, including four goals in the first period and 10 players registering points.
In Prince Albert, the Trojans continued their winning ways against the Mintos 3-2, controlling the possession so often they outshot the Mintos by a 2:1 ratio.
In Duck Lake, where the Trojans worst loss of the season 5-1 against the Beardys Blackhawks took place, they won 4-1 with Cade Hayes’ three points and Tanner Martin’s 14 saves showed by both could be consider MVP candidates in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League (SMAAAHL).
Don’t let the wins fool anyone. Mann was right when he called this stretch tough. Regina is fourth in the SMAAAHL and capable of catching up to the Trojans and Blazers, Beardys and Prince Albert in the playoff mix and have some big wins under their belts too.
With an impressive 12-game point streak over, the Trojans have won three in a row, sitting two points behind the Blazers for first with three games in hand.
The Trojans might even tie the Blazers on Sunday, Dec. 9, where they meet them once again in Saskatoon.
On Twitter: @SchulzePANow
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