Four teams, two spots, one title.
If you’re the SIJHL, you couldn’t have planned your two semi-final showdowns any better as the top four squads in the six-team loop are set to do battle in the next round of the playoffs starting this weekend.
When the regular season wrapped up just a couple of weeks ago, only four points separated the Fort Frances Lakers, Dryden Ice Dogs, and Thunder Bay North Stars for second through fourth place in the standings.
And although the Wisconsin Wilderness pulled away for the league title thanks to a perfect record in February, they also were right in the mix with the above trio for most of the campaign.
But as is so often the case, everything that’s happened up to this point in the season is now thrown out the window as the Wilderness prepare to take on the North Stars while the Lakers square off with the Ice Dogs.
Looking at the match-up between the second-seeded Lakers and third-seeded Ice Dogs, it’s a series that could go either way, despite the fact Dryden took the season series by a comfortable 8-4 margin.
Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan has said on numerous occasions that his team hasn’t yet “shown Dryden their true colours,” with their final meeting of the regular season at the Ice For Kids Arena here on Feb. 22 seeing the Ice Dogs roar back from a 4-1 deficit to take the victory.
However, having just taken part in a first-round mini-series with the Wilderness over the last two weeks, it looks as if the Lakers ’offence is starting to get back into stride following a 6-2 win here Friday night. With offensive players like SIJHL goal leader Tyler Stevenson, team MVP Byron Katapaytuk, and Jace Baldwin being keyed upon by opposing defencemen, it has allowed other Lakers’ forwards to make their mark on the scoresheet as Henry Gutierrez and Jon Sinclair both have done in recent games.
At the other end of the ice, Lakers’ goalie Tyler Ampe has turned his game up as of late, especially in the series against the Wilderness when he sported a 2-1 record with a 2.73 GAA and .934 save percentage.
While the Ice Dogs may not have a marksman in the style of Stevenson, they do have the two top point-getters of the opening round of the playoffs as Thomas Greene and Ben McClellan combined for 19 points in Dryden’s four-game sweep of the last-place Duluth Clydesdales.
Dryden’s strength comes at the back end of their team, with captain Jon Mitchell being the straw that stirs the drink.
A two-time SIJHL defenceman-of-the-year award winner and the league’s MVP this past season, Mitchell is nearly a one-man band for the Ice Dogs, compiling 50 points in 48 games while blocking an umpteen number of shots throughout the regular season.
Add in the solid goaltending of Ian Perrier for Dryden, and a battle of the last two SIJHL coaches-of-the-year in Clint Mylymok and Strachan, this series has all the makings of a seven-game thriller.
In the other semi-final, you have the Wilderness, who basically have run roughshod through the entire SIJHL this season and look to be the clear-cut favourite to capture the Bill Salonen Cup. But in order to be the champ, you have to first beat the champ, which is what Wisconsin finds themselves having to accomplish against the five-time and defending league champion North Stars.
While the North Stars aren’t as dominate as they have been in recent years, they still have some dangerous weapons to deal with, such as team captain Mitch Forbes, who led the team in scoring this season, and fellow forward Riley Marsh, who scored the series-winning goal in double overtime Saturday night against the Sioux Lookout Flyers.
Also back from last year’s title-winning side is goalie Guillaume Piche, who registered a mind-boggling 1.61 GAA and .928 save percentage during last season’s playoff run.
Piche’s numbers weren’t nearly as impressive this season (a 15-17-1 mark with a 2.84 GAA and .891 save percentage), but it would be quite foolish for the Wilderness forwards to think that it’ll be an easier time to solve the Quebec goalie.
But between the pipes for the Wilderness is where the series may be decided as they posses a two-headed monster in the dynamic duo of John McLean and Jake Hebda.
Officially listed at 6’8” on the team roster, McLean is an absolute behemoth once he gets into his “office” as he picked up the SIJHL top goalie-of-the-year honours with a 24-4-1-3 mark, along with a 2.18 GAA and .926 save percentage.
If you thought those numbers were staggering, Hebda arguably was even better just by looking at his overall stats. The Colorado native amassed a 21-2-0-1 record this season, along with a 1.88 GAA and .935 save percentage.
In fact, up until Friday’s 6-2 setback against the Lakers here, Hebda hadn’t suffered a loss since way back in November.
Coupled with some dynamic shifty forwards (such as rookie-of-the-year Austin Adduono and captain Keith Tessin), and having only lost three games at home all season, it seems as though it’s the Wilderness’ series to lose against the North Stars.
But it’s the postseason in hockey which, as always, means anything can happen—and usually does.
Four teams, two spots, one title.