As expected, the Battlefords North Stars defeated the Kindersley Klippers rather easily in the opening round of their 2016 Canalta Cup playoffs. Despite battling injuries to key players and a flu bug running rampant through the dressing room, the North Stars were able to dispatch the Klippers in five games.
While some fans may not have been surprised to see the Flin Flon Bombers "upset" the Weyburn Red Wings in the opening round, it's the way they did it that raised my eyebrow.
In game one, starting goaltender Zac Robidoux gave up three goals on just 16 shots and was lifted in favour of rookie goalie Brenden Newton. While Newton was no slouch this season as he was named to the SJHL's All-Rookie team, it was surprising to see him start the next four games, especially considering Robidoux is a national champion, winning the RBC Cup with the Portage Terriers last season.
Clearly it worked, as Newton shut the proverbial door on the Red Wings by posting a staggering .964 save percentage in the four and a half games he played, as the Bombers defeated the Red Wings in five games after dropping game one. Newton surrended just six goals over the course of the series.
While I wasn't able to watch any of the games, I think the Bombers exposed the Red Wings for what they were: a low-scoring team that relied on stellar goaltending all season. Weyburn got the strong goaltending they were expecting as Jack Burgart posted a .942 save percentage in the series, but scoring nine goals in five games isn't going to win you a lot of playoff series.
Oh, there was also the mayhem that happened after game four when the Red Wings grabbed the Bombers sacred moose leg a fan throws on the ice after the team wins, which resulted in a nearly full-scale brawl between the two teams. Playoff hockey, right?
This sets up an interesting matchup between the North Stars and Bombers considering what happened during the regular season series. The Bombers seemed to be the North Stars kryptonite during the first four games, as Flin Flon had a 4-0 record against the SJHL's top team. That was right up until the final two meetings between the two teams.
The Bombers came to the Civic Centre for back to back games in late February and were pounded 9-1 and 5-2 by the North Stars, exacting a little revenge for the previous four games. A slight red flag for the North Stars heading into this series is that they didn't win a game at the Whitney Forum this season. They lost 8-4, 5-4 (overtime) and 5-2 in their three trips to Flin Flon this season.
The Whitney Forum is a tough place for any opposing team to play in, and the North Stars have a 7-8-2 record over the past six seasons there. That doesn't include the 2011 playoffs when the North Stars lost both games on the road to lose that series three games to one.
Speaking of playoff matchups between these two, there's isn't a ton of history. Here are the previous times they've met in the post season.
1999: North Stars defeat Flin Flon two games to none
2000: North Stars defeat Flin Flon (and Melfort) three games to one in the round robin
2006: North Stars defeat Flin Flon four games to one in the first round
2011: Flin Flon defeats North Stars three games to one in the preliminary round
An interesting note, two of the four times (2000, 2006) the North Stars have met the Bombers in the post season, the North Stars made it to the finals.
The big key for the North Stars in this series is establishing home ice. They worked their tails off during the regular season to get home ice throughout the playoffs, and now it's time to take advantage. Playing the first two games at the Civic Centre is huge, and I personally believe the North Stars need to win both of those games before heading on the road for games three and four.
The Bombers boast a record of 11-4-2 over the past six seasons in home playoff games, while posting a 7-11-5 record in road playoff games. If the North Stars can win the first two games and split the next two in Flin Flon, they would have a huge opportunity to finish the series on home ice.
Game one is especially important, as the Bombers will be without four regulars who will be serving the second of their two-game suspensions following the brawl from game four against Weyburn. Jason Lavallee, Brandon Lesko, Joseph Leonidas and Brandon Masson will be out of the lineup for the Bombers in game one, giving the North Stars a huge opportunity to jump out to a series lead.
Newton will likely be the guy in net for the Bombers in this series, and he actually made his SJHL debut against the North Stars when the two teams first met October 3 in Flin Flon, making 39 saves in an 8-4 victory. That was the only game he played against the North Stars as Robidoux started the other five.
Tyler Fuhr has an 11-1-1 record for the North Stars, including playoffs, since being picked up from the Estevan Bruins. While he didn't have a ton of success against the Bombers during the season as a whole, with a 2-3 record and .878 save percentage, with his new team he is 2-0 with a .945 save percentage against Flin Flon.
While the North Stars 14-game winning streak snapped in game four against Kindersley, they are riding a 12-game winning streak on home ice, including playoffs. The last time the North Stars lost at the Civic Centre was January 9 against Estevan. The Bruins goalie in that game? Tyler Fuhr.
The players to watch for in this series are the usual suspects. For the North Stars Igor Leonenko had fun playing the Bombers this year with seven goals and four assists in six games. Reed Delainey, who was injured the last time these two teams played and hasn't suited up since, had eight points in four games against Flin Flon. If he's able to play in this series, he'll be a difference maker.
For the Bombers, their top line all had success against the North Stars this year. Alex Smith had nine points in six games, Brandon Switzer had 10 points in five games and Joel Kocur also had 10 points in six games.
While the scores played a big factor in the animosity between these two teams when they finished off their regular season series, that intensity will rise shortly after the puck drops Friday night.
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