"And after 14 years... BRUINS VS. WINGS!"
(Sorry for the bad Raymond Bourque impression. But it's hard not to get excited for this series.)
Seriously, can you believe these two teams haven't faced off in a playoff series since 1998? It just seems so surreal to me that when your division only has six teams, you could go that long without one of the league's best rivalries being contested in the post-season.
Without question, this series will be an uphill battle for the Bruins. The Wings were first in the Sherwood this season for a reason. And while the Bruins are fully focused on going deep this year, they're definitely built to contend moreso in the next two or three years.
In order to give themselves a chance to win, the Bruins will have to shut down Weyburn's top line of Jesse Ross, Coltyn Sanderson and Keegan Bruce. They all had breakout campaigns, finishing in the top six in SJHL scoring. Ross led the league with 91 points and was named player of the year. Sanderson finished fourth in the league with 81, and Bruce led the circuit in assists with 53.
Certainly this is doable for the Bruins. Whether it's the Jelinski line or the Whitehill line assigned to the Wings' top unit, they have players who are capable in a shutdown role. Still, it is a tall order.
And let's not fall into the mistake of thinking Weyburn is a one-line team. Miguel Pereira and Jordon Hoffman each scored at over a point-per-game clip after being acquired mid-season, and Jack Kennelly is no slouch either.
That being said, if the Bruins have their young guys like Brykaliuk and Froese going (and if Reich is ready to return), I think they have the Wings beat in terms of depth up front.
One thing is for sure — the Bruins need Dylan Smith to get his game back if they're going to win this series. The Dochylo-Jelinski-Paslawski line has pretty much carried them offensively for the last six weeks. It's great to see them step up on the scoresheet, but the Bruins need all hands on deck and Smith, their top scorer, has really struggled in the last month or two. After being on the third and fourth lines for a while, he was reunited with Calder Neufeld and Cole Olson for the survivor series, but still didn't do a whole lot out there. Neufeld and Olson were both very good in the series.
Weyburn's defence corps is underrated in my opinion, but with the Bruins' acquisitions and players stepping up in the second half, I don't think there's a whole lot to separate the two groups.
Jens Johnson really emerged as a solid defenceman this year for the Wings, and Ryan Whitell is also a guy they count on, although he's been splitting his time between forward and defence, so who knows where he'll play. Dylan Coupal is a strong stay-at-home blueliner. The question here is whether the Wings will get injured d-man Carter Struthers back. For all the attention Austin Yano got this year, Struthers put up similar numbers as a rookie and he is huge at 6-foot-5. It will be a big blow if he isn't available.
The Bruins entered the season with a very young blueline that was the clear weakness of the team. Since then, Yano and Tyler Kauk have blown people away with their poise, reliability and endurance as 18-year-olds. If you take them away, I think the Bruins don't have home ice advantage in the survivor series, at the very least. (Have I mentioned lately that Kauk was robbed of SJHL rookie of the year?)
Dom Perrault has really turned it around in the second half after struggling mightily at points in the first 35-40 games. He's a very fiery player who is at his best when he's right on that line between nastiness and undisciplined play. He led the league in penalty minutes and has been making valuable contributions at both ends of the ice recently.
Connor Milligan has been a strong shutdown defenceman since his acquisition, while getting some power play time as well. I think Tyler Poskus exceeded the Bruins' wildest expectations after being acquired in November. He has played a lot of minutes at times while showing he can be reliable in his own end and provide some offence from the back end as well. Zach MacLellan has been as advertised, bringing a two-way game and scoring a couple of big goals in recent weeks. And Denin Boesch is a very capable third pairing guy who can draw in if needed without hurting the team.
In goal, this series features a grizzled vet against a strong rookie. Mitch Kilgore didn't have to be his team's saviour on many nights this season, as was predicted, but he is a very good guy to have in your net at playoff time. If he plays the way he did in last year's playoffs against Kindersley, the Bruins will have a very hard time getting anything past him.
Steven Glass, meanwhile, turned in some of his best performances all year in the survivor series. He was unbeatable in the first period of Game 1, where the Hounds fired 20 shots on goal and easily could have scored two or three. That was crucial, as a bad start to such a short series could have been disastrous for the Bruins.
The Bruins' biggest edge in this series, on paper, is special teams, particularly the power play. The Bruins clicked at a 23.9 per cent success rate with the man-advantage, a full percentage point ahead of Yorkton and far ahead of everyone else. Weyburn's power play was ninth at 18.6 per cent, though to be fair they were right behind two other teams.
Estevan's penalty kill is third at 82.8 per cent, with Weyburn not far behind at 82.1, good for fifth.
If the Bruins can feed off the home crowd, that will likely be an advantage too. I have no doubt that both barns will be packed, but with Crescent Point Place having a much lower seating capacity, I would say we'll see more people at the Estevan games. Of course, many of them will be from Weyburn so maybe this won't play much of a role.
See you in Weyburn tonight!