Sunday, 20 November 2016

It’s not all bad for Blades

Saskatoon needs to stay in mix for January

Braylon Shmyr zips up ice for the Blades.
    If you’re a fan of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, you might be panicking like the sky is fall or groaning that it is “here we go again” time.
    Starting Thursday, “the Bridge City Bunch” began a stretch where they play three games in three nights and fell convincingly each night out. On Thursday night, the Blades fell at home 5-1 to the Moose Jaw Warriors (13-4-4).
    On Friday, Saskatoon hit the road for Brandon and was thrashed 8-1 at the hands of the Wheat Kings (12-7-3). The Blades and Wheat Kings went at it again on Saturday, and Brandon came away with a 6-3 victory.
    Thanks to this current three-game skid, the Blades fell to 9-14-1 and sit ninth overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference standings. They are two points behind the Lethbridge Hurricanes (9-11-1-2) for eighth overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and the conference’s final berth in the WHL playoffs. The Hurricanes also have one game in hand on the Blades.
    Trailing both of those teams in the standings is the Calgary Hitmen (8-9-2). The Hitmen are one point behind the Blades with five games in hand and three points behind the Hurricanes with four games in hand.
    With Saskatoon having not made the playoffs since 2013, fans might worry the Blades are hitting that November wall, which could adversely affect the team’s post-season chances. The grind of the WHL schedule usually kicks in for most teams when the calendar turns to November, and with a club that hasn’t experienced much success in recent years like the Blades, Saskatoon fans likely have that sinking feeling.
    It also has to be said that all hope is not lost. While this might sound strange, the Blades will be in good shape, if they remain in the playoff hunt when January begins.
    From September to the end of December, Saskatoon’s regular season schedule is really road heavy. The Blades play 15 times at home and 24 times on the road.
    When the new year starts, the Blades regular season schedule rounds out with 21 home dates and 12 road contests. That schedule will work in Saskatoon’s advantage.
    If you in a playoff chase, you want to be playing at home as much as possible down the stretch when the pressure heats up. It helps a little more with keeping your team in a somewhat regular and consistent daily routine, and you also have the chance to catch an opponent in a bus lagged moment, which creates a chance for an easier win.
Goaltender Logan Flodell has been solid for the Blades.
    The Blades also have some bright spots to potentially lean on. Despite the recent losses, goaltender Logan Flodell is having a strong campaign. The Regina product has posted an 8-7 record, a 3.05 goals against average, a .913 save percentage and two shutouts.
    He will likely be the workhorse the Blades rely on during the second half.
    Gritty right-winger Mason McCarty has had a good start netting 14 goals and seven assists in 24 games to lead the Blades in scoring. The defensive pairing of overager Bryton Sayers and Czech import Libor Hajek have been a duo you can lean on.
    Sayers has three goals, nine assists and an even rating in the plus-minus department. Hajek, who is a second round NHL Entry Draft selection of the Tampa Bay Lightning, has 10 assists and a minus-five rating in 22 appearances.
    Saskatoon has stayed in the hunt so far despite having a trio of key players out with extended injuries. Star centre Cameron Hebig has been gone the entire season to date with an upper body injury.
    Last season, Hebig had 26 goals and 43 assists in 59 games. His offensive touch would be a huge addition back to the active roster whenever he returns.
    Left-winger Jesse Shynkaruk has missed 13 games with an upper body injury. He was off to a nice start with six goals and three assists in 11 games. The local overage product is set to come off the injury list.
Libor Hajek controls the puck at the point for the Blades.
    As a result of that development, the Blades dealt overage left-winger Ryan Graham to the Swift Current Broncos on Sunday in exchange for a second round selection in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft and a 4th round selection in the 2018 Bantam Draft.
    The move keeps the Blades active roster at the maximum of three overage players including Shynkaruk, Sayers and left-winger Kolten Olynek.
    Defenceman Jake Kustra has been down for 15 games with an upper body injury, and he was expected to be a solid piece on the back end as a 17-year-old sophomore.
    Had Hebig, Shynkaruk and Kustra not missed significant time, the Blades would likely have had a better record to date.
    Dean Brockman has had to do some juggling as a rookie WHL head coach. Before joining the Blades as an assistant coach in June of 2014, Brockman had a storied stay in the junior A ranks with the Humboldt Broncos, where he developed the reputation of being a players’ coach. He has the ability to make his players see the way.
    The Blades return to action on Tuesday, when they travel to Swift Current to face the Broncos (11-7-2-4). That contest provides another chance to stay afloat. If the Blades can remain in the playoff hunt through a tough first four months, the light is at the end of the tunnel.

Hilltops celebrate another championship campaign

Hilltops RB Logan Fischer shares the Canadian Bowl with some young fans.
    The Saskatoon Hilltops are enjoying the spoils of another Canadian Junior Football League championship.
    The Toppers claimed the Canadian Bowl with a 37-25 victory over the Westshore Rebels on Nov. 12 in Langford, B.C. The win marked the third straight year the Hilltops claimed the Canadian Bowl, and they became the first team to win six CJFL titles over a seven year period. Saskatoon has won a total of 19 CJFL championships.
    For just over the past week, the Hilltops have been enjoying the well wishes from the citizens of Saskatoon. On Saturday, they enjoyed their year-end Len Richardson Memorial Awards Banquet at the Radisson Hotel.
    The event featured lots of praise for outgoing starting star quarterback in the humble Jared Andreychuk. Andreychuk became the first Hilltops quarterback to start and win three straight CJFL championship games posting a perfect career 9-0 post-season record. He also was a member of a Hilltops CJFL championship team in 2012 as the backup quarterback.
    He was named the most valuable player of the Prairie Football Conference this past season, and on Saturday, he claimed the Drs. Landa-Doig Award as the Hilltops most outstanding graduate. During the banquet, the Hilltops players often chanted “MVP” or called out “Goat” for greatest of all-time for Andreychuk because of his accomplishments.
    He took all the praise with a bit of an embarrassed smile.
    Also at the banquet, Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant gave a good shout out for the efforts of this blog in covering his team. The shout out was big time appreciated.
    On Sunday, the Hilltops made rounds with the Canadian Bowl trophy at the Santa Claus parade held in downtown Saskatoon. During the odd moment, star running back Logan Fischer brought the trophy over to groups of children for them to see and touch.
    The Hilltops were one of three Saskatoon-based teams at the parade with championship hardware. The Saskatoon Valkyries brought their championship trophy for winning the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, and the Saskatchewan Rush brought the Champion’s Cup for winning the National Lacrosse League title.
    Like the Valkyries and Rush, the Hilltops are likely to make a number of rounds to various stops in the city with their CJFL championship trophy.

Back in the Express with Huskies Zary

Captain Lauren Zary (#13) speeds up ice for the Huskies.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with a cover story on Lauren Zary, who is the captain of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team.
    Zary is in her fifth and final year of eligibility and joined the Huskies after playing for Brown University in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Before joining the post-secondary ranks, Zary was a star with the Saskatoon Stars midget AAA team.
    The story seemed to be well-timed one. On Friday night at the ancient Rutherford Rink, Zary had a goal and three assists as the Huskies downed the University of Calgary Dinos 5-3. The Huskies followed that game up by blanking the Dinos 2-0 on Saturday night at Rutherford.
    With the wins, the Huskies, who are rated ninth in the U Sports top 10 rankings, improved to 9-3 to sit second in the Canada West Conference standings.
    The U of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team split a pair of road games on the weekend in Calgary. On Friday, they downed the U of Calgary Dinos 5-0. On Saturday, the Dinos claimed a 2-1 decision after a tiebreaking shootout against the Huskies.
    With those results, the Huskies mens’ team, who are rated third in the U Sports top 10 rankings, saw their record move to 8-2-2 to sit second in Canada West.
    The Huskies hockey teams return to action this coming weekend against the U of Manitoba Bisons.
    The Huskies women’s team hosts the Bisons this Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and 5 p.m. respectively at Rutherford. The Huskies men’s team travels to Winnipeg to face the Bisons this Friday and Saturday.
    The Saskatoon Express cover story on Zary can be found here.

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