With a group of fans cheering them on, and an escort to the city limits from the Weyburn Police Service, the Richardson Pioneer Weyburn Red Wings departed for North Battleford Thursday afternoon, ahead of the start of their best-of-seven quarterfinal series with the North Stars Friday night.
“We’ve got to play well and make sure we buy into everything we’ve been preaching here lately, and, you know, giving ourselves a chance,” said head coach Cody Mapes ahead of loading the bus. “They’ve obviously got a great team there, and we believe in our group, so it’ll be a good series.”
The North Stars are arguably the favourites heading into this series. In fact, Mapes pointed out that the club, which was the top-ranked team in Canada for much of the whole season, would be considered the favourite playing any of the other 120+ Junior A clubs in Canada.
The numbers, though, do paint a different picture and show some of the gaps in the armour of the regular season’s top team.
Since the start of January, the North Stars have posted picked up 20 wins, and just five losses in regulation. Those five losses in regulation were also the only losses they had all season. Then, there are their special teams.
While the North Stars have boasted one of the top power plays all season long, they seem to struggle anytime they are shorthanded, especially since January 1st. They have had a penalty kill percentage of just 74.8%, giving up 24 power play goals in those 25 games.
Then, let’s factor in their goal-scoring.
Yes, the North Stars have managed to score 131 goals in the past 2.5 months, but once you break down when those goals were scored, it becomes a very different story.
Of the eight teams in the playoffs, the North Stars only managed to score five or more goals against those teams twice in the second half of the season. The majority of the goals they scored were against the other four teams, with Kindersley, Notre Dame, Yorkton and Melville giving up a combined 86 goals against the North Stars. That is 65.6% of their goals for coming against 1/3 of the teams in the league.
To bring those numbers back down to reality a little more, the North Stars have given up just 68 goals since January 1st. This is very impressive, considering their goaltenders faced 922 shots. That is a save percentage, combined between all goaltenders on the roster, of .926. When you look at where those goals came from, it does show a slightly different story.
Forty-five of those goals scored on the North Stars came in games against the teams that made the playoffs. The save percentage against those teams works out to .854. It means that the other seven teams that made the playoffs have found ways to score, often. To break it down a little more, it also shows the North Stars have come out even against playoff-bound opponents, 45 goals for and 45 goals against.
When during the game the Battlefords scores their goals is also important to look at. The North Stars finished the regular season with 284 goals in all. Nearly half of those goals – 41.2 percent – came in the third period. If a team is able to shut down the offence of the North Stars in the third, they stand a strong chance of being able to topple the top-ranked team heading into the postseason.
Now that we have looked at the North Stars, let’s take a look at how Weyburn has fared since January 1st.
Since the start of the new year, the Red Wings have won 15 of their 26 games. The 11 losses included two in overtime.
Over the course of those games, Weyburn scored 96 goals and allowed 85. The 96 goals were also more than half of their season total of 181, which means the Red Wings have definitely poured things on in the second half of the season.
We have mentioned the penalty kill for the North Stars, but the one from the Red Wings has been rather strong as of late. The Red Wings have boasted a penalty kill percentage of 81.6 percent in the second half of the campaign, which has helped them to elevate their games, picking up those wins needed to climb into a playoff spot. Considering the Red Wings were the most penalized team in the league, they have definitely been able to cover things off when needed. However, with the top power play in the league being their opening round opponents, it will be key for the Wings to avoid going to the box altogether.
The Red Wings have also managed to put together some pretty strong numbers in terms of shooting percentage (10.53% on the road, 10.9% at home), while also limiting the shooting percentage of their opponents (9.53% overall) which works out to a save percentage for the Weyburn goalies of .901, slightly behind the North Stars.
The depth of the roster is also a key part of the season for the Red Wings. While much has been said about the four top goal scorers for the Wings – Ryley Morgan, Ty Mason, Jakob Kalin and Jackson Hassman – the Red Wings finished the year with six players with ten or more goals all year, and just three players who didn’t score a goal all season out of the regulars in the lineup. It should also be worth noting those three payers – Nolan Henderson, Carter Briltz and Rhett Vedress – also skated in a total of 60 games total.
Defensively, the Red Wings also have a lot of depth and strength, randing from veteran blueliners like Henderson, Jordan Edwards and Ian Maier, with second-year players like Blake Norris and Nick Kovacs, and strong rookies such as Vedress, Dallen Oxelgren and Lucas Jeffreys, who was actually named the team’s top rookie.
There is also the case of history.
The last time the Red Wings had four players score 20 or more goals in a season was in 2011-12. That year, the Red Wings went to the SJHL finals, while the North Stars were eliminated in the second round. There is also the added storyline of an upset. Nearly every year there is an upset in the SJHL playoffs.
Last year, the upset was when the Yorkton Terriers knocked off the Melfort Mustangs. In 2019, the Terriers were again the surprise team in the first round when they knocked off the Nipawin Hawks. The 2016 playoffs saw the Red Wings be the victim of an upset when they fell to the Flin Flon Bombers.
While many pundits outside of the SJHL, and even outside of Weyburn, may have written off the Weyburn Red Wings, the fans of one of the most storied Junior A franchises in Canada haven’t. This is a team that has managed to gel together on and off the ice and has shown tenacity, skill and determination. While the North Stars have been the big dogs this year, everyone loves a good underdog story.