The champions of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s 50th Anniversary season are the Battlefords North Stars.
They did it by beating the Melfort Mustangs 7-2 Friday night at the Civic Centre. The North Stars win the Canalta Cup four games to one.
The final buzzer touched off a wild celebration on the ice. The near-capacity Civic Centre crowd of 2,300 went wild as league president Bill Chow presented team captain Cody Spagrud with the Cup.
"Unreal," was Spagrud's reaction to winning the Cup. "It's been unreal. This whole season has built up to this and we got it done, so I couldn't be more happy with our guys."
The clinching game was a euphoric end to what had been the most difficult season in the SJHL's history, with the aftermath of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy dominating the league's affairs. The high level of play seen in the playoffs allows the SJHL season to end on a much-needed high note.
For the North Stars it is the third league title in franchise history, and the second in three years. Unlike the last North Stars Cup which was won on the road in Flin Flon, this title was captured at home, which was particularly special for the club veterans.
"It's a lot nicer when you're winning at home," Spagrud said. "This atmosphere is insane, I'm loving it, it's been great."
It was also the second Cup for goaltender Joel Grzybowski, who was named playoff MVP with an incredible save percentage of .950.
"Second time around, I didn't know if it would be quite as enjoyable but it's proven to be just as much or more," he said.
When asked about performance in the playoffs, Grzybowski responded "I'd like to think I really raised my game going into the playoffs." Focus was the key for him.
"I've just got to focus on stopping the puck and don't let anything else get into my head, and that's what I did."
Grzybowski often had to stand on his head to bail out his team in the early rounds. Not surprisingly, he was happy with the outburst of offence by his teammates in the final series, with six goals in game four and seven in the clinching game. "It made my life so much easier," he said.
The playoffs had also seen outstanding performances by the Loon-Stewardson brothers, Quintin and Elijah. Quintin had ten goals and nine assists in the postseason including two in game five, leading the club in scoring. Elijah, meanwhile, had four goals and eight assists, including two assists in Game Five.
"We just had to keep going, keep our attack going and pressure," Elijah said. "We work good together so whenever we're moving the puck to each other we find open areas and it pays off."
""Things happen pretty easy when you have that skill of linemates," said Quintin of the ten goals he scored in the playoffs. "It's fun. I can't really complain."
He also said the team was not done yet, pointing to the Anavet Cup and then the national Jr. A title as the next goals.
"We've accomplished one and we're going to keep working towards the others."
This was a title the North Stars were not supposed to win. The pundits had predicted a rebuilding season for the North Stars after the loss to graduation of high-scoring veterans from last year’s team.
But in the second half of the season it all came together for the North Stars, and they went on a run of 12-4 in the postseason to win the Cup. Credit had to go to Brayden Klimosko and his coaching staff, as Klimosko hoisted the Cup in his first year as head coach and GM with the team.
Not only did Klimosko raise the Cup, but he also got doused by a bucket of Gatorade by the players in the mob scene that followed: a fitting end to the SJHL portion of the North Stars season.
How game five unfolded:
Once again the North Stars entered Game Five without the services of either Dayton Heino or Ryan Gil, each serving the second game of a two-game suspension for hits in game three.
It did not take long for the scoring to start. Unfortunately, it was not the start North Stars fans wanted: Justin Ball caught the defence napping, moved in on the breakaway on Grzybowski and scored on Melfort’s very first shot of the game. It was an unassisted goal at 5:43 of the first period.
The North Stars rebounded quickly, however. With Melfort star Tanner Zentner sent to the penalty box for tripping, Braydon Buziak tied the game on a power play goal from Owen Lamb and Cody Spagrud at 10:44.
Then it was the turn of the Loon-Stewardson brothers to light up the scoreboard again. It was Quintin Loon-Stewardson’s ninth of the postseason, from Elijah Loon-Stewardson and Spagrud again, at 14:39.
Moments later at the 15:17 mark it was Buziak’s turn to go on a breakaway, and he beat Noah Giesbrecht to give the North Stars a 3-1 lead, with Spagrud getting his third assist of the night.
That was all the scoring through one, with the North Stars leading in shots 11-10.
In period two, Macgregor Sinclair went in on a breakaway of his own and he scored, making it 4-1.
But a questionable penalty call to Brett Gammer for hooking led to a Melfort goal. Tanner Zentner scored from Kayle Tosh and Justin Ball to cut it to 4-2.
With 1:24 left, Quintin Loon-Stewardson got his tenth of the playoffs from Buziak and Spagrud, to give the North Stars a 5-2 cushion through two periods.
The North Stars received a thunderous ovation as they took the ice for the third period, and they raised the roof soon after on a power play goal by Austin Shumanski, his second of the playoffs. Quintin and Elijah Loon-Stewardson assisted.
Frustrations finally boiled over with 8:16 remaining. After a Melfort flurry in front of Grzybowski that failed to result in a goal, the fists started flying as both teams piled up in front of the net. Kayle Tosh was tossed with a game misconduct and roughing penalties. It was finally determinded that a penalty shot would be awarded to Melfort’s Justin Ball on the play.
That gave Grzybowski a chance to deliver one final punctuation point to his MVP playoff run, as he easily turned Ball’s shot aside.
The final goal came from Sinclair into the empty net with 4:09 remaining for the 7-2 final score.
Next up for the North Stars is a much-needed few days off while they await a winner in game seven between Swan Valley and Portage in the MJHL finals. The SJHL and MJHL champions meet in the next series for the Anavet Cup.