You have to wonder what the Vegas odds were for the Kindersley Klippers to face the Yorkton Terriers in the Sherwood Conference final entering the SJHL playoffs.
A third versus fifth match-up for a trip to the league final certainly wasn’t on the radar, but the two teams changed that by knocking out the top two Sherwood seeds, the Weyburn Red Wings and Notre Dame Hounds, in the opening round.
The Klippers have been off since Wednesday after sweeping the second-place Hounds, while Yorkton first dispatched hated rival Melville in the elimination series and proceeded to shock the regular season champion Red Wings in only five games.
The Klippers and Terriers were separated by 16 points in the regular season, but this is clearly a different Yorkton squad after a late-season coaching change, a sobering leukemia diagnosis for a teammate and two offensive acquisitions at the January trade deadline.
“It’s a new season. Nobody’s taking anybody lightly. That’s not even in my vocabulary,” said Klippers head coach Larry Wintoneak. “We have a lot of respect for them. They beat the best team in the SJHL and they’re on a roll.
"I think maybe they underachieved a bit (during the season) and their seeds are blooming now. They have a lot of skill, they’re an older team, big and strong.”
Trent Cassan, 26, was thrust into his first head coaching job with eight games left in the regular season when the club fired longtime bench boss Ed Zawatsky and promoted the assistant. Cassan admitted his focus at the time was simply to steady the ship.
“At that time, we really weren’t thinking (this) far ahead. We were just taking it day-to-day for the rest of the year. We talked about a progression as the season went on of getting better each game and that’s the way it has been,” said the former Terrier forward.
“I don’t think anyone really expected us to be here at this point, but we got some confidence beating Melville, and going into the Weyburn series we were definitely underdogs, but our guys had a lot of confidence and believed in themselves.”
Yorkton has some extra motivation in the form of 19-year-old goaltender Luke Boechler, who was diagnosed with leukemia in early February. The Yorkton native has been undergoing treatment in a Regina hospital.
“Luke’s still a big part of our hockey team. We’ve done a good job of trying to keep him as involved as possible, with guys going to see him in Regina and keeping in touch with phone and texts after games,” said Cassan.
“He’s our biggest fan right now. To know what he’s going through, the guys realize there’s nothing in a hockey game that you can’t overcome when you see what your teammate’s going through.”
Boechler was able to make it to Game 2 of the Weyburn series in Yorkton, the first time he had left his hospital room, and the Terriers won that game in overtime to take a 2-0 series lead.
The Klippers played in Yorkton the night the team honoured Boechler and unveiled his jersey at centre ice. Wintoneak said the story has touched his team and served as a reminder that “hockey is a little part of life.”
That said, Kindersley clearly has their own share of inspiration after losing their home rink and the coach said both clubs have to put the issues aside and play.
“We have motivational issues too with the fire, but the bottom line is both teams want to win,” he remarked.
The Klippers and Terriers both boast a balanced attack and consistent goalies in Josh Thorimbert and Devin Peters who are capable of stealing games. Yorkton is known as more of a physical team, but both coaches feel that angle is overblown.
“We know that they’re a physical team too. They play physical, but they play disciplined,” said Cassan of the Klippers. “That’s a big difference from a lot of teams who try to play physical and intimidating, but they spend a lot of time in the box. They (the Klippers) don’t spend much time in the penalty box.
“They’re a very disciplined team as far as playing systems, blocking shots and playing as a team,” he added. “They’re like us, they may not have one or two guys that are going to go out and create chances every shift but they have four lines who can all play and they have depth.”
Wintoneak said his team will continue to focus on disciplined play - a task “easy to say, hard to do” - but won’t shy away from getting their hands dirty.
“All year we have stuck up for each other and we’ll continue to do that,” he reflected. “We’re not going to back away just because some team tries to play physical with us.”
The Terriers are getting more out of their offence than they have all season, which can be attributed in part to Cassan, but also to the addition of 20-year-old forwards Troy Smukowich (Winnipeg South) and Ryan Griffiths (Swan Valley) from the MJHL.
“The knock before was that they couldn’t score goals, they weren’t creative enough, but ever since they made those trades, those kids are starting to blossom now for them,” said Wintoneak.
Smukowich leads the team in playoff scoring with nine goals and 13 points.
“He’s really fit into our dressing room well,” Cassan said of the former Winnipeg captain. “He’s a leader and it’s rubbed off on a lot of our guys.”
Yorkton captain Cody Zubko has also stepped it up with four goals and 11 points to go with his intimidating brand of play. Zubko was suspended for Game 3 of the Weyburn series for a hit on Lucas Ulmer and the Terriers lost their only game of the series in his absence.
“He’s a big, strong guy who’s a tough guy to handle down low,” said Cassan. “He’s been playing physical and strong and that’s the way he needs to play to be successful.”
Other Terriers to watch are right winger Rylan McDonell (5-3-8), who has turned it up a notch in the playoffs, and Adam Moar (1-4-5), a mid-season acquisition from La Ronge who plays with Smukowich and Zubko.
Clark Byczynski, Drew McDermott and rookie Austin Bourhis highlight a Yorkton blueline that plays as more than the sum of its parts.
Taylor Duzan (3-2-5), Kurt Leedahl (1-4-5) and Jordan Braid (1-4-5) led the way offensively for the Klippers against Notre Dame.
Thorimbert leads all SJHL playoff goalies with a goals-against average of 2.00 and ranks second with a .934 save percentage to go with his 4-0 record.
Peters is right behind him with a 2.09 GAA, .933 save percentage and a record of 7-1-1.
The series gets underway Friday and Saturday in Eston, with both games starting at 7:30 p.m.