They're separated by over 800 kilometres, a provincial border, and a whole lot of farmland.

Yet something, call it the hockey gods or some other force of nature, has brought Estevan and Flin Flon - two passionate Junior A hockey communities - together over the past year.

First, it was the 2022 SJHL Finals, a series that was never supposed to be as good as it was. A powerhouse Bruins squad, bolstered by the likes of former major junior players like Mark Rumsey, Olivier Pouliot, Eric Houk, and Eric Pearce, was supposed to steamroll an underdog, scrappy Bombers team and their passionate fans.

Only that never happened. The series went the distance, a full seven game marathon with hours of travel, stress, and behind the scenes antics in between. It spanned exactly two weeks. In the end, the Bruins prevailed, and the SJHL trophy was handed out at Affinity Place on a warm Friday night in early May. It was a series that no hockey fan in either community will ever forget.

Now, roughly 300 days later, the two clubs will meet again, this time in the first round of the the 2023 SJHL playoffs.

"It's a rivalry, for sure from last year," said Bruins forward Keagon Little, just hours before he and his teammates boarded a bus to Flin Flon as they prepare for Game 1 at the Whitney Forum Friday night. "Guys are really ready for it...we're going to go up there and we're going to give it our all, and see how it goes from there."

"Very excited, and I think the fans are too."

Little said it's a matchup that he and many of his returning teammates wanted.

"It was a battle that's for sure...last year's finals. I think all our returning guys want another piece of them. And I think they're the same way, they wanted to play us too," Little said. "I think it's going to be great for the fans, they want it as well, so I think it's going to be great for everything."

Ditto Bruins captain Kade Runke.

"Clinching that sixth place, I think we were all pleased to see that we're going back up to Flin Flon to re-create that championship final series," Runke said. "It's going to be a good one."

"I think the returning guys are a little more excited than the new guys. But we've shown them the rivalry...everyone knows the rivalry, how big it is, and it's just going to be really exciting."

SJHL TrophyFormer Bruins captain Eric Houk hoists the SJHL championship trophy alongside his teammates last May. (File photo)

If the Bruins want to play into April this year, they'll have to find a way to win at least one game at the raucous Whitney Forum, something a Jason Tatarnic-led Bruins team has failed to do in the last five tries, including three losses in the 2022 league finals, in what was as deafening of an atmosphere as you'll find in junior hockey anywhere in Canada.

Runke knows full well how difficult it is to win in Flin Flon, particularly in the playoffs.

"Everyone just says start on time, but I think we've got to do that plus a little more," Runke said. "Play our game and we've got to be really consistent up there in Flin Flon. They always start on time, they're pretty rough up there, but we've got to play our game and start on time."

Speaking of time, the Bruins will have to contend with a time change once again, just as they did last spring. Daylight savings time is now in effect, meaning the Bruins will lose an hour each time they cross into the Manitoba border during the series.

Game 1 at the Whitney Forum is scheduled for Friday night at 7:30 Manitoba time, which is 6:30 Saskatchewan time.

The team will skate at the Whitney Forum on Thursday night.

Speaking earlier this week prior to his team's final regular season game against Weyburn, Bruins head coach and GM Jason Tatarnic downplayed the rivalry, instead focusing on the task at hand.

"Playoffs come play who you have to play," Tatarnic said. "You have to play against good teams to win a championship. So there's no easy opponent this year I don't think for anyone...I think there's tough matchups all across the league."

"Obviously Flin Flon is a tough one. I don't know...they might want to have us, they might not want to play us, but we have each other so we may as well reacquaint ourselves."

The narrative around the higher-seeded Bombers right now seems to centre around major injuries. According to Bombers broadcaster Rob Hart, top sniper Cole Duperreault is out and could miss the entire series. Fellow returnees Jeremi Tremblay and Matt Egan will also be out, at least to start the series. Forward Zach Cain is also banged up.

Forwards Jaeden Mercier and Jacob Vockler, who both played in the finals last year, are expected to be ready for Friday night.

"They've been marred with injuries," Hart said. "I know the Whitney Forum has been a tough place to win games in the past, but Flin Flon is going to be missing some key guys to open things up."

"I'm very interested to see what the Bruins bring for the first two games...I think they got a really good chance to win one game in Flin Flon this year."

Hart doesn't expect another home-dominant series, as was the case in the 2022 finals.

"I don't think it will be that way this year...I think these teams are both capable of winning on the road. Both teams are really good at home, but I honestly feel that neither team has near the depth that they had last year," he said.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the two teams split the first four games, winning in each other's rink. I guarantee that home ice is not going to be as big a factor as it was last spring."

And as if this series needed anymore storylines, there's a guy by the name of Alex Von Sprecken, a former fan favourite in Estevan who now wears enemy colours in Flin Flon. The Estevan-born hard-nosed defenceman was traded north earlier in the season.

Last word goes to Little, who talked about going up against his former teammate.

"He's just a guy that competes a lot...he just plays hard," Little said. "That's just Alex, he played hard last year, he played hard for us and he's going to play hard for Flin Flon. So I don't expect anything less from him, he competes."

"But we've got to just focus on our own game and play our own game and everything will go from there."

If there's one thing thing we can say for certain about this matchup, it's this: one of these two proud organizations will be eliminated from playoff contention this year well before the Prairie snow melts.

The Bruins are trying to defend their title from a year ago, while the Bombers are trying to end a lengthy championship drought that dates all the way back to 1993. 

Add it all up and you've got the makings of an epic first round series, one that players and fans alike all wanted. And they got it.