When the 2018-19 playoffs begin for the Estevan Bruins, they will have home ice advantage for games one and two. Statistically, however, they are the underdog to the Humboldt Broncos.
The Broncos finished the season with a record of 35-19-3, good for 74 points and sixth place overall. They were led offensively by Braden Camrud and Michael Clarke, with Clarke posting 28 goals and 71 points to pace the team in both categories.
"Humboldt is a formidable opponent, just like six others would've been," said Bruins head coach and GM Chris Lewgood. "We feel that this year there wasn't a lot of separation between the top six or seven or eight teams in the league and for that reason we knew we'd have a tough opponent. I think the season series with Humboldt speaks to their quality of play, but it's also a little misleading."
The season series between the Bruins and Broncos tilted distinctly in favor of Humboldt in the 2018-19 season. That doesn't seem to bother the Bruins though. If anything, it seemed to be an added bit of motivation.
"We haven't spoken about Humboldt as a group," said Lewgood. "I would like to think that the pride, character, and confidence in our room means our guys would like to play those guys again and maybe atone for some of the missed opportunities from the year."
The Bruins and Broncos haven't played against each other since November 22, a 5-1 Humboldt victory at Affinity Place to sweep the season series. In that time, both teams have made some key additions and come a long way.
"We were without Devan Harrison at the time, who's now become one of our top four defensemen," Lewgood said. "Devan's played a pretty key role for our team since joining us in early December, and he's probably the best suited defenseman for playing against their transition game. We were also without two of our top three centremen in Tanner Manz and Will Koop."
The Broncos have made additions of their own, scooping up Mitch Zambon from La Ronge at the start of December. Zambon has 17 points in 28 games since joining the Broncos. More impressive have been the contributions of Drew Warkentine. A former Melfort Mustang, Warkentine has amassed 24 goals in just 33 games since he returned to Humboldt after beginning his SJHL career there in 2015-16.
On defense, Josh Patrician leads the way with 39 points, while former Bruin Mark Edmands and rookie Chase Felgueiras log major minutes. In goal, the tandem of Rayce Ramsay and Dayne Dow hold the fort. The youngster Ramsay has superior stats, with a 2.73 GAA and .923 save percentage, but Dow leads the way with 34 games played and a 19-12-4 record.
The biggest gun for the Broncos against the Bruins, however, has been Camrud. In his four games against them, he piled up an impressive four goals and six assists. He was also a major thorn in the Bruins side, drawing several penalties.
"His play as a hockey player is something we'll have to key on," Lewgood said. "He's one of their top guns and a guy we're going to be mindful of. As far as the agitating goes, it's not going to be a factor. Our guys are going to be focused."
The Broncos were struck by the tragedy of the team bus crash last year on April 6 that killed 16 members of their organization. This is their first trip to the playoffs since, and that will attract some extra attention. The Bruins bench boss didn't see that throwing his team off, however.
"I don't think the 2017-18 Humboldt Broncos have a whole lot to do with this," he said, "save for the two members of their team that are returning this year."
"If there's media attention," he added, "it's not a concern. We've dealt with media attention in the past and at a far higher level than what we'll see here. At the end of the day, it's about hockey."
On paper, based on the season series and their records, the Broncos appear the clear favorite. The Bruins do have some advantages, however. Eleven players on the current roster went all the way to game seven of the finals last season, and several of those who didn't have a wealth of playoff experience elsewhere, making this an extremely battle-tested group.
"Turner Ripplinger has won a BCHL championship," Lewgood said. "Will Koop has won a Manitoba league championship, those are two of our veterans. We've got Bryce Platt, who's played in a Memorial Cup all the way to the final. These guys are key components to our locker room, to go along with the veteran players we have who've been right to the final step here."
The tentative start date for the series is Friday, March 15 at Affinity Place. A more detailed schedule will soon follow.