The Estevan Bruins and Flin Flon Bombers will kick off their much-anticipated first round playoff series Friday night at the Whitney Forum in Flin Flon, Manitoba.
As we get you set for puck drop, here are five storylines to watch for as the two bitter rivals collide once again.
1. The Forum Factor
It's no secret the Whitney Forum is one of the toughest rinks for opposing teams to play in, particularly in the playoffs. The biggest question mark heading into the series is, can the Estevan Bruins, a team that has struggled on the road at times this season, win a playoff game at the Whitney Forum? It will take a collective effort, and if they are able to steal one on the road, they have a good chance to win the series, given how strong this team has been at Affinity Place. But there's no denying the lift that Bombers players get playing in their home rink, and Estevan will have to weather that storm, particularly in Games 1 and 2.
2. The Coaching Battle
There is no love lost between Bruins head coach/GM Jason Tatarnic and Bombers head coach/GM Mike Reagan. The two sparred through out the 2022 SJHL Finals, and now they find their two teams squaring off again.
Both have impressive coaching records. Tatarnic has amassed well over 500 wins in his career and is coming off a big championship win last season, while Reagan, a Flin Flon native, is just shy of the 500 win mark and just signed a multi-year extension with the club.
Reagan would like nothing more than to bring a championship back to his hometown. Bombers fans have been waiting a long time for that, 1993 to be exact. Tatarnic meanwhile, is as competitive of a person as you'll ever meet and absolutely hates losing. Can he instill this attitude amongst his players, and will it be enough to knock off the higher seeded Bombers?
3. Little Big Man
Bruins forward Keagon Little has been outstanding since returning to the team after the Christmas break. Expect Little to lead by example all series long, putting his heart on his sleeve every shift. The Wymark, Sask native is always around the puck, and is always a thorn in the side of his opponents. If he can frustrate the Bombers defenders, and draw penalties as he so often does, it will give the Bruins a leg up.
Estevan native and former Bruin Alex Von Sprecken now wears Flin Flon colours after being traded earlier in the season. As hard-nosed as they come, the 20-year-old defenceman has had a bit of a chip on his shoulder in the ensuing games against Estevan. And you know Von Sprecken, who was a fan-favourite in Estevan, would love to stick it to his former team. Can Von Sprecken keep his emotions in check? And how will his former teammates react? This is a juicy storyline, and one that will likely get fans riled up as the series goes along.
It's the most important position on the ice, and it's no secret that goaltending can often decide a playoff series. These two organizations know all about stellar playoff goaltending. Former Bombers goaltender Cal Schell was sensational in Flin Flon's playoff run last year, ultimately bringing them to within one game of a championship. Meanwhile, former Bruins netminder Boston Bilous was named playoff MVP on his way to guiding the Bruins to the title, headlined by a Game 7 shutout in the finals.
But both Schell and Bilous have graduated from the junior ranks. This series will pit Estevan's Cam Hrdlicka against Flin Flon's Harmon Laser-Hume. Hrdlicka was recently named the team's MVP this season and is as capable of stealing a playoff game on the road as any other goaltender in the league.
Interestingly, both goaltenders made 44 appearances during the regular season, making it a natural comparison. Statistically speaking, Laser-Hume has the edge with a better goals against average and save percentage, but Hrdlicka led the league with five shutouts. Laser-Hume was next with four.
Which of these two goaltenders will give their team the best chance at winning the series?