No matter the outcome of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs this year — one thing will be on the minds of hockey fans as the Humboldt Broncos take to the ice for their first playoff series since the bus crash.

But, the Estevan Bruins are focused on the hockey yet to be played.

It was nearly one year ago when the Estevan Bruins won their semi-final SJHL playoff series against the Battlefords North Stars in five games.

That Thursday April night last season when the Bruins toppled the league runner-up North Stars — a team they faced and lost to in the playoffs several times in recent years — was a huge moment for a team that previously hadn’t made an appearance in the SJHL championship since the team’s last win in 1999.

“That was a real thrill,” Bruins head coach and GM Chris Lewgood told CTV News. “We were ecstatic for overcoming that hurdle, that was the fourth time in five years and to on the fourth try get by them that was a big accomplishment for our group.”

After the Game 5 win, all they had to do was wait to find out who their opponent would be: the winner of the other semi-final series between the Nipawin Hawks and the Humboldt Broncos.

“To know that we were getting up against a very good team whether it be Humboldt or Nipawin, we knew we had our hands full and it was going to be a heck of a series,” Lewgood recalled.

Less than 24 hours after the Bruins’ huge win, the Broncos bus crashed en route to Nipawin for Game 5, killing 16 and injuring another 13 of the team’s players and staff.

After rebuilding nearly the entire team between the crash in April and the start of the season in September, the Humboldt Broncos have returned as competitive as ever this season, racking up a total of 35 wins to secure a playoff spot.

The team’s first postseason series since the crash sets up the championship matchup that never was: Humboldt against Estevan.

Lewgood says his team is more so looking forward at the series ahead and the team’s long term goal of an SJHL championship over what happened nearly a year ago.

“This year’s group, aside from a couple players on their team, it’s two different hockey teams,” Lewgood said. “That’s not really a factor for us as far as our series goes. It doesn’t diminish our thoughts and what everybody thinks about that tragedy, and the guys, the people that were lost and forever effected by that, but they’re two totally different things in my opinion and I know that resonates with a lot of our players.”

“The 2018-19 Humboldt Broncos aren’t the 2017-18 Humboldt Broncos and our focus is on beating those guys and being adversaries, whereas the whole world and specifically Saskatchewan and the hockey community will forever feel tied to last year’s version of the Broncos.”

This season, the Bruins have adopted the slogan “Unfinished Business,” referring to their loss in the championship against Nipawin once postseason play continued around a week after the crash.

The highly contested and emotional series took a full seven games to settle, leaving the Bruins hungrier than ever to snap a two-decade championship drought.

“We feel like we just left a little bit out there, and it wasn’t for a lack of effort,” said Lewgood. “The term that we kept hearing from guys is they’re excited to get back because they have a bit of ‘Unfinished Business’”.

“We know that we have our hands full here on out with the quality teams remaining, but our team’s goal from the outset has been to win an SJHL championship.”

The Bruins and Broncos haven’t clashed since November and the black and yellow have yet to win over the green and yellow this season.

Lewgood says the team’s last loss to Humboldt on November 22 marked a serious turning point for the team, who struggled out of the gate.

“We knew that we were capable of much more than we had been putting in, and we’ve kept that on the white board in the locker room the date ‘November 22’ has stayed in black marker on the white board in our locker room from that day until now,” said Lewgood. “We’ve turned things around, we’ve come with a better mindset, we’ve worked harder, and we’ve become a lot closer group since then.”

Game 1 of the Bruins/Broncos series is set for Friday at Affinity Place in Estevan.