All three CHL leagues begin playoff action this weekend. There are three particularly interesting games on hand, games that feature a mix of high-end prospects and valuable role players as teams in the OHL, QMJHL, and WHL collide. Meanwhile, the NCAA Tournament begins this weekend, and one matchup in particular is worthy of extra attention. In the AHL, two top scorers from far different backgrounds clash as the AHL season starts to wind down.
Rinat Valiev (Kootenay) vs. Jake Virtanen (Calgary) – WHL
The WHL’s opening round kicks off this weekend, and the series between the Kootenay Ice and Calgary Hitmen figures to be a nasty affair. Two players in particular lead the charge, and may likely see each other quite a bit as line matchups dictate.
Despite missing 20 games due to injury and time spent at the 2015 World Junior Championship, Rinat Valiev (TOR) still managed to finish the season in the top 10 in points-per-game by a defenseman. Known as one of the more calculated defensemen in the league, Valiev has been a physical specimen for Kootenay. Playing for Russia at the World Juniors, Valiev posted three assists in seven games as the team lost to Jake Virtanen (VAN) and his Canadian squad in the finals. With the Ice, Valiev finished the regular season with nine goals and 37 assists in 52 games.
Unlike last season’s playoff run, Jake Virtanen is healthy for the second season. That’s good news for the Hitmen, who will have the WJC gold medalist in the lineup. Virtanen scored one goal and three assists in that prestigious tournament, where he also displayed his physical nature by finishing most of his checks. Back in Calgary, Virtanen scored 21 goals and 31 assists in 50 games.
Matt Garbowsky (RIT) vs. Stephon Williams (Minnesota State) – NCAA
It’s not very often that a coach can put out a Hobey Baker Award finalist in an assignment to shut down the opposition’s best players. But that is exactly who RIT will send out this weekend, where that player will attempt to beat one of the most consistent goaltenders in all of NCAA hockey.
There may not be another player in the NCAA that profiles quite like RIT’s captain, Matt Garbowsky. The Atlantic Hockey Conference recently named Garbowsky as their Offensive, Defensive, and overall Player of the Year, three honors tacked on to his nomination on the final ballot for the Hobey Baker Award. Garbowsky helped RIT to an AHC championship and sits fifth in NCAA scoring with 26 goals and 27 assists in 38 games. The senior forward has been remarkable in the faceoff circle, winning over 60% of his draws as the only player to have taken over 1,000 of them over the course of the season. As an undrafted free agent, Garbowsky will have plenty of suitors when his season comes to a conclusion.
No. 1 Minnesota State junior goaltender Stephon Williams isn’t without his own award nominations, as he is being considered for the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender. The WCHA champions may not have made it there if not for Williams, who has resurrected his career after an abysmal sophomore slump. Williams has ranked highly in crucial categories; his 1.64 goals-against average ranks second in the NCAA, he is third in wins with 25, third in shutouts with 5, and his .926 save-percentage is well within the top 20. The New York Islanders prospect recently set a school record with his 10th career shutout, and appears to be well on track to regaining legitimate prospect status.
Daniel Sprong (Charlottetown) vs. Cameron Darcy (Sherbrooke) – QMJHL
The Charlottetown Islanders are thinking that they can make it out of the first round of the playoffs, thanks in part to a forward from a non-traditional hockey market. Meanwhile, the Sherbrooke Phoenix counters with a late-round NHL pick who has become a reliable veteran after a mid-season trade.
Daniel Sprong has shrugged off quite a bit of media attention to become a force for Charlottetown. A native of the Netherlands, Sprong drew interest from Hockey Canada, but his Dutch ties have held up his bid for Canadian citizenship. On the ice, Sprong has not been held back, posting 39 goals and 49 assists in a full 68-game season, totals good for 13th in QMJHL scoring. As the playoffs start, the 2015 NHL Draft prospect is riding a 10-game point streak where he put up 21 points in the month of March.
The Tampa Bay Lightning traded up in the seventh round of the 2014 NHL Draft to select Cameron Darcy, who has been a bit of a nomad throughout his hockey career. With stops in the U.S. NTDP, USHL, and the NCAA, Darcy will finish his junior career with Sherbrooke after a mid-season trade from Cape Breton. After an 82-point season last year, Darcy only scored one goal and 13 assists in 19 games, facilitating his trade. Darcy regained some confidence with the Phoenix, scoring 20 goals and 25 assists in 37 games.
Daniel Carr (Hamilton) vs. Connor Brown (Toronto) – AHL
The rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs has fizzled out recently, but is still going strong between their affiliates in the AHL. Both teams feature two impressive first-year players who have taken far different paths to the league.
For those who follow the NCAA, Daniel Carr might be a familiar name. The former Union College standout helped them win an NCAA championship before moving on to his professional career with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Carr has brought some of that success to Hamilton, winning the AHL’s Rookie of the Month honor after recording 10 goals and two assists in February. Carr leads Hamilton with 22 goals, and that total is also good for the AHL lead among rookies. His transition to professional hockey has gone well enough to draw comparisons to Canadiens’ fan favorite, Brendan Gallagher.
Despite a 128-point 2013-14 season that resulted in his becoming the CHL’s top scorer, Connor Brown has continued to work to sway his detractors in his favor. The former sixth round pick of the Maple Leafs now is plying his trade with the Toronto Marlies. He was the first Marlies rookie to cross the 50-point threshold in a single season, and was the AHL Rookie of the Month in December after scoring 12 points in 14 games. Brown is part of a three-way tie among the top of the AHL’s rookie scoring race, posting 17 goals and 34 assists in 64 games.
Zach Nastasiuk (Owen Sound) vs. Jason Dickinson (Guelph) – OHL
Two players who profile as similar players lead their respective teams in opening round OHL playoff action this weekend. Both captains have been tremendous as defensive forwards, but make no mistake, both can still fill the net.
One Detroit Red Wings prospect making some noise is Zach Nastasiuk. The Owen Sound Attack forward has quietly become one of the league’s premier two-way players. Nastasiuk has increased his point totals in each consecutive season in the league, rarely missing a game despite his penchant for blocking shots and finishing checks. Nastasiuk scored 35 goals and 42 assists this season, while becoming a reliable penalty killer and trusted power forward. Nastasiuk has been especially good with the man advantage, where his 17 goals rank third among all OHL players. The Attack have only made it out of the first round just once since his arrival, but Nastasiuk’s determined run of play will be needed if they hope to do it this year.
The Guelph Storm won the OHL championship last season, and with a staggering number of those contributors having graduated, the responsibility of returning the Storm to the postseason fell heavily on team captain Jason Dickinson. Among the final cuts for Canada’s WJC team, Dickinson has played with a chip on his shoulder all season. Dickinson scored 27 goals and 44 assists in 56 regular season games, besting his career high in goals by one. The Dallas Stars prospect was voted as the best defensive forward in the Western Conference in the OHL Coaches Poll. Dickinson may be tasked with shutting down Nastasiuk directly, leading to a fine OHL matchup to watch.
Mike McCarron (Oshawa) vs. Sam Bennett (Kingston) – OHL
The Kingston Frontenacs played their prototypical suffocating style of hockey to perfection, defending home ice successfully in a confidence-building 2-1 win over the Oshawa Generals. For Oshawa, Mike McCarron (MTL) impacted the game in a negative fashion, finishing without a point while taking three minor penalties, one of which resulted in the game-winning power play goal by Kingston’s Spencer Watson (LAK). That goal was assisted by Sam Bennett (CGY), his only point in the win.
Frederik Gauthier (Rimouski) vs. Ryan Graves (Quebec) – QMJHL
In Quebec, it was one of those games where the last team to score would win. Rimouski and Quebec traded goals, with the Oceanic coming out ahead by a final of 4-3. Rimouski received two-point efforts each from Anthony DeLuca, Samuel Morin (PHI), and Chris Clapperton (FLA). Frederik Gauthier (TOR) did not pick up a point, but finished with a +1 rating while winning 19 of 33 faceoffs. Anthony Duclair (ARI) and Marc-Olivier Roy (EDM) both had two points in the loss, while Ryan Graves (NYR) added a power play assist while finishing -2 on the night.
Nelson Nogier (Red Deer) vs. Brett Pollock (Edmonton) – WHL
In a 3-2 Edmonton Oil Kings victory, Brett Pollock (DAL) bookended a feisty evening by scoring his 32nd goal of the season in the first, followed by his dismissal from the game in the third period thanks to an unsportsmanlike penalty. Davis Koch and Mads Eller scored the other two Edmonton goals, and Patrick Dea stopped 24 of 26 shots to earn his 11th win. For Red Deer, Brooks Maxwell paced the Rebel attack with a pair of assists, as goaltender Rylan Toth’s herculean 35-save effort was wasted in the loss.
Quentin Shore (Denver) vs. Louie Belpedio (Miami) – NCAA
During the NCHC Tournament, the Miami RedHawks proved too much to handle, advancing to the finals with a decisive 6-3 victory. Louie Belpedio’s (MIN) insurance marker midway through the third period was his only point in the game, adding to his +2 rating. Miami spread the wealth, as 11 different players registered at least one point. Denver’s tournament came to a conclusion, and Quentin Shore (OTT) was not much help. Shore was held scoreless and was -3, a disappointing end to his season.
Artturi Lehkonen (Frolunda) vs. Lucas Wallmark (Lulea) – SHL
In game five in their best-of-seven series, Frolunda required only nine seconds of extra time to secure a 3-2 victory. Mats Rosseli-Olsen scored the game-winner, and assisted on an earlier goal by team captain Joel Lundqvist. Artturi Lehkonen (MTL) did not score in the game, as his inconsistent run of play continued. For Lulea, Lucas Wallmark (CAR) extended his assist streak to five straight games, notching a helper on one of two Johan Forsberg goals.
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