With all the WHL Western Conference teams having twenty games or less on their schedules, heres some speculation on how the season will finish and playoffs will play out. These are solely the thoughts and ponderings of this writer and may not be accurate, however with the stretch run just underway, thought it would be fun to put my choices out to provoke some debate. Here goes!
While the Cougars will likely play better in the playoffs, I’m not sure Thompson or Stanton are handling the pressure of a stretch run very well. Thompson was great against Kamloops in the recent loss, but I’m not sold. Hamhuis really is the glue that holds the entire Cougar back end together and he at some point this year is going to start slowing down and having some off nights, which appears is beginning to happen. He was brilliant in the first game against Kamloops last weekend, but in the second game was average by his standards, coughing up the puck, not as effective moving the puck and not as physical. When caught out of position didn’t appear to have a lot of gas to get back either IMO. They need scoring and I’m not sure even the addition of Foster will remedy that problem. Likely to finish third in B.C. Division and could slide as low as fourth with a first round exit IMO.
Kelowna will go as far as Bendera can take them and his return to the line up this weekend will be a tonic for a lot the Rockets current ailments. When on his game, Bendera can win games on his own which might be what the Rockets need to gain some confidence. If Shane can backstop the Rockets to a couple wins this weekend, they may find that much needed boost for the stretch drive and playoff run. Often injured Kevin Young is out again and they’ll need him to be in the line up to solidify the defence as Slovak is getting better, but Young is probably better. McLeod is a big piece of the Rockets and he too needs to return to the line up and play a bunch of games down the stretch to get back in the flow. It looks like the Leonard for Schultz deal hasn’t been as great as the Rockets hoped, but when everyone is healthy, Schultz should show more. Health will be important in a thin Rockets line up. Likely to finish fourth in B.C. Division, third at best and first round and out IMO.
Spokane has arguably the best group of physical defenseman who can all play and Brust shows no signs of being a one hit wonder. Lord help them though should Brust get hurt as Darling hasn’t been good enough to carry any club no matter how good the defence is. Ganchar has the Chiefs off the short leash and the physical play has been better of late, with Desautels and Kanigan offering up some size and physical play up front which is needed with the smurf like forwards the Chiefs put out. Keith and Lucky (if he can return and play healthy) will be two guys who need to start finding the net consistently, while Schell will need to step up as Cote and Krymusa can score, but are often inconsistent game to game. The defence and Brust will take Spokane as far as they are going. Will finish second in the Western Conference, first in the U.S. Division, win the first round but lose their second round series IMO.
Portland has just kinda’ rolled along with no real highs and lows. Klepis has slowed down a bit as the season has gone on and he’ll need to pick it up again as he is a big part of the Hawk offence. Roed, Balej, Olson, Gaustad and Priestlay are key cogs to the Hawk offence and will need to be firing on all cylinders to hold of the currently hot Ams and win a first round playoff series. A healthy Matt Girling would be a great help for depth in scoring. The young, but able defence will be better next year, but is pretty solid with a top four of Regehr, Wellar, Coburn and Bauer, however they are only an average group at this point and Ramage will need to get over his tendency to have off nights more often than not if this team is to get past the first round of playoffs. Toews has been good and bad, but not likely a guy at this point of his career to carry a team. Outside of Gaustad and Olson, the Hawks are also a pretty small group up front. The Hawks are part of my upset special, finishing second in the U.S. division, fourth overall in the conference, but gone in six games in the first round at the hands of the Americans.
The Tri-City Americans are my sleeper pick in the Western Conference. Troy Mick appears to have his club clicking on all cylinders right now combined with catching some teams shorthanded, regardless, they’ve won the games they’ve needed. If the Americans can start putting some road victories together down the stretch and gain confidence that they indeed can win on the road consistently the Ams could be play the spoiler early in the playoffs. Shawn Belle has been outstanding as a sixteen year old rookie and Morrow was a nice addition from the Tigers. Zanon, Barker, Ladygin and a healthy Thrussel aren’t spectacular by any stretch, but this group is quietly capable of putting up a solid defence providing Weiman and Martin are on their games. If Weiman or Martin can get hot, this group may surprise under the tutelage of Troy Mick. Johansson and Kelman will need to be as good as they’ve ever been and Iannone, Kilgour, Stanley, Kinasewich, Lorentzen and even Matt Sommerfeld will need to provide some depth and scoring for the Ams. Summerfield’s physical presence will be more key for the Ams with the absence of Tyler Dyck, but any point she could put up would be welcome. The possible return of Dyck sometime late in the year or early in the playoffs would be helpful, although the loss of McDade for the rest of the year is a big hit. Ams will finish third, where they currently sit, but will supply the first round playoff upset, beating the Hawks in six and then exiting in the second round IMO.
Seattle will finish the year in the last playoff spot as the Giants don’t appear to be mounting any serious challenge for the crossover playoff spot as the eighth and final playoff team in the conference. With a young roster and some questionable goaltending the T-Birds should be happy to get some playoff experience and enter 2002/03 with a club that is a year more mature and seasoned. The T-Birds will give the Chiefs a tussle in most of the playoff games, however the Chiefs should still walk away with a first round playoff victory in five game IMO.
Kamloops will be a team, if I can steal a quote from Cougar coach Ed Dempsey, “that is going to try and nuke teams” down the stretch and into the playoffs. Only the Kootenay Ice are likely able to go skill on skill with the Blazers up front. With the likes of Jared Aulin, Ben Knopp, Scottie Upshall, Erik Christensen, Ryan Annesley and Scott Henkelman posing a threat to score every time they are on the ice and guys like Keegan McAvoy, Jarret Lukin, Paul Brown, Mark Rooneem and the soon to be in the line up Colton Orr providing grit and timely scoring as well, the Blazers will be looking to try and bury teams. Orr, McMcaffrey, McAvoy, Gionet and Paul Brown give the Blazers plenty of muscle to go to war should that scenario present itself as well.
Davis Parley has now missed thirteen games due to an ankle injury and the Blazers will need him to return healthy and add some depth to one of the best goaltending tandems in the league when both he and Belanger are healthy. Goaltending shouldn’t be a problem as long as Parley can return and get some ice time before the playoffs, giving Steve Belanger a rest and allowing the Blazer coaches an opportunity to go with the guy they think is the hottest when the playoffs start.
Defensively the Blazers have played better of late with a healthy Conlan Seder playing like a seasoned veteran in only his second year and paring up with fellow sophomore Tyler Boldt to give the Blazers six defenseman who can play in all situations. Nikita Korovkin and Tyler Sloan give the Blazers as good a defensive pairing as the Western Conference has and Aaron Gionet is playing as well as he has all year, with regular partner Shaonne Morrisonn on the shelf recently with a concussion. Rookie Josh Pokol will likely be spotted down the stretch and into the playoffs. Kamloops will need to have the defence as a group, continue to play what has been their best hockey of the season lately, for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs for the Blazers to realize their pre-season goal of getting to the Western Conference Final and onto the Memorial Cup. My crystal ball sees Kamloops finishing first overall in the Western Conference, getting by Kelowna in the first round, beating the Ams in the second round and losing a hotly contested conference final in six to the Kootenay Ice.
The Kootenay Ice don’t have a top six that produce like the Blazers, however they have a top four as good as any in the league. Tomas Plihal, Duncan Milroy, Marek Svatos and Jarret Stoll are a handful with defenseman Gerard Dicaire being a key guy who can spring the talented forwards loose with solid passes from the defensive zone. Colin Sinclair, Kyle Sheen, Shaun Norrie, Adam Taylor, Richard Hamula and Steven Makway provide grit and varying degrees of scoring to the provide the Ice with a balanced attack that may not be as deep as Kamloops, but is just as willing to work hard. When the Ice had Marek Svatos and Jarrett Stoll out for a number of games in the first half of the season, the Ice continued to roll and it bodes well for any playoff run should injuries occur in the second season.
Defensively the Ice have a solid group of five that leads the way, with Dicaire being the quarterback while Thompson, Fischer, Weller and Evans look after the defensive coverage. Dicaire can at times be a defensive liability, however not many are better at getting the offence started and it can’t be overstated how important it is to have a defenseman with the ability to make solid, crisp first passes to spring the offensive into motion. Solid if unspectacular defensive group that will need to play their “A” game down the stretch and into the playoffs.
The kicker in the stretch run and playoffs is the chance, albeit a slim one, that Dan Blackburn may be returned to the Ice as the Rangers try and make a run for a playoff spot. With the Rangers tied for the eighth and final playoff spot and another five teams close enough to take a shot, the Rangers may look to add a veteran goaltender for insurance for any playoff run, which makes me believe the Rangers may return Blackburn to junior where he could be the go to guy in a serious playoff battle. While Boxma is a solid number one, adding a guy like Blackburn who has been in the playoff and Memorial Cup pressure cooker would in my opinion put the Ice over the top as far as the Western Conference is concerned. Kootenay is still my pick with Boxma in goal, but if, and it is only speculation on my part, Blackburn returns, the Ice get better defensively in a hurry. Kootenay will finish second in the B.C. Division, third in the Western Conference and win all three rounds of the Western Conference playoffs and vie for the League Championship against either Red Deer or Swift Current.
I see the Divisions and Conference finishing like this and my playoff predictions posted at the bottom.
3) Prince George
Vancouver will be the odd team out of Western Conference playoffs .
Western Conference Final Stats
5) Prince George
First round matchups
Kamloops vs. Kelowna— Kamloops in six
Kootenay vs. P.G.— Kootenay in five
Spokane vs. Seattle— Spokane in five
Portland vs. Tri-City— Tri-City in six
Second Round Crossover
Kamloops vs. Tri-City— Kamloops in five
Kootenay vs. Spokane— Kootenay in five
Western Conference Final
Kamloops vs. Kootenay— Kootenay in six.
*** Please remember this is only my opinion and based on my thoughts about how the season will play out. Things could play out much differently, however with the stretch run in the regular season underway and the playoffs looming I thought it would be fun to speculate on a possible Western Conference Winner.