Playoff race heats up

By Jeff Bromley
In the NHL, the space of time occupying the latter half of January and the early part of February are known simply as the dog days of the hockey season. No trading deadline is in sight. The All-Star extravaganza of goals is just now behind them. Theoretically, everybody’s still in the playoff race. In the WHL, there aren’t any dog days to speak of during this part of the season. Right now, the only thing canine about the WHL is the dogfighting for position going into the post-season dance With just over five weeks left in the season, it promises to be anything but pretty.

In the Eastern Conference, the race can be best divided into two packs. The big dogs fighting for the conference title and the smaller dogs jockeying and vying for a spot in the post-season party. Unlike last season, when the Calgary Hitmen ran away with the Conference and league title, four teams this year have a viable chance at the crown. Again, unlike last season, it also seems that all four of the top dogs vying for the coveted number one seed in the conference can’t mount any type of sustainable winning streak to lay claim to the crown. Red Deer, Swift Current, Kootenay and Calgary all have legitimate shots at the top seed. Red Deer, currently at the top with 79 points and games in hand over their rivals chasing them in the standings, sits in the driver’s seat for the number one seed. But the Rebels (6-4-1in their last ten games), for all their team strengths in every category, can’t seem to pull away from their adversaries. The Swift Current Broncos (5-4-1 Last10), third in points but second in Conference standings because of their first place numbers in the Eastern division, are also battling consistency problems but should maintain the second seed in the conference if only because the red-hot Regina Pats will probably run out of games in order to catch in the Broncos in the East division.

For the next two dogs in the battle for playoff position, the story is the same – failing to win consistently. The Kootenay ICE (5-5-0 L10) and the Calgary Hitmen (5-5-0 L10) are neck and neck for the third and fourth seeds (70 and 72 points, respectively) but still remain well within striking distance of the Rebels (79pts). For the ICE, it’s an example of two steps forward and one step back. Every time they get within closing distance of the front-running Rebels, they shoot themselves in the foot by dropping very winnable games against the so-called lesser clubs in the league. For the Hitmen, the story is much of the same coupled with the indifferent play of star forward Pavel Brendl, who was benched for two periods of a 6-3 loss to Lethbridge. The continuing saga of the straining relationship between Brendl and Hitmen Coach Dean Clark could be an unwanted dressing room distraction come playoff time.

Where the real story lies in the Eastern Conference is with the so-called smaller dogs in the bottom half of the playoff bound teams. Some of these smaller dogs are starting to show their teeth and will definitely make some noise come playoff time. In Regina, where the Pats get an automatic bye into the Memorial Cup as hosts, the club is bent on proving that they want to be in the big dance in May as competitors, not just gracious hosts. At 8-1-1 in their last ten, the Pats are demonstrating that indeed the farm G.M. Brent Parker sold in order to make this club competitive may well have been worth it.

A club that seemingly everybody forgot about has to be the Lethbridge Hurricanes. At 8-2-0 in their last ten games and an incredible nine wins in a row at home, Coach and G.M. Bryan Maxwell has the club clicking on all cylinders. It might be a little too late for the ‘Canes to move up in the playoff seeding if only because they are chasing the equally hot Pats for the number five seed. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to face the ‘Canes in the first round if they keep this pace up. The Moose Jaw Warriors check in at the number seven seed and are prone to extended streaks of both winning and losing. If the Hurricanes don’t stumble, the Warriors will find themselves facing the number two seed. Bringing up the rear and in at number eight with an anchor are the Brandon Wheat Kings. 0-9-1 in their last ten games, the Wheaties are falling and falling fast. The usually consistent and steady goal-tending tandem of Jamie Hodgson and Robert McVicar has gone south for the WheatKings and to top it off, injuries are starting to play a role as sniper Milan Bartovic and steady rear-guards Nolan Yonkman and Wade Skolney are all out with various injuries. The only thing going for the Wheaties and their playoff chances is the fact that both the Medicine Hat Tigers and Saskatoon Blades seem unable to make up any ground on the eighth place Wheatkings. With Prince Albert almost completely out of the picture, if the Tigers or Blades get hot and put together a couple of wins, the Wheat Kings could find themselves on the outside looking in.

Quick Hits
– The Kootenay ICE make their one and only appearance (save for any possible playoff dates) on the tube this Sunday against Calgary. Game-time is 6 P.M. on CTV Sportsnet….Dan Blackburn is off this week to play in the CHL’s sixth annual Top Prospects game. He will be the fourth Kootenay ICE player to participate after Steve McCarthy, Kyle Wanvig and Jarret Stoll…. Steve McCarthy’s return to the Kootenay ICE has been put on hold for now. From all accounts the decision could be put away for another five weeks, when the NHL trade/roster deadline occurs on the 13th of March. Also factoring in the decision are injuries to Chicago’s blueline and where the Hawks figure in the chase for a playoff spot. In other words ICE fans, don’t hold your breath. It could be a while or not at all.