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Champions crowned throughout Junior A hockey

by Brad Holland

Spokane Chiefs rookie forward Tyler Johnson was named the MVP of the  2008 WHL Championship series for his three-goal performance against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
What's better than scoring three Western Hockey League Final goals – including two game-winners – and earning the MVP of the 2008 championship series in your first season playing major junior hockey?

How about doing it for your hometown team?

Tyler Johnson, rookie forward for the Spokane Chiefs, born and raised in Spokane, Wash., has helped his hometown Chiefs become the first U.S. Division Champion in 10 years. The last American-based team to take the WHL crown was the Portland Winter Hawks in 1998.

Johnson finished with only five goals and eight points in 21 games of the 2008 postseason, after putting up totals of 13 goals and 35 points through 69 regular season games. But he scored when it counted.

The 17-year-old winger had not scored in seven-consecutive games before lighting the lamp in Game 1 of the WHL Final, an unassisted, shorthanded tally at the 11:14 mark of the second period, a goal that turned out to be backbreaker as the Hurricanes did not score on their remaining PP time and were held off the scoresheet by the Chiefs for the remainder of the game.

His second goal of the Final came in dramatic fashion in Game 2 in front of the hometown crowd as he was able to find the back of the net at the 6:20 mark of the first overtime period, earning the two-game sweep in Spokane before the teams traveled the seven hours and 400-odd miles between Spokane and Lethbridge, Alberta.

It was his second goal of the Final, his fourth of the playoffs, and the second-most important goal he'd score in 2008.

He saved the best for last.

In the final game of the 2008 WHL season, Game 4 of the WHL Championship on Wednesday, the two teams played a tight brand of hockey, with neither team willing to open the game up. In fact, neither team was able to hit double digits in shots in any of the three periods. Spokane eventually out-shot Lethbridge by a 21-17 margin.

During a two-goal second period for the Chiefs, Johnson teamed up with forward Levko Koper, who also assisted on his overtime game-winner in Game 2, to score the game's second goal and maintain the lead for the Chiefs.

The Chiefs were able to add two more in the third and keep the Hurricanes off the board, winning 4-1 to earn the Ed Chynoweth Cup, a berth in the 2008 Memorial Cup, and give a hometown boy the opportunity to enjoy being a hero -- at least until this Friday when the Memorial Cup will begin and another opportunity will produce another hero.

Around the WHL – He may be ranked No. 9 on Central Scouting's final list for North American goaltenders, but Spokane goaltender Dustin Tokarski did everything he could to have the scouts sit up and take notice with his playoff performance. He finished the regular season with a 30-10 record, a 2.05 GAA and a .922 save percentage, then went on to trump that in the playoffs, compiling a 16-5 record with a miniscule 1.38 GAA and a stellar .944 save percentage. He led all WHL goaltenders in playoff wins, starts, shutouts (tied), GAA, save percentage and saves. If that wasn't difficult enough, he did it facing off against three of the WHL's most-accomplished netminders. He swept Everett and the 2006 No. 26 overall draft choice Leland Irving in the first round; defeated last year's Memorial Cup champion Vancouver Giants and their goaltender, Tyson Sexsmith (No. 91 overall to San Jose in 2007) in Round 2; defeated Chet Pickard, the No. 2-ranked goaltender for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, in a thrilling seven-game series in Round 3, and then defeated Finnish goaltender Juha Metsola of Lethbridge in the championship series. All this and he still has an opportunity to shine in the upcoming Memorial Cup. … Keaton Ellerby, last year's No. 10-overall NHL draft pick to the Florida Panthers, officially became a Panther this week as the 19-year-old defenseman inked his first pro contract. He signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Panthers. … Despite the fact that his team was eliminated in the Eastern Conference championship, rookie forward Calgary's T.J. Galiardi was able to amass the most points in the playoffs, scoring  five goals and 24 points in 16 games. He was followed by Lethbridge forward Zach Boychuck (21 in 18) and Tri-City forward Colton Yellow Horn (21 in 18), and then by a pair of Chiefs to round out the Top 5: Drayson Bowman and Ondrej Roman, who put up 20 points apiece in 21 games. … Garrett Klotz, a third-round choice in 2007, also joined the pro ranks this week, singing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Flyers.

Ontario Hockey League

It may have taken three games longer than the Kitchener Rangers expected, but they have completed their quest for the OHL Championship; and with the league title already in their back pocket, they find themselves two weeks removed from potentially taking the CHL's version of the Triple Crown.

The Rangers, two-thirds of the way to junior hockey's most demanding sweep, appear poised to finish off their magical season with a victory at the Memorial Cup. Buoyed by a high-octane offense, dominant goaltending, and a mobile, physical, confident defense anchored by a Swiss skater so precise he makes his watch-making countrymen look positively clumsy, the Rangers will be playing in front of their hometown crowd with the confidence that comes from running the table, thus far, in 2007-08.

But it was almost not to be.

After jumping out to a 3-0 series lead in the OHL Championship series against the Belleville Bulls, the Rangers possibly began their party preparations a bit premature. The Bulls stole Game 4, in overtime, by a 5-4 score. They scored twice in the third to stun the Rangers and force overtime, and then outshot their opponents by a 9-1 margin in the overtime to earn the victory and force Game 5 in Kitchener.

Game 5 would prove no easier on the Rangers, nor on their fans, as they outshot the Bulls by a 2-1 margin, 42-21, during the course of the game, but were stymied by a 2-1 outcome on the back of a 41-save performance by goaltender Mike Murphy.

Shifting back to Belleville for Game 6, the series had taken on a brand new dynamic. New life had been breathed into the Bulls by their goaltender, and they stormed out of the gates, lifted by the home crowd, and imposed a 6-3 defeat upon the stumbling Rangers. The OHL Championship trophy, which had been traveling between Kitchener and Belleville, was now fully up for grabs in a winner-take-all game in Kitchener on Monday night.

The game, and the teams, did not disappoint.

Rangers' left winger Brandon Mashinter, 6-foot-3, 224 pounds, scored the game's first goal – only his second of the postseason – and the Rangers escaped the first period with just a 1-0 lead, despite a 21-9 advantage in shots.

The second period saw each team score once, and the teams entered the third period as they left the first – separated by goal.

The Rangers proved too much for the Bulls however, and in a “win a period, win the league” situation, the Rangers did not disappoint the hometown crowd. Nazem Kadri scored his ninth goal of the playoffs and Mike Duco added an insurance empty-netter to give the team a 4-1 win. The Rangers were able to lift the trophy, and their fans able to exhale, after three consecutive letdowns.

Danish superstar forward Mikkel Boedker assisted on both third-period goals by the Rangers, raising his totals to nine goals and 35 points in only 20 games, one behind teammate Justin Azevedo – who also was the league's regular-season scoring champion – for the postseason lead.

He did, however, run the table for rookie scorers, outscoring the next first-year player by 28 points. Bulls' forward Stephen Johnston had five goals and seven points in his own 21 games.

That third period capped off a game, a season, and a postseason that neither the Rangers, nor their fans, will soon forget. But, it does not cap off their ultimate goal, a mission begun almost three years ago when the Memorial Cup site selection committee decided to award Kitchener the 2008 Memorial Cup.

No, there is more work to do for these Rangers, work that will still include the Belleville Bulls, the Gatineau Olympiques and the Spokane Chiefs – the field for this year's Mem Cup, which begins Friday.

Around the OHL –
Justin Azevedo, like the Kitchener Rangers, completed two thirds of his own sweep, as he led the postseason in scoring with 10 goals and 26 assists in 20 games, one ahead of teammate Mikkel Boedker, and earned the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as the MVP of the playoffs. Azevedo led the regular season in scoring and earned the league's Most Outstanding Player award, giving him two-of-two MVP awards heading into the Memorial Cup. … Mike Murphy may have been the losing goaltender of record in the 2008 OHL Final series, but he did everything he could to help his team battle all the way back from their 0-3 hole to earn at least a shot at the title. He dropped his first start of the series, making only 17 saves on 21 shots, and was in turn dropped by the Bulls' coaching staff, replaced by backup Parker Van Buskirk, who fared no better, allowing five goals in each of the next two games before Murphy regained the starters' job. What did he do? Murphy played to a .930 save percentage, stopping 147 of 158 shots against one of the most-dangerous offenses in the league, and fashioned a 3-1 record in the final four starts of the 2008 postseason. …With four goals and 11 points in the Final series, Bulls' captain Matt Beleskey did all he could to turn the tide against Kitchener, but like the rest of the Bulls, he came up short, earning no points in the clinching Game 7. He finished his postseason with 12 goals and 33 points in 21 games, good for third overall in the league.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

Even in his wildest dreams, Gatineau forward Claude Giroux likely never imagined a year like this one.

Giroux finished the regular season with 106 points, good for second in the league. He also earned First Team All-Star selection. Giroux played for Canada, winning gold, in the World Junior Championships. He also played his first NHL game, for Philadelphia, in front of family and friends in Ottawa. Then, Giroux scored an incredible 51 points in only 19 playoff games. That is 19 more points than any other skater; plus he had points in 10 consecutive playoff games during the run, a QMJHL record. Not surprisingly, he was named MVP of the playoffs after his team took the postseason title.

Now, he has a shot to win the Memorial Cup.

Not bad for a season thus far. But Giroux can't enjoy his 2007-08 just yet, as there is more work to be done.

Giroux and the rest of the Olympiques will take their 16-4 playoff record to Kitchener this Friday, where they will play the champions from the other two leagues, plus the runner-up to the host Kitchener Rangers, the Belleville Bulls, in pursuit of junior hockey's most-prestigious award.

Gatineau's road will not be easy, as it is paved with speed bumps in the form of Spokane Chiefs' superstar goaltender Dustin Tokarski, and the balanced and potent lineup of the Rangers and the Bulls. But with Giroux enjoying one of the finest seasons any junior hockey player anywhere has ever enjoyed, the scene may be set for the QMJHL's first Memorial Cup victory since the Quebec Remparts won in 2006, and the second 'Q' Memorial Cup title since 2000.

Around the QMJHL – If Giroux hadn't scored even one playoff goal, his 34 assists would still have been two more points than any other player was able to muster up in the 2008 postseason. However, Giroux did score – 17 times – and just about doubled up the next-closest scorer, teammate Paul Byron, who scored 21 times and had 32 points in the 19 games it took the Olympiques to take the title. … Gatineau set a record with its seventh Presidents' Cup, one more than its opponent in the QMJHL Final, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. … The Huskies lost more games in the final than they had in their first three series, against Val-d'Or, Rimouski, and Saint John, against whom they had compiled a 12-0 record before losing four of five to the Olypmiques. … Gatineau goaltender Ryan Mior has played more games (including both regular season and playoffs) than any other goaltender in league history, with 270. He has played at least 14 more games in his career than any other goaltender, including current Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, who played 236 with Val-d'Or and Acadie-Bathurst in his own four-year career.

United States Hockey League

There hasn't been an NHL team to take both the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season since 2002, speaking to the difficulty of playing to such a high level for almost a full calendar year. No USHL team has accomplished the feat, winning both the Anderson Cup title (the regular-season champion, determined by points) and the Clark Cup title (the playoff championship) in the same season, since 2005 when the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders earned the sweep.

That is until this season.

This year, the Omaha Lancers swept both USHL Cups, claiming the regular-season title with a 43-12-9 record, good for 91 points, before earning the playoff championship with a 4-3 overtime victory against visiting Waterloo on Saturday night in a Game 5 clincher that couldn't have been any closer.

Fittingly, regular season-leading scorer Barry Almeida scored the game-winning, Clark Cup-clinching goal, fighting his way to the front of the net and releasing a backhand high to the glove side that beat Blackhawks goaltender Matt DiGiralomo.

The Lancers were out-shot in the game but received a strong performance from goaltender Drew Palmisano, who stopped 28 of the year's final 31 shots fired his way.

Palmisano finished the playoffs with a 9-5 record, a 2.45 GAA and a .921 save percentage after posting a 32-8-3 record, a 2.02 GAA and a.922 save percentage in 45 regular-season games. He also set a record with four shutouts in a single playoff year after a 35-save, 2-0 defeat of the Blackhawks in Game 4.

His consistency was a big part of the Lancers' victory, and for his efforts he was rewarded with the Planet Hockey Clark Cup MVP award.

He narrowly missed out on his own sweep, as he was awarded the Clark Cup MVP, but finished as a runner-up to Lincoln Stars' goaltender David Reekie (defeated by Palmisano in Round 2) for the Stauber's Goalcrease Goaltender of the Year award. Reekie also earned the CCM All-USHL First Team selection, while Palmisano was a Second Team selection.

Likely, he'd keep his own hardware -- his MVP selection, Anderson and Clark Cups -- if offered a trade.

Around the USHL – Omaha Lancers' forward Andrew Conboy, after scoring 17 goals in 58 games this season, scored nine playoff goals in only 14 games, good for the overall league lead. The next closest playoff scorers were Chad Billins of Waterloo and Ryan Kretzer of the Lincoln Stars, who had five each. … After taking home Defenseman of the Year honors, Blake Kessel didn't have much left to prove in his USHL career, but he followed up his exemplary 2007-08 season with a run to the final, and a tie atop the playoff scoring among defensemen with one goal and 11 points in 11 games. He was tied with Patrick Wiercioch of the Omaha Lancers, who scored two goals and 11 points in 14 games. … The Columbus Jr. Blue Jackets announced this week that they would cease operations for the 2008-09 season, and the USHL announced their current players would have their rights transferred to the Fargo Forge, the newest USHL expansion team, set to begin its first season in 2008-09. In all, 12 players were transferred to the new team, and for that the Forge relinquished their first-, second-, and third-round picks in the upcoming USHL Draft. … Forwards Travis Novak (Omaha) and Jason Gregoire (Lincoln) finished tied atop the USHL scoring race, as each put up a total of 12 points in the 2008 postseason. However, Novak earned his 12 points in 14 games while Gregoire earned his in only eight games.

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