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End-of-year awards kick off USHL playoffs

by Brad Holland /

Jason Gregoire, the B2 Networks Player of the Year and CCM Forward of the Year, is committed to the University of North Dakota next season.
While USHL playoff teams battle for the right to hoist the Clark Cup as this season's champion, the league took time this week to announce its individual award winners.

Jason Gregoire of the Lincoln Stars took home two awards, the B2 Networks Player of the Year and the CCM Forward of the Year honors. The second-year forward, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, scored 37 goals and 69 points in 54 games this season, leading his team to a third-place finish in the West Division. His 37 goals was a league-best, while his 69 points was good for fourth.

Gregoire is committed to the University of North Dakota of the WCHA for the 2008-09 season.

USHL rookie Jack Connolly looked anything but this season, tying for the league lead in points with 72 and forming one of the league's most dangerous scoring combinations with linemate Jake Hansen. For his efforts, Connolly was awarded the Collegian Group Rookie of the Year Award, the top honor in a year of honors for the young man.

Connolly was also fortunate enough to play in the 2008 USHL Prospects game with his brother, Omaha forward Chris Connolly. The younger Connolly will join Minnesota Duluth of the WCHA next season while his brother will enroll at Boston University. By the way, Jack Connolly was also a member of the USHL First All-Star Team and the All-Rookie team.

Bloodlines in the USHL run deep, as evidenced by both the Connolly brothers and by ProGuard Defenseman of the year, Blake Kessel, younger brother of Boston Bruins' forward Phil Kessel. Blake Kessel scored 11 goals and 38 points as a rookie last season, and then smashed those totals in his second year of competition, totaling 19 goals and 57 points through 59 games.

Kessel was a sixth-round selection of the New York Islanders in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, and will compete at the University of New Hampshire in 2008-09.

Lincoln's David Reekie came away with the Stauber's Goalcrease Goaltender of the Year honor, as the over-age goalie led the USHL in goals-against average (2.01), save percentage (.935), shutouts (six), and finished fourth in wins with 23 and fifth in saves with 1,086.

Stars head coach Jimmy McGroarty had nothing but the highest of praise for his goaltender, who arrived from the Western Hockey League this season.

"I know one individual doesn't change a team," McGroaty told "But David came in and turned our season around. When you get a kid from major junior, you don't always know what you're going to get. He came in and brought confidence and experience to our locker room and put us in a position to win every night. The numbers don't lie. He's a great goalie and a classy kid. It's been an honor to coach him."

Joey Miller of the Sioux City Musketeers rounded out the skaters' awards by taking home the USHL Curt Hammer Award, given annually to the player who distinguishes himself as the USHL's most gentlemanly player. Matt Farris of the Sioux Falls Stampede was awarded the USHL Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

Chicago Steel head coach Steve Poapst was awarded the KwikRink Coach of the Year Award after leading the Steel to a 44-point turnaround from last season. Poapst finished the season with a 32-22-6 record, good for fourth place in the East Division and a berth in the Clark Cup playoffs.

In the executive category, awards went to Mike Hastings, GM of the Omaha Lancers, who took home the JLG Architects GM of the Year award, Sioux City's Jim Kronschnabel, who earned the Leonard, Street and Deinard Executive of the Year award, and the Indiana Ice, who took home the Highwood Rings Organization of the Year.

The USHL All-Star teams were also announced, and a number of individual award winners earned all-star nominations as well.

The CCM All-USHL First Team is comprised of goaltender Reekie, Defensemen Kessel and Lincoln's Matt Bartkowski and forwards Jack Connolly, Omaha's Barry Almeida and Gregoire.

For the All-USHL Second Team, honors went to Omaha goaltender Drew Palmisano, Indiana defenseman John Carlson and Sioux Falls defenseman Eric Springer, as well as forwards Paul Carey (Indiana) and John Kemp (Indiana) and Hansen (Sioux Falls).

The Center Trophy USHL All-Rookie Team was made up of Cedar Rapids goalie Brady Hjelle, Carlson, Cedar Rapids defenseman Matt Donovan, Jack Connolly, Carey and Chicago's Brian O'Neill.

Lincoln's David Reekie came away with the Stauber's Goalcrease Goaltender of the Year honor, leading in several categories.
Around the USHL – On the back of Reekie, the Lincoln Stars earned a first-round upset of Sioux Falls in a three-game sweep. Reekie played in all three games and stopped 92 percent of the Stampede shots. … Top-seeded Omaha leads its series 2-1 against Sioux City, but the home team has won every game in the series thus far, and the Lancers required overtime in Game 3 to take the series lead. The next game will be played Thursday in Sioux City. … Gregoire has kept up his hot hand in the playoffs, scoring two goals and five points to lead all playoff scorers, helping his Stars in their opening-round victory. … Three of the first 10 USHL playoff games have gone to overtime, and two of those required double overtime to decide the outcome. Lincoln defeated Sioux Falls 3-2 in their opening game in double OT and Waterloo defeated Cedar Rapids, 4-3, in double OT in their series opener. The most recent game to require extra frames was Omaha's 5-4 victory against Sioux City giving them their 2-1 series lead.

Ontario Hockey League

Judging by their playoff records, the right four teams are still alive.

The combined 24-4 record of the four teams left standing shows just how complete dominance has been for the teams still left in the OHL playoffs.

Oshawa and its high-flying attack earned a berth in the Eastern Conference Semifinal this week, making it the final team to punch its ticket to the OHL's Final Four.

The Generals will take on Belleville, which has an 8-1 playoff record. Oshawa has been almost as dominant, playing to an 8-2 record.

Oshawa visits Belleville for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Championship on Wednesday.

In the West, top-seeded Kitchener takes its perfect 8-0 mark into a matchup with Sault Ste. Marie, which is 8-1. The two teams split four regular-season games.

Kitchener coach and GM Peter DeBoer knows that the Greyhounds will be his team's most difficult challenge to date.

"We've got a lot of respect for the Soo Greyhounds and the path they've come through in the playoffs, obviously handling two very good teams in Saginaw and Guelph rather easily," DeBoer told Aaron Bell on the league's website. "It should be a great series."

The two teams will also open Wednesday.

Around the OHL –
The loss of All-Star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to mono proved to be too much for Niagara, despite a heroic effort out of top scorers Michael Swift, Luca Caputi and Stefan Legein. Caputi and Legein put up 17 points apiece in only 10 playoff games, while Swift led the team in both goals and points with nine and 18, respectively. … Two mid-season pickups by Sault Ste. Marie have been its most productive players this postseason. Forwards Matt Caria and Wayne Simmonds sit 1-2, respectively, in the team's playoff scoring. Caria has five goals and 11 points through nine games while Simmonds has scored four goals and 10 points. … Not only do the Rangers boast an incredibly balanced and potent attack, placing four players in the top seven in playoff scoring, but their goaltending duo of Steve Mason and Josh Unice has been almost as good. Unice, in his three starts and part of one other game, has played to a 2.47 GAA and .905 save percentage. Mason, who was acquired from the London Knights in a mid-season trade, has been even better, playing to a 1.92 GAA and a sterling .946 save percentage in his four starts. The Greyhounds, who have scored nine fewer goals than any other remaining playoff team, will have to dig deep in order to overcome both the offensive threat of the Rangers and the goaltending of Mason and Unice.

Western Hockey League

The Memorial Cup will be hoisted by a new team this spring.

The Vancouver Giants, who played runner-up to last season's WHL Champions, the Medicine Hat Tigers, before hosting and hoisting the Memorial Cup only a few weeks later, have been bounced from the WHL playoffs.

Spokane defeated the Giants in six games, and the Chiefs will face Tri-City in an all-U.S. Division Western Conference Final.

On the other side, still vying for both the WHL Championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup is top-seeded Calgary and No. 3- Lethbridge.

The Western Conference Championship will begin Thursday, while a the Eastern Conference schedule is to be announced.
Around the WHL –
Not necessarily known as an offensive juggernaut, Calgary nonetheless boasts four of the WHL's top-five playoff scorers. Rookie T. J. Galiardi leads all scorers with 21 points through 12 games while Brock Nixon (17), Ryan White (17), and rookie Brandon Kozun (16) sit 2-3-5, respectively. Rounding out the top-five is Tri-City Americans forward Colton Yellow Horn, who has scored eight goals and 17 points through his team's first nine games. … Spokane continues to rely heavily on goaltender and 2008 NHL Entry Draft top prospect Dustin Tokarski, who leads the WHL in playoff goals-against average with a miniscule 1.57 in 10 appearances. Tri-City was the league's highest-scoring team in the regular season, with 262 goals for in 72 games. The Chiefs, by comparison, scored 251, but allowed a league-low 160 against. … Calgary has had the hardest road to the semifinals, requiring a total of 12 games and an 8-4 record to earn the berth. By comparison, Tri-City Americans takes an 8-1 record into its series against the Chiefs.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

If Baie-Comeau hadn't fallen victim to the dreaded No.2 vs. No. 7 matchup in Round 1, the QMJHL playoffs might have gone completely according to seed.

But then, in playoff hockey, things never seem to follow the map laid out by the regular season.

In the QMJHL, unlike the other two Canadian Major Junior leagues, teams "cross over" in the semifinals, meaning the higher-remaining seed in each division faces the lower-remaining seed from the opposing division.

Halifax, the top-seeded Eastern Conference team, plays host to the No. 3-seeded Telus Division team, Gatineau, in a matchup of two high-scoring offensive powers. Halifax was the league's third-highest scoring regular-season team, while Gatineau scored the fourth-most goals in the league.

In the other semifinal matchup, the highest-remaining seed, Rouyn-Noranda, plays host to No. 2 Saint John of the Eastern Division.

Saint John and Noranda will begin Thursday, while Halifax and Gatineau will drop the puck Friday night in Halifax.

Around the QMJHL –
Olympiques' forward Claude Giroux continues to lead the QMJHL playoff scoring race with 27 points in 10 games, five more than his closest competition, Mathieu Perreault of Acadie-Bathurst. Perreault put up three goals and 22 points in 12 games before his team fell prey to the Sea Dogs in six games in Round 2. … Rookie Olivier Roy of Cape Breton Screaming Eagles played like anything but a rookie in his first go-round in the QMJHL playoffs. He played to a 2.55 goals-against average and a.914 save percentage in 11 starts. He led rookies in almost all relevant goaltending statistical categories before he and his fellow Eagles were defeated by Halifax in five games. … Rounyn-Noranda goaltender Maxim Gougeon has been perfect in the playoffs thus far, playing to an 8-0 record with a 1.76 GAA and a .944 save percentage. The three-year veteran seems to have found his stride in these playoffs, as he played to a 3.27 GAA and a .884 save percentage in 20 starts after coming from Drummondville in a mid-season trade.

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