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Letbridge faces an uphill climb in WHL Championship

by Brad Holland

Lethbridge Hurricanes forward Zach Boychuk has 13
goals and 21 points in 16 games in the WHL Playoffs.
They say you’re never in trouble in a playoff series until you lose a home game.

The Lethbridge Hurricanes hope this to be the case.

Spokane takes its show on the road, while Lethbridge returns home in order to play Games 3 and 4 of the 2008 WHL Championship Series. With a 0-2 series deficit to overcome after being thoroughly outplayed in 4-1 and 5-2 losses in the first two games in Spokane, the fabled "home-ice advantage" might be all Lethbridge has left to hang its hat on.

To do so, the Hurricanes will not only have to overcome the 0-2 hole, but also counter a powerhouse team founded on stalwart goaltending, and loaded with skaters playing with poise, speed, strength, skill and confidence.

Throughout the playoffs, the Chiefs have relied on a balanced attack that has placed five skaters in the top 20 of WHL playoff scoring, and perhaps the hottest goaltender in the playoffs, Dustin Tokarski.

On the way to the WHL Championship, the Chiefs have dispatched the Everett Silvertips, targeted by league pundits as a possible sleeper heading into the opening round; last year’s Memorial Cup Champions, the Vancouver Giants, in Round 2, and most recently, in the Western Conference Final, the league-leading Tri-City Americans, in a dramatic rivalry fueled seven-game series that remained in doubt until the final buzzer sounded.

Silvertips, Giants, and Americans; Giant Killers, indeed, are these Chiefs.

The Hurricanes, for their part, look to rely on top scorer and 2008 NHL Entry Draft top prospect Zach Boychuk, who leads the league in playoff goals with 13 and sits second in playoff scoring with 21 points in 16 games, three behind Calgary Hitmen rookie T.J. Galiardi.

They will also look to Mitch Fadden, a fourth-round selection of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, and the yin to Boychuk’s yang. The 6-foot, 174-pound center from Salmon Arm, British Columbia sits one point behind Boychuk, good for fourth in playoff scoring, and is second in assists with 15 in 17 games.

In addition, the offense provided by another 2008 NHL Entry Draft prospect, Luca Sbisa, who has put up three goals and 15 points in 17 playoff games. The rookie from Oberageri, Switzerland currently leads all WHL defensemen in assists and points.

But no Hurricanes player will likely face more scrutiny in the next two games than goaltender Juha Metsola, who has started all 16 of his team’s playoff games, winning 12, and playing to a 2.31 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage along the way.

He was especially good in a four-game sweep against Calgary in the Eastern Conference Championship, when he played to a 1.75 GAA and a .927 save percentage.

Metsola and his teammates will have to be as good or better, if they hope to climb back into the series to keep their WHL Championship and Memorial Cup Championship hopes alive.

The Hurricanes hope home cooking is the answer.

Around the WHL -- The Chiefs’ Judd Blackwater earned the Boston Pizza WHL Player of the Week honors for the period ending May 4, as the three-year veteran scored five goals and one assist while playing to a plus-3 rating in four games. He helped his Chiefs close out the Western Conference Championship against the Tri-City Americans before playing an integral role in the Chiefs’ leap out to a 2-0 series lead in the WHL Final. … With each passing game, Chiefs’ goaltender Dustin Tokarski’s numbers become more and more impressive. The goaltender, a highly-ranked prospect in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, has a miniscule 1.42 GAA in 19 starts in the 2008 postseason, to go alone with a monstrous .944 save percentage. He is either tied for or leads the league in almost all goaltending categories. … The WHL completed its annual Bantam Draft this week, with center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of Burnaby, B.C. going first overall to the Red Deer Rebels. … The WHL announced its league awards on April 30 at a ceremony in Calgary and would like to congratulate the following winners: Player of the Year, Karl Alzner (Calgary); Rookie of the Year, Brayden Schenn (Brandon); Goaltender of the Year, Chet Pickard (Tri-City); Defenseman of the Year, Alzner; Scholastic Player Award, Jordan Eberle (Regina); Most Sportsmanlike Award, Tyler Ennis (Medicine Hat); Humanitarian of the Year, Ashton Hewson (Prince Albert); Coach of the Year, Don Nachbaur (Tri-City); and Executive of the Year, Bob Tory (Tri-City).

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

Rouyn-Noranda goaltender Maxim Gougeon tasted defeat for the first time this postseason, allowing six goals on 35 shots in a 6-2 defeat at the hands of the Gatineau Olympiques in Game 1 of the QMJHL Final.

It did not take him long to rebound, as he and the rest of the Huskies roared back with a 6-2 victory of their own, knotting the series at one game apiece as the teams travel to Gatineau for Games 3 and 4.

Gougeon will look to get back to this winning ways on the road, where he has played to a perfect 6-0 record in the 2008 QMJHL postseason.

But Rouyn-Noranda will have to defeat the Olympiques on home ice, something their opponents have been unable to do this postseason in eight attempts. The Olympiques are a perfect 8-0 at home in the 2008 playoffs.

Something, however, will have to give.

Around the QMJHL -- The best players for the remaining QMJHL teams continue to play like their best players. For Gatineau, Claude Giroux, league-leading playoff performer thus far, has scored one goal and added four assists for five points in the first two games of the Final, while team captain Jean-Philip Chabot has scored four goals, including a hat trick in his team’s Game 1 victory. For Rouyn-Noranda, the duo of Brett Morrison and Michael Dubuc continues to cut through opposing defenders, combining for three goals and eight points in the two games. … Despite the eight goals allowed in the first two games of the Final, Gougeon still maintains the league’s best goals-against average for goaltenders who have played a minimum of eight playoff games, with a 2.39 GAA in 14 starts. … Huskies’ forward Hugo Carpenter, a fourth-round selection of the Calgary Flames in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, scored one goal in Game 2, stretching his league-leading points-scoring streak to 14 consecutive games, or at least one point in all of his team’s playoff games this season. His totals of 14 goals and seven assists are good for seventh in league scoring.

United States Hockey League

The first two games of the Clark Cup Final have been completed, with the Waterloo Blackhawks earning the all-important split on Lancer ice. The series shifts back to Waterloo Wednesday and Friday of this week, before finishing up back in Omaha on Saturday, May 10 (if necessary).

You can bet the Blackhawks don’t want it to get that far.

With the opening game victory, a 4-3 defeat of the hometown Lancers, on the back of a three-point performance by overtime game-winning goal scorer Brett Olson and a 27-save victory by goaltender Matthew DiGirolamo, the Blackhawks jumped out to an early series lead, but missed their chance to put a stranglehold on the series before returning to Waterloo.

The Lancers were able to salvage a victory in Game 2 with a 2-0 defeat of the Blackhawks, as goaltender Drew Palmisano stopped all 28 shots he faced in handing the Blackhawks their first defeat of the 2008 postseason.

Jake Hauswirth and Matt White had a goal and an assist each in the victory.

The Lancers will have to be just as good in the next two games on Blackhawk ice, as Waterloo boasted a 22-4-4 record at home in the regular season and have played to a perfect 4-0 record thus far in the playoffs.

Around the USHL -- Andrew Conboy of the Lancers leads the USHL in goal scoring with eight, and shots with 37, in 11 games so far in the 2008 postseason. … Jason Gregoire, who finished fourth in league scoring this season with 69 points is still leading the USHL in playoff scoring, though the second-year forward from Winnipeg, Manitoba was eliminated in the second round and only played in eight playoff games. His league-leading totals of nine assists and 12 points are one more each than second-leading scorer Travis Novak, with eight assists and 11 points through his team’s 11 games. Novak will have a chance to take over the outright lead in the next two and possibly three Final games. … It is nearly impossible to win anything in hockey without a top-notch goaltender, proven once again by the netminding of DiGirolomo and Palmisano, who lead the league in GAA in the playoffs. DiGirolomo also leads in save percentage with a .932, while Palmisano leads all goaltenders with three shutouts in 11 games played.

Ontario Hockey League

Just how difficult is it to hold the line against the Kitchener Rangers?

Consider: the league’s top-scoring trio of Nick Spaling, Justin Azevedo and Matt Halischuk have combined for six goals and 13 points in the first three games of the OHL Final, and not one of them can lay claim to being the series’ most-productive Ranger.

That honor, through three Rangers victories, belongs to Mikkel Boedker. The first-year player has scored two goals and eight points thus far against the Belleville Bulls, and has leapfrogged two of his teammates -- Spaling and Halischuk -- to sit second in overall OHL playoff scoring with nine goals and 30 points in 16 games.

For his efforts, Boedker was awarded the Boston Pizza Player of the Week and, due in part to his efforts, his team is now one win away from the OHL Championship.

Around the OHL -- Two major OHL awards were announced this week, with Windsor Spitfires’ Taylor Hall named OHL Rookie of the Year and Rangers’ forward Azevedo earning the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player. Hall scored 45 goals, more than any other rookie, and added 39 assists for a total of 84 points, good for second among first-year skaters. He was joined on the OHL All-Rookie Team by center Casey Cizikas of the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, right wing Boedker, and defensemen Ryan Ellis of Windsor and Cameron Gaunce of Mississauga. Goaltender Josh Unice, who is currently starting games for the Rangers due to an injury to regular starter Steve Mason, rounds out the six-man team. … As for Azevedo, the league-leading scorer (43 goals and 124 points in 67 games) on the regular season’s most productive team in terms of wins (53) and points (110) earned 137 first-place votes while Sarnia Sting forward Steven Stamkos earned 82 and Brett MacLean of the Oshawa Generals earned 51. … The 2008 OHL Priority Selection was also completed this week, with the Sudbury Wolves selecting right-shooting center John McFarland of Richmond Hill, Ontario with the first overall selection. McFarland scored 96 goals and 69 assists for 165 points, along with 176 penalty minutes in 76 games with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens during the 2007-08 season. He was a key member of a team that went on to win the GTHL Championship this season.

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