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March of top seeds continues in OHL

by Brad Holland /

With six wins, Justin Azevedo and the Kitchener Rangers have yet to lose in the OHL Playoffs.
Not often do the No. 1 seeds from each conference meet in the Final in any sport, at any level, but in the OHL this season, the Belleville Bulls and the Kitchener Rangers appear to be locked on a collision course headed to the OHL Final.

The two teams must have taken inspiration from the March Madness in NCAA basketball, where four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four for the first time in tournament history.

Kitchener, the No. 1 seed in the West, has raced out to a 2-0 lead over the quietly dangerous Sarnia Sting, despite two goals in two games from highly touted prospect Steven Stamkos. In the East, Belleville has taken a 3-0 series lead against the upstart Barrie Colts, who defeated the No. 2-ranked Brampton Battalion in the first round.

Each team looks as armed and dangerous as any still remaining in the 2008 playoffs. The Rangers have yet to lose a single game, sitting at 6-0, while the Bulls have only tasted defeat oncein eight games.

Despite a 0-2 series deficit, Sarnia has received brilliant goaltending from Andrew Perugini. He has stopped 105 of 111 shots in the series (a .946 save percentage), including a 64-save performance in a 3-2 overtime heartbreaker Saturday night.

He has also kept the big line of the Rangers in check, limiting Matt Halischuk, Nick Spaling and Justin Azevedo to a combined three assists in the first two games, after the trio combined for 11 goals and 34 points through their first four games against Plymouth.

Perugini's impressive play has not translated into Sting victories. The Rangers head to Sarnia with a two-games-to-none lead. Another Rangers victory and a 0-3 hole could be too much for the Sting to handle.

In the East, the Bulls are enjoying a 3-0 series lead against the No. 7-ranked Barrie Colts. They have done so in very convincing fashion.

The Bulls have outscored the underdog Colts 14-4, and out-shot them by a combined 133-88 margin to date. Even the goaltending of young Michael Hutchinson, a large part of the reason the Colts were able to upset heavily favored Brampton, has been unable to stem the Bulls' charge.

Hutchinson allowed 11 goals in his first two games and then watched as teammate Peter Di Salvo took over the starting job in a losing effort Saturday night.

The potential final series of Kitchener vs. Belleville has the potential to be drag-em-out, knock-em-down, seven-game affair. It would also guarantee Belleville a berth in the Memorial Cup 2008, as Kitchener has already punched its ticket as the host city.

However, more than a few teams are be looking to derail both the Belleville and Kitchener trains: Oshawa has rode special-teams' play to a 2-1 series lead against a very powerful Niagara IceDogs team, while the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have relied on discipline and balance in taking a 2-1 lead against the ever-dangerous Guelph Storm, featuring defenseman Drew Doughty.

All four series are in action Tuesday, but only one series -- Belleville against Barrie -- could be decided.

Around the OHL – Niagara suffered a huge blog to their playoff chances this past week as it was announced that superstar defenseman Alex Pietrangelo was diagnosed with mono and will be out at least a month. Pietrangelo had scored five goals and nine points through six playoff games. … Steven Stamkos has been the only Sting forward able to solve Rangers' netminder Steve Mason. Stamkos continues to lead the OHL in playoff goal-scoring by a wide margin, with 11 goals in seven games. … Jan Mursak, a Detroit Red Wings prospect acquired by the Bulls partway through the season this year, was held off of the score sheet in his first playoff game as a member of the Bulls, but went on to record at least one point in each of his next seven games. He now has five goals and 11 points in the playoffs, good for a tie for fourth in league scoring with Stamkos, Halischuk and teammate P.K. Subban, who leads all defensemen in both goals and points. … Niagara forward Stefan Legein is showing no ill effects from the injury that kept him out for more than half the 2007-08 season, as he has rocketed up the playoff scoring race with six goals and 13 points in seven games and now sits only one point behind Azevedo. … The Guelph Storm have been getting lights-out goaltending from Thomas McCollum, a top goaltending prospect for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. McCollum has played in all eight of his team's games in the postseason, posting a 1.50 GAA and a .951 save percentage. Despite the 1-2 hole he and his teammates find themselves in their second-round matchup with Sault Ste. Marie, McCollum has posted a 1.33 GAA and a .955 save percentage.

Western Hockey League

In the first round of the WHL's race to the Ed Chynoweth Cup, only one series –No. 4 Seattle against No. 5 Kelowna Rockets -- required a seventh game to decide which team would advance.

In Round 2, Game 7s could be the order of the day.

All four of the second-round series currently sit at 1-1, and each series is beginning to look like it could go the distance.

In Swift Current, the Broncos defeated the Calgary Hitmen -- who many picked to represent the WHL at the Memorial Cup before the playoffs began -- in a dramatic, come-from-behind 3-2 victory in Friday night's opener. The Hitmen followed that up with a 5-2 defeat of the Broncos on Saturday. The series now shifts and Calgary will host the next three games before returning, if necessary, to Swift Current.

Kootenay continue to relish its role as underdog, as the team that upset the No. 4-ranked Medicine Hat Tigers earned a valuable split in Lethbridge. Each game was a one-goal affair, with Kootenay taking the first game 3-2 and Lethbridge salvaging an overtime victory in Game 2, 5-4. Kootenay returns home to press its advantage in Games 3 and 4.

In the Western Conference, Seattle rode the momentum of its Game 7 victory to a 7-1 defeat of Tri-City in Game 1 of the second round, but the Americans responded with a 4-0 blowout win in Game 2. The series now heads to Seattle.

Finally, Vancouver and Spokane traded 4-1 victories in their first two games of the series. The Chiefs perhaps salvaged the series with a win in Game 2. The series heads to Vancouver for three-straight games.

With three of four division winners, both conference champions and the overall regular season points leaders still in the hunt, the WHL's playoffs looks as wide open as it has in any recent season.

Around the WHL -- WHL rookie T.J. Galiardi, on the back of a four-point night Saturday, has now taken over the overall WHL playoff scoring race. The first-year player and Colorado Avalanche prospect leads the league in both assists with 13 and points with 17. … Overage forward Ian McKenzie of Seattle -- despite never having scored more than 40 points in any of his five WHL seasons -- currently sits second in playoff scoring with seven goals and 13 points through nine games in the 2008 playoffs. McKenzie, a 6-foot-5, 222-pound right winger, has scored 24 points in 47 career playoff games, giving him a .51 points-per-game average in the playoffs, which is far higher than his 76 points in 228 regular season games, good for a .33 points-per-game average. … The WHL, traditionally not a comfortable place for rookies, currently places three first-year skaters in the top-10 in playoff scoring: Galiardi is in first, and Hitmen forward Brandon Kozun and Kelowna forward Jamie Benn are tied for fifth with 11 points each. … Giants goaltender Tyson Sexsmith finds himself in familiar territory through a round and a half of the 2008 WHL playoffs, as the San Jose Sharks prospect currently sits first in playoff GAA. He led the league in GAA in the 2006-07 regular season, the 2007 playoffs, the 2007-08 regular season, and now, in the 2008 playoffs, as he has posted a 1.58 GAA in six starts. In addition, he also leads the league in playoff save percentage with a .940 mark. … Swiss-born Luca Sbisa, a rookie defender for the Lethbridge Hurricanes and top defensive prospect for the upcoming NHL draft, is seeing his stock rise with every playoff game. The first-year player has now scored three goals and eight points in the playoffs, good for a tie for third in overall defensive playoff scoring. He amassed six goals, 33 points and a plus-19 rating in 62 regular season games in 2007-08.

United States Hockey League

Well, it's official.

The Omaha Lancers finished the regular season with a league-best mark of 43 wins, 12 losses and five overtime losses for a total of 91 points in 60 games. The 91 points were seven better and the 43 wins four better than their closest competition, the Indiana Ice.

What is also official is the playoff matchups, which took until the final game of the season to determine.

In the East, Indiana will host the Chicago Steel, while the Waterloo Blackhawks will face the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the opening round.

The Steel had been chasing the RoughRiders for third overall in the East Division for some time, and a 0-3-2 finish to the season for the RoughRiders left everything in doubt right up until the end.

In the West, the league champion Lancers will play host to the Sioux City Musketeers, while the Sioux Falls Stampede will face the Lincoln Stars.

The USHL title will likely hinge on goaltending, as the top 11 goaltenders in the league by GAA all played for one of the eight playoff contenders.

The puck drops Tuesday on the Clark Cup Playoffs with Omaha hosting Sioux City in Game 1 of their series.

Around the USHL --
Jack Connolly of Sioux Falls and John Kemp of Indiana tied for the regular-season scoring title with 72 points each. Connolly had paced the league for much of the stretch run to the playoffs, but Kemp was able to rocket up the boards with nine points in his final three games. … Lincoln's David Reekie, who will be a major piece of its playoff hopes, finished first in the league in GAA (2.01), save percentage (.935) and shutouts (six). … Lancers goaltender Drew Palmisano led all goaltenders with 32 wins. He was the only goaltender to crack the 30-win barrier. … Chicago Steel forward Simon Olsson finished the season on a 10-game points scoring streak, with 22 points and a plus-13 rating in the final 10 games. … Waterloo finished the season with an increase in average attendance for the sixth-consecutive year, which according to, is a record for any team at any level of hockey. Waterloo also set team records in total attendance, with 90,368 fans in 30 Black Hawk home games, average attendance with 3,012 per game, and number of sellouts, filling 17 of their 30 games to capacity.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

In the 'Q,' all things are going according to plan for the top seeds in Round 2 of the 2008 playoffs.

Each of the top seeds -- Halifax, Saint John, Rouyn-Noranda and Gatineau -- boast a 2-0 series lead as each of the series shifts back to the lower-seeded teams.

Quebec will be looking to shut down the top two scorers in the 2008 playoffs, Gatineau forward Claude Giroux and defenseman Patrik Prokop. Giroux leads all scorers with 20 points in only seven playoff games while Prokop leads all defenders and sits second behind Giroux overall with 15 points.

In Rimouski, the Oceanic will have their hands full with the dynamic duo of Rouyn-Noranda forwards Michael Dubuc, who has eight goals in six playoff games, and Brett Morrison, who has 10 assists.

In Cape Breton, the Screaming Eagles will rely heavily on goaltender Olivier Roy to stop Halifax's high-powered offense. Five Halifax scorers have put up 11 or more points in the Mooseheads eight playoff games. The team boasts three of the league's top seven playoff scorers.

In the final series, Saint John will have to find a way to stifle the offense of Acadie-Bathurst's top line of Tomas Svoboda, Mathieu Perreault, and Tomy Joly if it wants to close out its series.

That trio is one of the highest scoring lines in the league, and has combined for 39 points in their eight playoff games, including three goals and 10 points in the first two games of the second round.

With each of the series changing venues, all eyes will be on how the lower seeds will handle their home crowd, and their 0-2 deficits. Each of the four series is back in action Tuesday.

Around the QMJHL –
Rimouski was awarded the 2009 Mastercard Memorial Cup Championship this week at a ceremony at the Hyatt-Regency Hotel in downtown Montreal. … Rouyn-Noranda defenseman Sebastien Piche will be another threat to the playoff hopes of the Oceanic, as the four-year veteran currently sits second in the QMJHL defenseman scoring race with 13 points in six games played. He trails only Prokop for the league lead, though Prokop has an extra game played. Remi Blanchard, a rookie for Acadie Bathurst, is looking sharp in his first taste of the QMJHL playoffs, having scored three goals and eight points through his first seven games.  … Moncton won the QMJHL Draft Lottery and will select first at the 2008 QMJHL Entry Draft at the Centre 200 in Cape Breton on June 7. … Rimouski goaltender Jean-Christophe Blanchard, a 6-foot-5 over-ager from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, is doing everything he can to make his final Q playoffs a memorable one. He led his team to a five-game upset of the heavily favored Baie-Comeau Drakkar, and has played inspired hockey in all of his seven starts en route to a 1.89 GAA and a .937 save percentage to go along with a 4-3 record. His playoff GAA and save percentage are second only to that of Rouyn-Noranda netminder Maxim Gougeon, who has posted a 1.69 GAA and a .946 save percentage in his six starts.

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