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Playoff drama abounds across junior landscape

by Brad Holland /

Center Zach Boychuk and the Lethbridge Hurricanes hope to return the favor to the Calgary Hitmen, who eliminated them
from the WHL Playoffs back in 2006.
Lethbridge's Zach Boychuk is playing bigger than his 5-foot-9, 176-pound frame should allow.

The three-year Western Hockey League veteran has four goals in his past two games, both wins against the top-seeded Calgary Hitmen, giving him 11 goals and 18 points through 12 playoff games.

His teammates are hoping Boychuk continues his hot streak heading home to Lethbridge, where the next two games of the series will be played. The Hurricanes are looking to knock off the Hitmen, who have advanced to the Eastern Conference Championship for the second straight time.

In addition, the Hurricanes are looking for revenge from their 2006 playoff defeat at the hands of the Hitmen, a series that Calgary won in six games.

Boychuk, a native of Airdrie, Alberta, is playing his best hockey of the season at a time when there are nothing but big games remaining on the schedule. It is a role Boychuk has become accustomed to this season, having played in a number of pressure-filled games in 2007-08.

He was a member of the 2008 Canadian World Junior Championship team, and played in all seven games as Canada claimed its fifth consecutive gold medal. He also showed up in the 2008 CHL Top Prospects game, scoring a goal and adding two assists in an 8-4 victory for his Team White and taking home Player of the Game honors.

In addition, he has been a model of consistency in the 2008 WHL playoffs, with two five-game points scoring streaks already to his credit, and points in 10 of 12 games overall.

He leads the Hurricanes, and the rest of the WHL, in goals with 11, and sits first on his team -- and second overall to rookie T.J. Galiardi of the Hitmen -- in points with 18 in 12 games.

Galiardi, meanwhile, has 23 points in 14 games played to lead the league.

Boychuk is eligible for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa this summer where he is projected to be selected in the first round, potentially with a top-10 pick.

Around the WHL – Tri-City Americans forward Colton Yellow Horn and Calgary Hitmen defenseman Karl Alzner were nominated Friday for the WHL Player of the Year award. Yellow Horn established career-best totals of 48 goals and 97 points this season as he and the Americans won the U.S. Division, the Western Conference, and the overall WHL title, a feat the franchise had never accomplished. Alzner scored seven goals and put up 36 points, playing to a plus-26 rating in 60 games played, and was an integral piece of a Hitmen team that captured its first Central Division and Eastern Conference regular-season title since the 1999-00 season. The award will be announced at a ceremony following the WHL playoffs. … The Spokane Chiefs narrowly missed out on a chance to open up a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven series vs. the tournament's No. 1 seed, the Tri-City Americans. The Americans came away with a thrilling 1-0, double-OT victory Sunday afternoon, tying the semifinal matchup at one game apiece as the series shifts to Spokane. … Remember the names of the goaltenders playing head-to-head in the Spokane/Tri-City series, because they could be facing one another in a few years in a similar situation, but in the NHL instead. Both Dustin Tokarski (SPO) and Chet Pickard (TC) are very highly ranked for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Tokarski is No. 11 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking list of North American goalies. Pickard currently holds down the top slot. The final rankings list is released Thursday. The two netminders sit 1-2 on the WHL playoff list for save percentage and goals-against average with Tokarski holding down the top slot in both categories. In addition, the two are tied for the league-lead in playoff shutouts with three apiece, while Tokarski is tied for the league lead in wins with 10 and Pickard is tied for second with nine.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

The Telus Division is winning a war of attrition.

Gatineau, No. 3 seed in the Telus Division, has jumped to a 2-0 lead against top-seeded Halifax in one semifinal, while the league's No. 1 seed, Rouyn-Noranda, has taken each of its first two games at home and now travel in an attempt to close out the series in Saint John.

Things, however, have not been easy for Gatineau; or, for that matter, Halifax.

The Olympiques have taken each of the first two games, in Halifax, in overtime, stunning the home crowd in single OT in Game 1 and in double OT in Game 2.

Claude Giroux, the QMJHL's leading playoff scorer with 31 points in 12 games, assisted on his team's first overtime goal and scored the second -- his 11th goal in 12 games -- unassisted at the 7:06 mark of the second OT of Game 2.

The series will now shift back to Gatineau for Games 3 and 4, which bodes well for the Olympiques, who have a chance to close things out on home ice.

The two teams will be back in action Wednesday. Rouyn-Noranda and Saint John, meanwhile, are set to play Game 3 in Saint John on Tuesday evening.

Around the QMJHL –
The QMJHL playoffs have been tough on rookies this season as only three: Nicholas Petersen of Shawinigan (six points in five games), Jan Kana of PEI (four in four), and Olivier Dame-Malka (two in two) have been able to put up at least one point per game. Rookie Mikhail Stefanovich of the Quebec Remparts is tied with Acadie-Bathurst Titan forward Remi Blanchard for the league lead, as each has scored eight points in 11 games. … Rouyn-Noranda goaltender Maxim Gougeon has now pushed his winning streak to 10 games, and has played to a 10-0 record with a 2.16 GAA and a .928 save percentage. … Sebastian Pliche, a defenseman for the Huskies, is currently leading his team in points with two goals and 20 points in 10 games.

Ontario Hockey League

Matt Beleskey
, the OHL Player of the Week for the period ending April 20, is seeing his OHL career peaking right before his eyes.

Career marks in goals, assists and points this season wasn't enough for the four-year forward. Now, he appears intent on earning an OHL Championship and possibly a Memorial Cup berth in 2008.

He and his Bulls are charging through the OHL playoffs, with a record of 11-2 in their 13 games and had wins in 10 straight before a Monday night loss to the Generals.

Beleskey has been the Bulls' best forward in their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with the Oshawa Generals. He has scored a goal and added six assists for seven points in four games.

Beleskey has increased his goal and points totals in each of his four OHL seasons, progressing from a 10-goal, 23-point freshman campaign to a 41-goal, 90-point season in 2007-08.

In addition, he has cracked the century mark for penalty minutes in each of his past five seasons, amassing a career-best mark of 124 in 2006-07.

He was a fourth-round selection of Anaheim in 2006, and has only ever worn the Bulls' colors in his four-year OHL stint. He joined the team after a season with the Collingwood Blues of the Ontario Provincial League.
Around the OHL –
Kitchener has jumped to a 3-1 series lead against Sault Ste. Marie by doing what it's done all season – scoring a ton of goals. The Rangers have outscored the Greyhounds 17-10, including a 13-6 margin in the past two games. The Rangers have been so dominant offensively that their top line of Justin Azevedo, Matt Halischuk, and Nick Spaling sit 1-2-3, respectively, in playoff scoring, while rookie Mikkel Boedker sits fourth. Azevedo leads all scorers with 25 points, while Halischuk is tied for the league lead in goals with 11 and sits second with 23 points. Spaling and Boedker are tied for third with 21 points each. … Niagara forward Luca Caputi signed his first professional contract this week and has been skating with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL, though he has yet to participate in a game. The Penguins currently lead their best-of-seven series with the Hershey Bears, 3-0. Caputi, the IceDogs' leading scorer this season, had career-best numbers in goals (51) and points (111), as well as plus/minus (plus-26) and penalty minutes (107). He also finished third in the IceDogs playoff scoring race with eight goals and 17 points in 10 games. … Rangers' goaltender Josh Unice may have taken over the starters' role in Kitchener as the rookie netminder has started five consecutive games, closing out the second-round series against the Sting before starting the first four games of the Western Conference Final. Unice entered Game 4 against the Sting in relief of Steve Mason, who earned the win despite allowing two goals on 14 shots. Mason appears to be injured and unable to play, though he will hopefully be ready in the coming weeks. Unice has now won four of his past five starts, playing to a 2.20 GAA and a .919 save percentage.

United States Hockey League

The first round of the USHL Clark Cup playoffs finished this week and Omaha, Lincoln, Chicago and Waterloo are still alive in the race for the USHL championship.

The first round wasn't without its share of drama, though, as top-seeded Indiana was ousted by Chicago in four games. The Steel, the fourth seed in the East Division, will now face the Waterloo Blackhawks, the East's No. 2 seed.

In the West, Anderson Cup-winning Omaha survived a scary first round with the Sioux City Musketeers to advance to the second round for the first time since 2003.

The Lancers, fresh off of a dramatic 5-4 overtime victory that gave them a 2-1 lead in the series, were able to score three third-period goals (from Matt White, Aaron Lewadniuk and Andrew Conboy) and earn a dramatic come-from-behind and series-clinching victory in Game 4.

Omaha will now take on Lincoln in Round 2.

Around the USHL – Luca Cunti, the dangerous and dynamic Swiss forward who left St. Cloud State this season due to NCAA Clearinghouse issues, has been a very valuable piece of the Chicago attack in the 2008 playoffs, with two goals and four points in four games thus far. He scored 11 goals and 32 points in 34 games this season. … Omaha and Lincoln are familiar foes and will meet one another for their fifth playoff series in one of the USHL's most-enduring rivalries. Previous meetings came in 1997, 2001, '03, and '06, with Lincoln having won three of those meetings and boasting an all-time 12-7 record against Omaha. … The individual award winners have come to play in the USHL playoffs, with outstanding Forward and Player of the Year Jason Gregoire sitting tied for first in overall USHL scoring with five points in five games and Goaltender of the Year David Reekie currently sitting with a 3-0 record, a 2.38 GAA and a .918 save percentage in three starts. Defenseman of the Year Blake Kessel has also been a productive postseason player, putting up five assists in three games – all wins – for his Waterloo Blackhawks.
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