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Plenty on the line for WHL playoff-bound teams

by Brad Holland

The Medicine Hat Tigers play 4 of their final 12 games at home.
The Western Hockey League’s playoff picture may seem all but set, but for the teams currently sitting in a playoff spot, the final month of the season can be more jostling than a New York City subway at rush hour.

And more is on the line than ever before, as the WHL enters into a new playoff format for the 2007-08 season. The two division leaders will receive the top two seeds in the conference, with three through eight seeded on regular-season points. The first round will pair No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6, and No. 4 vs. No. 5 in a best-of-seven series.

The remainder of the playoff rounds will follow the format as in previous seasons, with the advancing teams re-seeded by regular-season points and paired 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 in the second round and 1 vs. 2 in the third round. In the final series, the team with the higher regular season points total takes home ice advantage.

In previous seasons, the WHL had used a divisional format for its first-round matchups.

In the Eastern Conference, the Moose Jaw Warriors, with a 30-17 record this season, hold a 22-point cushion over their closest chasers, the Edmonton Oil Kings. The scene is much the same in the Western Conference, as the Kamloops Blazers hold a 20-point lead over the Prince George Cougars.

Things aren’t nearly so cut-and-dry elsewhere.

In the ultra-competitive East, the teams who sit fourth through eighth: the Kooteny Ice (76), Medicine Hat Tigers (75), Swift Current Broncos (73), Brandon Wheat Kings (72), and the Warriors (71), are separated by only five points. The Warriors have played the fewest games, with 58, while the Ice and the Broncos have played the most at 61.

This week, the Ice held onto their slim lead, and the home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, at least, with two wins in three games, and a 6-3-0-1 record in their past 10. The Warriors, comparatively, stumbled with two losses on the week and only have managed two points in their past four games, and four wins in their last 10.

The Swift Current Broncos, meanwhile, have played the best hockey of late, with eight wins in their past 10. In addition, the Broncos likely have the more favorable schedule down the stretch, with seven of their final 11 games at home, and seven of their final 11 games against the other four teams jockeying for playoff position.

Finally, they will not have to play any of the teams in the top three -- Calgary, Lethbridge and Regina. Both Medicine Hat and Brandon will face those top three teams four times, while Kooteny and Moose Jaw will face them three each.

Medicine Hat faces the most difficult run to the postseason, with only four of its final 12 games at home.

In the West, the jockeying is more spread out, but there is just as much on the line. Three separate races between the first through third seeds, the fourth through six seeds, and the seventh and eighth seeds will make the final month of the season a highly competitive and entertaining affair.

Perhaps the most intense race will involve the Tri-City Americans, the Vancouver Giants and the Spokane Chiefs. The three teams are currently separated by only six points, but the third-place team, the Chiefs, holds two games in hand on the top-slotted Americans. The Giants, too, hold a game in hand on the Americans, and all games being equal, the three teams could be separated by only three points.

The Giants will play seven of their final 11 at home, but will not face either the Chiefs or the Americans in their remaining schedule. The Chiefs play seven of their final 13 at home, and the two USA-based teams will face one another a total of three more times, including the season-ending game for the Americans, on March 15.

Regardless of what happens, the remaining schedule for the Western Hockey League will have more than its share of important matchups. Even the teams currently out of the playoffs will have a say in the final seeding for 2008, and none more so than the Red Deer Rebels. The Rebels will play nine of their final 12 games versus teams currently in the playoffs.

And true to their name, the Rebels will be looking to cause some problems in the wild west playoff picture.

Around the WHL -- Zach Boychuk of the Lethbridge Hurricanes, a top prospect for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, had one goal and five points in three Hurricanes wins this week, while teammate Juha Metsola, goaltender for the Hurricanes, won each of his two starts and ran his winning streak to five games. Backup goaltender Michael Maniago had one start this week, and won it in grand fashion: a 27-save shutout over the Eastern Conference-leading Calgary Hitmen on Friday night. … Everett Silvertips forward Zach Hamill is doing what he can to help his and his teammates’ playoff position. The fifth-year WHL forward has put up a point in each of his teams’ five straight wins, and has six goals and 10 points along the way, capped off by a hat trick, five-point performance in an 8-4 defeat of the Seattle Thunderbirds on Saturday night. … Slovakian-born Vancouver Giants forward Mario Bliznak scored four goals in three games this week, on the strength of a pair of two-goal performances. The Giants won each of the three, and have an an unbeaten streak to five games as they attempt to chase down the Western Division-leading Tri-City Americans. Bliznak has now scored seven goals in his past seven games.

Ontario Hockey League

Mickey Renaud

The OHL and all of junior hockey is mourning the sudden death of Mickey Renaud, a center with the Windsor Spitfires. Renaud, 19, died after collapsing at his home in Tecumseh, Ontario.

Renaud, a fifth-round draft pick of the Calgary Flames, was taken to a hospital with no vital signs and attempts at resuscitation were unsuccessful, team physician Dr. Roy Diklich said.

Renaud was pronounced dead in the emergency room at Windsor Regional Hospital, the Ontario Hockey League team said on its Web site.

Renaud, the captain, was in his third year with the Spitfires and had 21 goals and 41 points in 56 games this season.

"This is the biggest tragedy in Spitfire history," Windsor General Manager Warren Rychel said in a statement. "Words alone cannot describe our pain at this time."

On the ice, the Oshawa Generals, six points behind the Belleville Bulls in the East Division, showed a little bit of magic this past week as they continue to chase one of the league’s top teams.

John Tavares and Kevin Baker each had two shorthanded points, and the two teamed up for Tavares’ game-winner with only 4:39 remaining in the third period, as the Oshawa Generals rallied to defeat the Brampton Battalion on Friday night.

The Generals followed that improbable win with a 5-3 defeat of the Kingston Frontenacs on Sunday afternoon, their fourth win in the last six games. But it will be difficult for the Generals to catch the Bulls, who rarely lose and are riding a 5-0-1-0 stretch.

The race could come down to the final week of the season, as the teams will play a home-and-home set on March 12 and 14, games that will no doubt be tightly contested, even if the race is all but decided.

Bobby Sanguinetti put up one assist and a plus-5 rating in the two wins.

Around the OHL -- With two assists vs. the Kingston Frontenacs on Sunday afternoon, Tavares ran his season-high points streak to 27 games, during which he has scored 15 goals and 54 points. He was last held off the score sheet on Nov. 10, along with the rest of his teammates, in a 3-0 loss at the hands of the London Knights and Tavares’ WJC Team Canada teammate Steve Mason … Despite a tough defeat at the hands of the Generals on Friday night, the Brampton Battalion rebounded with two wins on Saturday and Sunday of this week. Cory Emmerton (DET) had three assists in the two victories, giving him 12 points in his past seven games, and Bobby Sanguinetti (NYR) put up one assist and a plus-5 rating in the two wins. … Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defender Jacob Muzzin skated to a plus-5 rating with two assists in two wins this week, and goaltender Kyle Gajewski won each of his two starts as the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds continue to carry the flag in the West Division, despite the fact that the Windsor Spitfires are only two points behind them.

United States Hockey League

It has been a season of milestones for Omaha Lancers coach Mike Hastings.

Hastings earned his 518th win this past weekend, giving him the all-time record for the USHL. He moved past former USHL coaching great Bob Ferguson, who won 517 games with Sioux City and Des Moines.

He earned his 500th win earlier this season.

Perhaps more importantly to Hastings, however, is that his Lancers continue to play solid hockey. They scored seven goals in each of their three games this week, winning each and running their winning streak to nine consecutive games.

With a 32-9-3 record, the Lancers are the class of the league, with 67 points through 44 games, and the toast of the West Division – they lead their closest competition, the Sioux City Musketeers, by 14 points.

Around the USHL -- The Players of the Week this week were dominated by the Omaha Lancers, as the team swept the RBK Offensive, CCM Defensive, and Stauber’s Goalcrease Goaltender of the Week honors. Forward Chris Connoly scored four goals and seven points in three wins to take the offensive honor, defenseman Patrick Wiercioch had four assists and skated to a plus-5 rating to take the defensive honors, and goaltender Drew Palmisano won each of his two starts, one by shutout, and played to a 1.50 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage on the week. … Corson Cramer made 24 saves to earn his first shutout of the season as the Ohio Jr. Blue Jackets defeated the Green Bay Gamblers 2-0 on Friday. … Joe Miller of the Sioux City Musketeers has scored a goal in each of his last four games, totaling eight points along the way. He now has 38 points – 20 goals – through 41 games this season, and has taken over his team’s lead in points. … Blake Kessel (NYI), the USHL’s leader in defensive scoring, had his six-game points scoring streak broken this week. Kessel, a member of the Waterloo Blackhawks, scored four goals and 10 points in the six-game stretch.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

He may not be eligible for the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, but Cape Breton Screaming Eagles goaltender Olivier Roy is already doing what he can to make the scouts sit up and take notice.

He continued a strong season this week with two wins, a shutout and a .947 save percentage in two starts. Perhaps most impressive was that Roy earned his shutout, a 21-save performance on Saturday night, over the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, who currently sit second in the QMJHL standings.

For his efforts, Roy, who earlier this season set the QMJHL’s fourth-longest shutout streak with 167 minutes and 51 seconds, earned the QMJHL Defensive Player of the Week honors.

This is the second TELUS Defensive Player of the Week award for the young goaltender, as he last took the award for the week ending December 7, 2007. He was also named the Rookie of the Month for October 2007.

Of rookie goaltenders with 20 or more starts this season, Roy sits first in goals-against average (2.85), first in wins (22), third in save percentage (0.896) and second in overall minutes played (2,087.46).

He now needs only one win to tie the QMJHL record for rookie goaltender wins (23), set by Lewiston MAINEiacs goaltender Peter Delmas last season.

Around the QMJHL -- After a four-game losing streak, the Gatineau Olympiques got back to their winning ways in a big way. The Olympiques have won six consecutive games, and have outscored their opponents by a lopsided 29-5 margin in that stretch of games. This week, the Olympiques defeated Shawinigan 8-1, Victoriaville 4-1 and Drummondville by a 9-2 score. As a result of their offensive outburst, a number of Olympiques put up huge offensive numbers, led by TELUS Offensive Player of the Week Matthew Pistilli. Pistilli, who is already having a career season, put up five goals and eight assists for 13 points in the three games, to go along with 16 shots on goal and a +9 rating. His linemate Claude Giroux (PHI) also had a big week, with three goals and nine assists in the three games, and with the 12-point week he has now taken over the QMJHL league lead in points with 88 points through 47 games. Pistilli and Giroux each have a six-game point streak going, and each has 18 points in the six games. … The Acadie-Bathurst Titan are currently the hottest team in the QMJHL. The Titan have won four-straight games and nine of their past 10, and are looking to continue to climb the QMJHL standings. They sit ninth in league standings and fifth in the East Division, only one point out of fourth and five out of third. … Acadie-Bathurst leading scorer Mathieu Perreault (WSH) was held without a point Friday night, the first time in 27 games that he was held scoreless. Perreault scored 13 goals and 44 points in his QMJHL season-high points streak. … With one goal in their 9-2 defeat of Drummondville on Sunday afternoon, Olympiques forward Paul Byron (BUF) has now scored at least one goal in six straight, with nine goals along the way.


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