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Spokane turns tables on Everett in WHL playoffs

by Brad Holland
Spokane Chiefs' forward Mitch Wahl scored the game winner in overtime in Game 3 to knock the Everett Silvertips from the WHL Playoffs.
Nothing stings so much as a playoff defeat, mainly because it can take a full year or more to get a chance at redemption. Wins during the regular season can help ease the pain, but having your season ended still stings.

So when Spokane Chiefs forward and 73-point scorer Mitch Wahl took the ice with his teammates for Game 1 of their opening round WHL series versus the Everett Silvertips, the Chiefs' 2007 first-round exit was still fresh in their minds.

"Last year, it was disappointing to lose to them," Wahl said. "They were the first seed, but this time around, us being the higher seed, we wanted revenge. And I think a lot of guys had that in the back of their head."

So, it was very satisfying for Wahl, who scored the game-winning, overtime goal versus the Silvertips on Friday night to close the series.

This season, things were indeed different. The Chiefs, not the Silvertips, were the higher seed and boasted home-ice advantage. Plus Spokane was one of the better teams in the regular season.

But it took losing last season in the first round, and the experience that comes with growing as individuals and as a team, in order to achieve success in 2008. Some of the lessons learned last season will never be forgotten.

In losing to the Silvertips last season, the Chiefs were able to claw their way back from a 2-0 deficit, but eventually lost the series in six games. The fact the Chiefs were able to battle back from that 0-2 hole and force a tie with the higher-seeded Silvertips was not lost on this year's Chiefs team, and they took that lesson to heart. It was a lesson on just how quickly fortunes can change in the playoffs. In fact, Chiefs goaltender Dustin Tokarski saw it as a focus of the team -- not to let the Silvertips back into the series after sweeping their first two games.

"You can't let up for a second, every goal is huge. Some crazy stuff has happened in playoffs. Last year, we came back and tied it 2-2 after being down 2-0 and we definitely (didn't) want to let them back in heading back to Everett," Tokarski said.

In addition, Tokarski and his teammates learned about how jumping out to a lead -- being prepared when the first playoff puck is dropped -- can dramatically increase your chances of winning a series. Last season, their two-game comeback was too little, too late. This season, the Chiefs took each of the first two games and then didn't let off the pressure en route to their four-game sweep.

Tokarski credits the final stretch run into the playoffs, in which the Chiefs were able to win 11 of their final 14 games, as part of the reason he and his teammates were more prepared in the postseason than they may have been last season.

"We were really coming on strong, and right now is the biggest time of year so this is when you want to be playing your best hockey. The more competition the better," he said.

In addition, in those final 14 games of the regular season, the Chiefs played a total of 11 games versus playoff teams, and won nine. The team's leading scorer in the regular season, Drayson Bowman, understands the importance of riding into the playoffs with momentum.

"Going through that at the end of the regular season really geared us up. Hopefully we can keep it up," he said.

Perhaps most important for the team's playoff preparation was the fact that the Chiefs, Vancouver Giants and Tri-City Americans were all heading down the stretch battling for first overall in the WHL. The Americans and the Chiefs were also engaged in a drag-'em-out battle for the U.S. Division that saw the two teams face another four times in the final three weeks of the season.

The Chiefs, who were far behind the Americans to start, won each of the first three games and the four-game mini-series culminated in a head-to-head matchup that put the three titles -- the U.S. Division, the Western Conference, and the WHL regular season -- up for grabs.

Win the game, and you take the Division, the East, and the WHL: A more pressure-filled or playoff-like atmosphere would be hard to imagine. Unfortunately, the Chiefs were defeated, 2-1, but Tokarski sees it as another opportunity at revenge.

"We had a game against Tri-City for all the marbles and we came up a little short," he said. "A win would've gotten us the top seed, but it gives us more fire to maybe meet them in the Conference Final and maybe get them back there."

Talk with the players and it's pretty obvious that revenge for last year's defeat wasn't the only thing they took out of their 2007 postseason. This team is move focused, more mature, and more aware of what playoff hockey is all about.

"Any team can beat anyone," Wahl said. "We're not taking anything for granted."

Which makes these Chiefs a very dangerous matchup for their second-round opponent.

Around the WHL -- WHL Rookie T.J. Galiardi has taken over the playoff lead in scoring, and he has done so by putting up two-plus points in five of his first six playoff games. His two goals and 13 assists in the six games gives him two more points than the next-closest playoff scorers, Moose Jaw Warriors forward Jason Bast and Kelowna Rockets forward Colin Long, who are tied with 11 each. … Both Calgary and Lethbridge closed out their first-round series Sunday, eliminating Moose Jaw and Brandon, respectively, in six games. … The second round playoff picture is now just about set, with seven of the eight teams currently sitting and waiting for the final series to be completed. The Seattle Thunderbirds and the Kelowna Rockets will face off for the first Game 7 of the 2008 Playoffs when Kelowna visits Seattle on Tuesday. … Hurricanes defenseman Luca Sbisa put up at least one point in four of the six games it took his team to knock out the Wheat Kings in the first round, and sits second in overall defensive scoring in the playoffs. Sbisa is a top prospect for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft and could go as high as Round 1 in Ottawa. … Rockets' defenseman Luke Schenn is known better for his defensive prowess than his offensive game, but that didn't stop him from a notching three-point outing while facing elimination on Saturday night. Schenn now has four points in six playoff games. … If Seattle defeats Kelowna in its Game 7, each of the top four seeds will have moved on in the Western Conference, and three by four-game sweeps. In the East, things haven't been so easy for the top seeds, as Swift Current defeated the Regina Pats in six games and the Kooteny Ice defeated the Medicine Hat Tigers in five.

Ontario Hockey League

A December 31, 2007 trade between the Barrie Colts and the Sarnia Sting had an immediate impact for two goaltenders, one that rippled into two first-round upsets.

The Barrie Colts traded away their No. 1 goaltender, Andrew Perugini, and one of their aging superstars, to the Sarnia Sting for a package of prospects and draft picks. As a result, Perugini took over the starting job in Sarnia, and young Michael Hutchinson took over the starting job in Barrie.

Barrie goaltender Michael Hutchinson helped the Colts win their opening round OHL playoff series.
Each goaltender led his team to opening-round upsets over heavily favored opponents in Round 1, and it didn't take either goaltender more than five games to do it.

Hutchinson, eligible for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft and currently rated at No. 18 on the CSS Midterm Rankings for North American goaltenders, currently sits first in the OHL playoffs in saves (229), tied for first in minutes (333), second in GAA (1.48), and second in save percentage (.965).

Perugini's numbers haven't been as sterling as Hutchinson's, but at 228 saves he sits one behind his ex-backup, and his 2.46 GAA and .943 save percentage are hardly something to sneeze at.

Simply put, each has been phenomenal in his team's opening round victory.

Phenomenal might not be good enough, however, as both the Belleville Bulls (Barrie's opponent) and the Kitchener Rangers (Sarnia's opponent) are no slouches on offense. Of the teams remaining in the playoffs, only the Niagara IceDogs scored more regular-season goals than Kitchener's 289 and Belleville's 280, and no playoff team has scored more in the first round than Belleville's 22 and Kitchener's 29.

The Kitchener Rangers place six of their skaters in the top-15 scorers of the OHL playoffs.

Both Hutchinson and Perugini have their work cut out for them if they expect another upset, but it appears as if these two might just be up to the task.

Around the OHL -- The only goaltender that may be hotter than Hutchinson or Perugini in the OHL playoffs is Niagara IceDogs netminder Sebastian Dahm, who came over at the CHL's trading deadline from the Sudbury Wolves. Dahm allowed only four goals in four starts in the IceDogs defeat of the St. Michael's Majors, with two shutouts, a 1.00 GAA and a .969 save percentage -- he leads the OHL in each of those categories. … The line of Justin Azevedo, Nick Spaling and Matt Halischuk dominated the first round, putting up 36 points between them in their four-game sweep of the Plymouth Whalers. However, they weren't able to sit 1-2-3 after Round 1, as young Steven Stamkos put up an incredible nine goals in the Sting's five-game upset of the Windsor Spitfires. Stamkos currently sits third, tied with Halischuk but with, obviously, more goals. … Rounding out the category of big-name goaltenders to change teams at the trade deadline was Oshawa netminder Michal Neuvirth, who allowed only six goals in four starts -- all wins -- in the Generals' defeat of the Ottawa 67's in the first round. The goaltender for the 67's? None other than Andrew Perugini's younger brother, Chris Perugini. … The addition of Matt Caria has been a boon for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, as the hometown kid scored 14 goals and 31 points in only 26 regular season games with the 'Hounds and now currently leads his team with three goals and eight points through four games in the playoffs. … The Windsor Spitfires may have been eliminated from the first round, but they have a lot to look forward to next season. Their dynamic rookie duo of Ryan Ellis and Taylor Hall each had two goals and five points in five playoff games, and the pair looks to be a dangerous combination for years to come. Ellis isn't available until the 2009 NHL Draft while Hall won't be draftable until 2010.

United States Hockey League

Though the Indiana Ice made the chase interesting down the stretch, the Omaha Lancers have officially claimed their fifth Anderson Cup in franchise history.

The Cup, awarded to the top regular season record in the league, guarantees the Lancers home-ice advantage throughout the Clark Cup playoffs, which will begin the week of April 7.

"On behalf of the USHL and its members, I congratulate the Omaha Lancers on their 2008 Anderson Cup Championship," USHL Commissioner Gino Gasparini said in a release.  "A USHL season is a long, tough grind on the players and the coaches, making the Anderson Cup very difficult to win.  The Lancers have been at or near the top of the standings from day one this season and they truly deserve to put their names on this trophy."

The Lancers clinched the cup with a 3-2 win at Cedar Rapids on Saturday night.

Around the USHL -- The Chicago Steel were able to clinch their own playoff berth this week, and now everything is set but the matchups. … The Waterloo Blackhawks are playing some of their finest hockey of the season, led by forward Billy Maday, who is riding a four-game points streak and has points in nine of his past 10 games, to the tune of six goals and 13 points. The Blackhawks have won nine of those 10 games. … The only goaltender in the USHL with a sub-2.00 GAA, Lincoln Stars goaltender David Reekie, has struggled lately, having gone 2-4-1 in his past seven starts. During that time, he has allowed 20 goals, which is three more than he allowed in his first 16 appearances of the season. He will have to heat back up if he expects to keep his GAA under 2.00 for the season, and if his Stars hope to make any noise in the postseason. … Heading into the final 10 days of the regular season, the overall league scoring title is very much up for grabs, but it has turned into a two-horse race. Sioux Falls forward Jack Connolly with 69 points leads all skaters, but Indiana Ice forward Gregory Squires is only two behind. In addition, the overall goal-scoring lead is even more wide-open, as Lincoln Stars forward Jason Gregoire and Ice forward Paul Carey have each scored 33 on the season, with Sioux Falls forward Jake Hansen only two behind. Former Chicago Steel forward Andy Miele, now with the University of Miami-Ohio Redhawks, is still only three goals behind with 30, despite having played in only 29 games this season.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

Members of the Rookie, First-Team and Second-Team All-Stars for the QMJHL 2007-08 season were announced March 31, and while debate is unavoidable, a more complete collection of players who made their mark on the league this season would be hard to come up with.

Rookie goaltender Olivier Roy (Cape Breton) earned the nod in goal, while Samuel Goulx (Quebec) and Simon Despres (Saint John) filled out the defensive All-Rookie complement. The offensive unit was comprised of center Tomas Knotek (Halifax), with a pair of teammates on his wings: Chicoutimi left wing Nicolas Deschamps, who led all rookies in scoring with 67 points, and right wing Jacob Legace.

Noticeably absent from this list was super-rook Mikhail Stefanovich, who finished tied with Knotek for second in Q rookie scoring with 32 goals and 66 points in 62 games. His 32 goals were tops among first-year skaters.

For the Second-Team All-Star selections, the list was headlined by regular season scoring champ Mathieu Perreault (Acadie-Bathurst) who earned the nod at center. On his wings will sit right wing Jakub Voracek (Halifax) and left wing Michael Dubuc (Rouyn-Noranda). Dubuc's 44 goals were tied for second in the league.

On the back end, goaltender Marco Cousineau (Baie-Comeau) earned the nod after posting the league's second-best wins total with 34. The Second-Team defense pairing will include Kevin Marshall (Lewiston) and Ivan Vishnevskiy (Rouyn-Noranda), both NHL-drafted players, Marshall by the Flyers and Vishnevskiy by the Dallas Stars.

For the First-Teamers, goaltender Kevis Desfosses (Quebec) earns the nod, as his 35 wins were one better than Second-Team selection Cousineau. The defensive pairing is Marc-Andre Bourdon (Rouyn-Noranda) and Marc Andre Dorion (Baie-Comeau), while the offensive unit is made up of left wing Stefano Giliati (Lewiston), center Francis Pare (Chicoutimi), who led the Q in goal scoring, and right wing Claude Giroux (Gatineau).

Around the QMJHL -- Claude Giroux, with a one-goal, four-point performance in the series-clinching game on Friday night, jumped into first place in the overall playoff scoring race. His four goals and 14 points through five games is league-best. Giroux's teammate, defenseman Patrick Prokop assisted on four goals in the clinching game and now sits tied for first in the league with 10 assists through five games. He is tied with Giroux, and Ryan Sparling of the Saint John Sea Dogs. … Rookie Nicholas Petersen is leading all rookies in both goals and points -- he had five goals and six points for Shawinigan in five games -- but his lead will not last for long as his team was eliminated by Gatineau on Friday. … The Rouyn-Noranda duo of Brett Morrison and Michael Dubuc is looking to be a very potent combination in these playoffs, as the two played a huge part in knocking of the Val-d'Or Foreurs  in four straight games. The pair each had 11 points in the sweep, Morrison on the back of two goals and nine assists and Dubuc, the trigger-man on the line, with a league-high eight goals in the playoffs and three assists.

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