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11/28/2013 10:39 AM -
If you're looking for some hockey to watch over the holiday weekend, we have plenty of action for you, as nine teams take to the ice for 13 weekend games, including a series in Fresno featuring two division leaders that have some history with each other.
Below is a preview of each weekend series/game:
El Paso Rhinos (12-0-0, 1st in Midwest Division) @ Wichita Jr. Thunder (4-16-1, 5th in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Wichita, Kansas
Fresno and Idaho may be vying for the top spot in the league this weekend but the team with the best win percentage, the undefeated El Paso Rhinos, are also in action, as they head to Kansas for three with the Wichita Jr. Thunder.
The Rhinos had three weeks off to prepare for their meeting at home with Texas last weekend and showed absolutely no rust, winning each game decisively and outscoring the second place team in their division 28-3 over the three games.
The Rhinos have always been known for their physical play and very few teams in the league have been able to keep up with them this season. Cory Herman has put together one of, if not, the best teams we've seen from him, full of size, skill, speed and featuring a goaltender many believe to be the league's best, in 6'6" Adam Vay.
Much like the Fresno Monsters, the Rhinos haven't exactly played their best at the Thorne Cup over the last two seasons, falling flat as the host two years ago and doing the same in Idaho a few months back. With the event returning to the Sierra Providence Events Center this season, they're hoping their second go-around on home ice will go much better.
10 WSHL veterans litter the roster, led by forward Dakota Beaulieu, who came over in a pre-season trade from the New Mexico Renegades and currently leads the team with 20 points.
Tied for second with 19 points are Trey Hughes, who returned to the Rhinos after playing last season in the NA3HL and a teammate he brought along with him, Tom Bartel.
Also providing plenty of offense up front are veterans David Nelson and Chad Cesarz and a trio of brothers from Alberta, Matthew, Nick and Peter Plesa, who play together on the same line and have an uncanny ability to know where each other are at all times.
The Rhinos have also been stingy defensively, with veteran Chris Wilhite, a shot-blocking machine, also chipping in on the offensive end, with 15 points.
Jack Strusz, Eliot Herz, Brandon Edson and Nick Wright have also done pretty very well for themselves in expanded roles.
In net, Vay has been a stud, winning all 11 games he's played, including a shutout, a 1.58 goals against average and .944 save percentage. The Hungarian will be leaving the team in December to represent his country at the IIHF World Junior Championships, so they will have to find someone to carry the load in his stead but Herman is confident they can get the job done without their hulking netminder.
The Rhinos are also fourth in the league in both power play and penalty kill percentage and their nine short handed goals are tops in the league, proving they can get the job done in any situation.
Due to the style of play they enable, they're bound to run into some penalty trouble but lately, Herman has had to reel a few guys back in, as he realizes that undisciplined penalties could really hurt them when it comes time to face teams like Phoenix, Idaho and Fresno.
Taking to the road over a holiday weekend, the Rhinos just need to keep their focus on playing the way they have and they'll be able to continue their run.
The Wichita Jr. Thunder are much-improved in their second season in the league but they'll need a perfect storm to pick up points against the Rhinos this weekend.
They have had the last two weekends off to prepare for what should be their toughest series of the season and they do have the goaltending to keep them in games, so they'll definitely be giving it their all in front of the home crowd.
Head coach Rob Weingartner's trio of netminders definitely see more shots than they would like to but each has been terrific this season, as veterans Dakota McDonald and Marco Medina have been joined by newcomer Jake Larson to form a three-headed monster, with each having the ability to steal a game.
Their numbers won't show it, as again, they see far too many shots but they've all had games where they've dazzled and almost single-handily kept their team in the game.
Part of the reason they see so many shots is because the defensive corps is even younger than it was last season but they have been getting stronger as of late, led by veteran John Cruisinberry. They've also developed a little bit more of an edge, which they'll need against the hard-hitting Rhinos.
Just like last season, when the Jr. Thunder had guys like Filip Martinec, Andrii Istominov and Tomas Nemeth leading the way, there is some high-end talent on the roster, led by Joel Gellvear, who has a team-high 23 points on the season, as well as Felix Morin, Keegan Hull and Jack McClelland but they will need to find scoring from some of their depth players to hang around against the top team in their division.
The Jr. Thunder are a hardworking group, with many of their young players learning as they go and they will continue to improve as the season goes along.
If they can goad the Rhinos into some penalties and feast on their power play chances, they could find a way to stick around but if they continue to give up 50-plus shots and fall behind early, it could be a long weekend in Wichita.
Idaho Jr. Steelheads (16-1-0, 1st in Northwest Division) @ Fresno Monsters (16-1-1, 1st in Western Division)
Three-game series in Fresno, California
There are a number of great rivalries around the Western States Hockey League but none of them hold a candle to the one the Idaho Jr. Steelheads and Fresno Monsters have built since both teams came into the league in 2009.
The foundation was laid over their first two seasons in the league, when both teams competed in the Western Division and saw each six times per season. With both teams fighting for not only the division but the Thorne Cup Championship, as well, each and every game took on an even greater importance and the play on the ice proved that, as the two elite organizations put on a show each time they clashed.
With a bevvy of talent on each roster every season, the games between the two have always been played at a high-level but what is even more apparent when the Monsters and Jr. Steelheads meet, is the aggression and physicality they carry, as the disdain (in a hockey sense) for each other is palpable.
After the 2010-2011 season, the Jr. Steelheads switched divisions but the rivalry has been kept alive, as they met for a three-game set in October of 2011 in Fresno, with the Monsters taking two of three from Idaho. John Olver and the Jr. Steelheads eventually got the last laugh however, beating Fresno 3-1 during the Thorne Cup Finals in El Paso, before going on to win their second consecutive title.
Last year marked the first regular season in which the two teams didn't meet for a full series but they did clash at the Western States Shootout in Las Vegas and after falling behind early, Idaho roared back to win by a score of 4-2, with goaltender Blake Mendenhall sealing the deal with an empty netter.
Despite Fresno not winning their division last season, the two teams met at the Thorne Cup Finals in McCall, Idaho, as the Monsters got into the event by way of owning the best record in the league amongst non-division winners.
Playing with a chip on their shoulder, Bryce Dale's team put up a heck of a fight, twice taking a lead in the first period before Idaho eventually got on a run and won by a score of 4-3, before winning their third straight Thorne Cup.
Even though the names and faces have changed, when these two teams step on the ice tonight in Fresno, you can expect to see some of the best hockey of the season, as both are extremely well coached, have loads of talent and are certainly aware of the rivalry (if they aren't, the fans in Fresno will be sure to remind them.)
Even with the departure of John Olver, the architect of Idaho's first three championship squads, the Jr. Steelheads have looked just as good under first-year bench boss Kyle Grabowski, Olver's protégée who learned under him for four years.
The Steelies currently hold a record of 16-1-0, second in the league to only, you guessed it, the Fresno Monsters, who are one point better with a record of 16-1-0.
Idaho picked up wins in the first 11 games of Grabowski's tenure, before their 40-game win streak was snapped in their series finale against Boulder on November 6. Since that game however, they've looked even better than they had before, winning their last five straight and holding opponents to less than two goals per game.
The Jr. Steelheads always seems to have big goaltenders that put up huge numbers and this season, Sean Healy has continued that trend, going 11-0-0 with a league-best four shutouts, 1.09 goals against average and .955 save percentage. People will be quick to point out that the system and defense that the Jr. Steelheads employ helps skew the numbers a bit but if you've seen this kid play, you know he's the real deal.
The stifling defense, along with the help of Healy and backup Danny Kowalski, has Idaho averaging the lowest goals against per game in the league. They've been able to do that with just two veterans on the roster, in Swedes Anton Virtanen and Viktor Ivarsson, who were used more as reserves last season.
Up front, the team features eight veterans, led by Dak Dice and his 29 points and Kirk Van Arkel, who has 21, while newcomers like Kyle Ten Eyck, Victor Carlsson, Macky Power and Bryan Hodges have all helped fit in seamlessly, as well.
One of the most well coached teams you'll see at this level, Idaho moves the puck with precision and everything they do is calculated. Not coincidentally, their special teams are among the leagues' best, as they currently own the fifth ranked power play and top penalty kill unit.
If they can posses the puck as they normally do and make Fresno chase them, they'll be able to continue their new win streak this weekend.
The Monsters know what to expect however, having gone head-to-head with the Idaho Jr. Steelheads before and beating them, which few teams in the league can say.
Bryce Dale has assembled a team this season that, in my opinion, is better than any he's had before, as much like Idaho, they have speed, skill, physicality, veteran leadership, goaltending and an understanding of exactly what their coach wants from them.
In years past they've done it on skill or size alone but this version is a hungry, hardworking one filled with players looking to prove that their playoff struggles are behind them and so far, they're doing a good job of it.
The Monsters currently sit atop the Western Division and have points in 14 straight games, with their only regulation loss coming early in the season, on the road against the Lake Tahoe Blue.
The team is filled with veterans, 13 in total but rookie forward Mike Nolan is currently their leader in scoring and by a long shot, sitting fourth in the league with 37 points and twice being named the WSHL's first star of the week.
The next closest scorer is veteran Austin Browning and his 19 points, while a number of other veterans aren't far behind, including Mike Fabie and Jordan Fontaine.
The team's strength is definitely their defense, where four top-end veterans have been making life easy on first-year goaltenders Austin Piquette and Jerry Kaukinen, who have both been great when they've had to be. Those four d-men (Michael Freeman, Gunnar Dircks, Dan Fitzgerald and Mark Shroyer) each bring something different to the table and have been steady all season.
Even though their record is similar to what is has been at this point in years past, this Monsters team is better because they don't rely on a "run-and-gun" style to win the games.
Instead, they've focused on defense and picking their spots, taking advantage of their opportunities and wearing teams down to win games, which is a sign of a team that can pull out those tight victories come playoff time.
Gateway Ice Center, a small community rink in Fresno, isn't known for being a tough but you can bet it will be jumping this weekend for what should be one of the best series of the year.
With Thanksgiving weekend historically showcasing some of the best college football rivalries in the nation, it's appropriate that the Fresno Monsters and Idaho Jr. Steelheads rekindle theirs starting tonight, so yourself a favor and tune in on FastHockey.com, you won't regret it.
Southern Oregon Spartans (7-10-1, T-4th in Northwest Division) @ Cheyenne Stampede (7-8-1, 3rd in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Cheyenne, Wyoming
Both coming off of their strongest weekend of the season, the Southern Oregon Spartans and Cheyenne Stampede will both be looking to keep their run going when they meet for three in Wyoming's capital this weekend.
After a rough start to the coaching tenure of Jeremy Bachusz, the Spartans are just now starting to find their groove, after winning four straight, including a weekend sweep of the Missoula Maulers their last time out.
You got a feeling all season that this team, which started the year with just two veterans on the roster, was just waiting to breakout and now that the systems have been implemented and chemistry has been conjured, they look like they're ready to make a run.
Historically a very physical and often undisciplined team, Bachusz has turned that around in a big way, in only his first few months on the job.
Recruiting players with "high character" as he put it, was his chief concern and it's showed, as although they still lead the division in penalty minutes, they're on pace to be well below last season's output.
They have run into some problems lately however and the coaching staff is working hard to settle things down and continue to focus on hockey, which they did just fine against Missoula, winning three tight games against their divisional foe.
The Spartans aren't going to score a ton of goals, as they play a more defensive style than they have in years past but they have a good amount of depth and can throw a lot of different looks at their opponents.
Latvian forward Arturs Buss currently leads the team with 21 points on the season, while Austin Sartorius and Ben Henry have also been consistently effective, putting up 18 and 16 points, respectively.
The team has been solid defensively, especially lately, with veteran Mike Kowicki returning to the team and looking very good, while newcomers like Donny Nagle, Trevor Hillman and Ging Martin have been steady, as well.
Ian Dvorak and Jiri Ponikelsky have split time in net and each has had their moments, although neither has separated from the other. Last weekend, it was Dvorak getting most of the minutes and looking strong but it seems to change from week to week.
Not a high-scoring team, the Spartans have won every game in which they hold their opponents to three goals or fewer and have lost every game in which their opponent scores more than three goals, so the trend is quite obvious, they thrive in low scoring affairs.
Playing against a Cheyenne team that has had their share of offensive issues, the Spartans will need to force everything to the outside and get timely saves from their netminders in order to pick up a few wins.
Much like the Spartans, the Cheyenne Stampede are shaking off a slow start to the season and really got going in two victories over the Arizona Redhawks last weekend.
The two victories were a direct product of an offensive breakout, as Cheyenne scored 16 goals over the three-game weekend, including nine in Saturday night's victory alone.
Leading the charge were their trio of leading scorers, forwards Heath Lantz, Russell Armbruster and Alexander Andersson, who each have 23 points on the season and were huge in the Arizona series.
Also doing their share is veteran Jimmie Kotilainen and newcomers Branko Oktavec, who have adapted nicely to the North American game.
The biggest difference in the Arizona series was that Cheyenne got production from their blue line, which they were so good at over their first two seasons in the league but have dropped off to start this year.
Playing his first three games in a Stampede uniform, Patrik Kramarik notched six points from the backend and was named the WSHL's third star of the week for his efforts. If they can continue to get production form him and other blue liners, including Jacob Eisenstat and Filip Oravec, who are both offensive-minded, their numbers will continue to improve.
In net, they've had their issues, as veteran Sam Mallory has struggled with a heavy workload, as he split time with Daniel Cepila for most of last season and only appeared in 25 games. So far this season, he's already played 10 and has a record of just 3-6-0, although the defense in front of him hasn't been great.
Last weekend, it was the Swede Rasmus Hansson starting all three games and playing well in the two victories, so it will be interesting to see if they stick with the hot-hand moving forward.
If the Stampede can get all parts working together like they did last weekend against Arizona, they will be tough to play against, especially if their top-end forwards bury their chances.
Playing at home over a holiday weekend in front of what should be a sizable crowd, expect the Stampede to come out flying in one of the more evenly matched series they'll play.
Valencia Flyers (7-5-3, 4th in Western Division) vs. Long Beach Bombers (7-13-0, 5th in Western Division)
Home-and-home series played Friday in Valencia and Saturday in Lakewood, California
The Valencia Flyers will stay busy over the holiday, as they'll play a home-and-home against the Long Beach Bombers and follow it up with a single home game against the San Diego Gulls on Sunday.
A young and physically small roster hasn't mattered for the Flyers in their first season under head coach Josh Berge, as the former USHL standout has his team playing with a ton of heart, outworking their opponents every night and taking advantage of any and all opportunities they get.
With just two veterans on the roster at the start of the season, the Flyers have relied upon their depth and constant attack to get the job done, as they don't have a number of high-end imports or a couple of guys carrying the load but instead have received production from just about everyone on the roster.
One of the top players in the league over the last two years, veteran forward Austin Ehrlich once again leads Valencia in scoring, with 24 points through 15 games but he hasn't had to do it by himself, as they have a good amount of depth at forward. Junior hockey veterans Adam Papayoanou and Sam Basich have been consistent contributors since coming over, while newcomers like Zach Paxman, Jakob Kranabetter, Luc Whyte, Jared Waldman and Will Barnett have adapted their game nicely.
The recent acquisition of Blake Aguilar immediately gave the team a boost, as the former Minot Minotauros forward has collected four points in two games, while playing alongside Ehrlich on Berge's top line.
The return of two key players has bolstered their defense and goaltending over the last few weeks, as Dillon Thomas has slotted back in on the backend and is playing a shutdown role in his third go-around with the team and goaltender Mark Becica, a backup last season, has taken the starters job this year, going 5-1-1 with two shutouts since returning home.
With points in seven of their last eight, the Flyers are just starting to peak and if they can continue to play determined hockey and not take shifts off, they'll be a contender in the division all season and will be able to surprise people with their fast and furious style.
The Long Beach Bombers have a much different make-up than the Flyers, as Chris White's club features a ton of high-level import players and a great deal of size but they've been inconsistent through their first 20 games.
Some nights this team look unstoppable, sporting one of the league's best offensives and up until last week, the three top scorers in the league. On other nights, they look like they're a little lost, as they rely on individual play and fall out of the systems White has in place.
They were swept in Fresno by the Monsters last weekend but a few things went into it, as Tomas Nemeth, who was tied for the league-lead with 41 points, was called-up to the Topeka Roadrunners of the NAHL and Filip Martinec, who now leads the league with 43 points, was kicked out of Friday's game and didn't play on Saturday, leaving a gaping hole on their top line.
Running with that duo for most of the season has been rookie sensation Konstantin Kotkov, who hasn't looked out of place for a second in his first season of North American hockey. The hulking winger leads all rookies with 37 points and isn't afraid of the rough stuff either, playing a style that translates to whatever country the Russian plays in.
Swedish forward Marcus Viitanen has turned up his play in recent week, while another pair of Swedes that were recently picked up, Johan Beatty and Filip Andreasson, will see increased roles, as well.
The Bombers can put the puck in the net and also lead the league in power play goals, so it's obvious their problems come on the backend, where they've struggled to keep the puck out of their own net from the start.
Former Cheyenne Stampede standout Daniel Cepila began the season as the number one goaltender but struggled in Long Beach and was eventually sent packing.
In his place, the team went out and picked up two goaltenders, Lucas Paulsen and Talon Miller, the latter coming over from the Salt Lake City Moose.
Paulsen was on fire to start his Bombers tenure and seemed as though he'd solidify the position but struggled his last few times out and gave way to Miller, who has now taken the starter's job, while Paulsen has moved on
Miller is used to seeing a lot of shots, playing for a lackluster Moose squad last season but will need some help from his new team, which has been short on defense due to injuries, namely the one to captain Guy LaPorte, who has been out for a few weeks, leaving a gigantic hole that has yet to be filled.
Marcus Rhodin and Xavier Boissel-Dombreval, two skilled import defenseman, have seen an increase in playing time and have adapted their game well but it's been tough to replace LaPorte's shutdown ability.
Coming off five straight losses, expect the Bombers to be hungry to get back in the win column, with the games even more important coming against a team above them in the standings.
San Diego Gulls (4-16-1, 6th in Western Division) @ Valencia Flyers
Single game played Sunday in Valencia, California
Wrapping things up with a rare Sunday home game, the Flyers will welcome in the San Diego Gulls, another team that is looking to catch-up in the standings.
The Gulls slow starts have been well documented over the years but this season, it's gone on longer than usual, as head coach Craig Carlyle continues to change things up in search of answers.
A young team that has been predictably inconsistent, the two sides of the Gulls were never more apparent than they were last weekend, as they played a complete game on Friday against the Ontario Avalanche and won 4-3 in overtime but fell flat the next night in Valencia, getting outshot heavily and losing 3-0 in.
The offense has been much stronger in recent weeks, as veterans Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma continue to light the way, while rookie Michael Leone has caught fire and after a hat trick in Friday's victory, including the game-winner in double overtime, he's now second on the team with 25 points on the year.
The next three on the team in the scoring department have all played defense, with Latvian Kalvis Ozols picking up 16 points in 12 games, converted forward Mark Birchall with 11 and Will Parker, who played defense all of last season, moving to forward an amassing nine.
Outside of that group however, Carlyle has struggled to find offense, which he attributes to a number of things, including experience and injuries, which they've had their fair share of.
Goaltending was a big issue for the first handful of weeks, as the team just couldn't get a stop when they needed it but both Erik Eidessen and Brody Cavataio were strong last weekend have been noticeably more comfortable as of late.
With four games left before the Showcase, all of which are against Long Beach and Valencia, the Gulls couldn't pick a better time to get hot, as despite being in the cellar, a few wins strung together could get them right back into the playoff picture and give them hope heading into the second half, where anything can happen. It all has to start with a win on Sunday however, as San Diego will look to take advantage of a Flyers squad that should be tired after their two games against Long Beach.