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01/10/2014 5:32 AM -
After a light opening to 2014, you’ll get an extra large dose of WSHL hockey this weekend, as all but two teams are in action, many of which are battling for playoff positioning.
Below is a preview of each weekend series/game:
Salt Lake City Moose (14-9-2, 3rd in Northwest Division) @ Tulsa Jr. Oilers (6-17-0, 5th in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Tulsa, Oklahoma
For the first time in the short history of the franchise, the Salt Lake City Moose find themselves in a playoff position at the halfway point of the season. With teams behind them heating up however, they must keep the momentum going as they open the second half with a three game set in Tulsa against the struggling Jr. Oilers.
The Moose looked comfortable in Las Vegas while going 2-1-1 against some very tough competition and should be able to build off that this weekend, playing against a team that will have trouble matching their speed.
Unlike in years past, where the Moose had one or two offensive weapons and failed to create much attack outside of them, Jeff Carr’s team can beat you in a number of different ways, with a number of players stepping up to help get the job done.
15 Moose skaters have already reached double digits in scoring this season, including five defensemen, led by David Barnes and his 21 points, while another veteran, Cole Corson, leads the team and forward group with 27 on the season. Newcomers like Adam Kresl, Cody Rogala, Brett Meyer, Tyler Keturi and a handful of others have boosted the overall skill of the team and they haven’t had any problems finding the back of the net.
Salt Lake City has also been solid defensively, as Carr has a group of blue liners that can play physical but have also been able to skate with some of the top teams in the division, like Idaho and Ogden.
Brad Robertson and Ryan Gasparovic have been a formidable one-two combo in net and each has gone on hot streaks this season.
They’re traveling a long way but Carr does a great job of getting his boys ready to play and they should be able to control each game against the Jr. Oilers and continue to pick up points.
Although the Jr. Oilers aren’t out of the playoff hunt yet, if they don’t start turning things around and quickly, they soon will be.
Trailing the Dallas Snipers by 12 points for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Midwest Division, the Jr. Oilers have won just two of their last 10 games and went just 1-3-0 at the showcase in Las Vegas.
New head coach Marty Magers, who took over for Zac Desjardins just a few weeks back, is working hard to instill some fight in his team and get them playing a different style but they just don’t have a lot of punch in their lineup.
Alternate captains Devan Beck and Derek Smith have been their most consistent offensive threats up front and veteran defenseman Elliot Langford has been effective from the point but outside of those three, the Jr. Oilers have struggled to score goals.
The team does have a number of veterans on the roster who should be able to elevate their game in the second half and goaltenders Eric Messer and Adam Salisbury have been steady but will need to start getting more help, as they’ve been overworked.
Tulsa hasn’t given up on the season yet nor should they and a couple of points against the Moose and a few wins sprinkled in down the stretch could help boost them into the playoffs for the second straight year.
San Diego Gulls (8-19-2, 6th in Western Division) @ Texas (12-12-2, 3rd in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in North Richland Hills, Texas
One of the biggest surprise teams at the showcase, Texas played very well while going 2-1-1 and will be looking to start a second half roll when they welcome in the San Diego Gulls for three this weekend.
After months of trying to find chemistry on a roster that had players coming and going all the time, Texas head coach Jeremy Law finally has his team looking comfortable, with veterans Landyn Howze and Dalton Foster leading the way and newcomers like Nikita Salnikov and Michael Brown following suit.
They aren’t nearly as physical as they have been in years past but this Texas team is much more skilled and has shown the ability to adapt their style based on the team they’re playing.
Playing against a team that is traveling halfway across the country, Texas will surely want to come out firing to start the game on Friday night and I expect them to keep that up throughout the weekend, as they seem like a team that will be chomping at the bit to get going.
If Law can light a fire under skilled import Miguel Caron and get the usual gritty play out of guys like Cole Rose and the aforementioned Howze, they should be able to dictate play on home ice.
The San Diego Gulls had one of the roughest first halves in team history, as they started slow with a young roster, before finally looking like they found their groove in late November.
The Gulls did look strong while going 3-1-0 at the showcase and have enough skill to climb out of the cellar in the Western Division but it has to start now, as head coach Craig Carlyle knows they can no longer wait around with the teams around them heating up.
Offense hasn’t been a problem lately for San Diego, as veterans Drew DePalma and Eric Baldwin continue to tear it up while looking like two of the top forwards in the league, while newcomer Michael Leone has quietly gone about his business and is now second on the team with 36 points.
The scoring drops off considerably outside of those three however but a few players have started to pick up their play, including veteran Will Parker, who has moved up from defense, Mark Birchall and towering Latvian defenseman Kalvis Ozols, who took a hard hit in Las Vegas and could be out for an extended period of time.
It’s been a learning experience for Carlyle’s blue liners and goaltenders, as the Gulls haven’t showed much consistency in either department, with injuries effecting their defense corps and three goaltenders struggling to find their way.
Just recently however, Brody Cavataio and Erik Eidissen have started to split time in between the pipes and each has looked more comfortable, which is a good sign going into the second half.
One of the most disciplined teams in the league, the Gulls must feast on any opportunities Texas gives to them. Traveling long distance will be tough on them but they should be well rested and ready to go in 2014.
El Paso Rhinos (20-2-0, 1st in Midwest Division) @ Phoenix Knights (18-7-0, 1st in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Chandler, Arizona
Just a few weeks ago, the Phoenix Knights held a lead over the El Paso Rhinos at the half in Las Vegas but behind a huge second half comeback, the Rhinos prevailed. The two division leaders will meet again and this time, they’ll clash for three in the desert.
Adding to what should be a playoff-like atmosphere, is that each team will be hungrier than normal for points, as El Paso lost their first two games of the season in Sin City and Phoenix opened 2014 with a sweep at the hands of the Missoula Maulers, who were dead last in the Northwest Division at the time.
The Rhinos showcased their gritty style in Las Vegas but fell behind early in every one of their games and needed big second halves to take down Ogden and Phoenix. Because they were always behind early on in games, it seemed they were never able to get into playing the kind of game they wanted to and couldn’t dictate play with their speed and physicality.
They’ll want to change that this weekend, as you can bet Cory Herman will have his team ready to fly when they touch the ice on Friday night and looking to put the puck in the net early and often.
The Rhinos have plenty of talent up front, as nine forwards have already surpassed the 20 point mark on the season, including all three of the Plesa brothers, who play on the same line and wreak havoc on opposing defenses.
El Paso can a also score from the backend, where Jack Strusz and Chris Wilhite are currently enjoying breakout offensive years, while still maintaining their responsibilities in their own end.
In net, Adam Vay has been one of the WSHL’s best this season but didn’t quite look comfortable in Las Vegas. A huge part of that most likely came due to the fact that he had to travel all the way back from his home country of Hungary, after a dispute forced him to leave their national junior team.
With all hands on deck and everyone fully rested, the Rhinos will be looking to start the second half like they did the first and cruise to a #1 playoff seed.
After what was probably a long week of practice in Chandler, the Phoenix Knights will surely be ready to match the Rhinos intensity on Friday night, as they look to avenge the sweep in Montana.
In the Knights defense, they did battle weather on the way into Missoula and much like El Paso at the showcase, they were never really able to play their style and dictate play against a team they had swept at home just a few weeks earlier. What mad the three losses even tougher was the fact that Phoenix was coming off their biggest win of the year, a 5-1 thrashing of the Idaho Jr. Steelheads at the showcase.
They’ll look to regroup this weekend and keep their composure a bit more, as they can’t let frustration get to them as it did in Missoula.
Jordan Cullum, Max Mahood and a number of the Knights’ other top forwards were held in check last weekend and they’ll be looking to breakout against the Rhinos and turn things around.
Both up front and on defense, Phoenix should be able to match El Paso’s physicality, as the two teams both have a great mixture of skill and size.
Goaltending was a strength for the Knights in the first half, as Alex Taylor and Troy Anderson split time but last weekend, it was all Taylor and he was hung with the three losses.
It’s not a fluke that the Knights lead their division but they can’t afford to suffer another sweep. They’re a team that expects to win every time they touch the ice, so expect to see them come out on fire and put last weekend behind them completely.
Arizona Redhawks (8-16-1, 5th in Mountain Division) @ New Mexico Renegades (3-22-0, 6th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Despite a top forward line that is as good as any in the league, the Arizona Redhawks currently sit outside of a playoff spot in the Mountain Division. They’ll be looking to change that this weekend when they head to New Mexico for three with the last-place Renegades.
Mattias Marten, Mitch Cobby and Oscar Hagborg Olsson are the three members of the “King” line and they’ve been even better than advertised this season, as Rob Powell’s top trio of forwards has combined for 149 of the team’s 251 points and few teams have been able to contain them.
Outside of their unit however, scoring drops off completely and Powell has been working hard to fix that, as he knows they’ll need depth to make the post-season.
By going just 1-3-0 in Sin City, the Redhawks have now dropped out of a playoff spot but seem to have a little more firepower than the Colorado Jr. Eagles, the team they’re chasing.
If guys like Anton Melin, Chance Taylor and other veterans can start finding ways to put the puck in the net and create more offense, it will give the Redhawks a much stronger chance at nabbing the fourth spot in the Mountain Division.
A short trip to New Mexico should produce nothing less than six points for them and get the team headed in the right direction out of the gate.
The struggles of the New Mexico Renegades have been well documented, as Steve Harrison attempts to turn the franchise around in his first season at the helm.
It’s been tough, as they’ve won just three times this season and have been outplayed and outshot mightily in most games but just like he said at the start of the campaign, the turnaround wasn’t expected to happen overnight.
Things are headed in the right direction however, as I got a chance to watch New Mexico play in Las Vegas and they play the game the right way, never give up and play to the whistle every time.
With a couple of key additions, including forward Nikita Pervyakov and defenseman Sam Armitage, the Renegades have started to find some life and actually picked up a shutout win over Wichita in Las Vegas, with goaltender Jon Groth stealing the show.
With the playoffs really out of the question, the Renegades just have to keep improving and building toward next season, which will start with finding a way to manufacture more offense and help out their overworked goaltenders.
Valencia Flyers (14-8-3, 4th in Western Division) @ Lake Tahoe Blue (16-13-2, 3rd in Western Division)
Three-game series in South Lake Tahoe, California
In just over one season in the league, the Lake Tahoe Blue have found their rival in the Valencia Flyers, as every time these two teams meet, they put on a show. This weekend, the Flyers will make their first-ever trip up to the resort town of South Lake Tahoe, as the third and fourth place teams in the Western Division meet for three.
The games between these two divisional foes were taken to another level after Lake Tahoe, then the Bay Area Seals, went into Valencia and knocked the Flyers out of the playoffs last year.
The Flyers responded earlier this season by taking two out of three from the Blue and will be looking to do it again and continue their move up the standings.
The Flyers have been a little bit of a surprise for everyone in the league this season, as first-year head coach Josh Berge has put together one of the most tenacious teams around. One that doesn’t let their size or lack of junior experience on the roster get in the way of them getting the job done.
They play the game hard, are constantly moving the puck up the ice and create offense with their speed and skill, while capitalizing on turnovers and poor puck management.
They are once again led in scoring by veteran forward Austin Ehrlich but have found plenty of depth outside of him, with a bunch of fresh faces getting the job done, including Sam Basich, Luc Whyte, Jared Waldman and Blake Aguilar, who they picked up out of the NAHL a few weeks back.
Their defensive corps isn’t very big either but they all skate well and are great with angles, which they showed in their two wins over a sizably bigger Lake Tahoe team back in October.
In net, the return of Mark Becica has been huge for the team, as the former backup is now a bonafide number one and putting up the numbers to prove it.
A short trip up north to start the new year should be good for the Flyers to get back together again and pick up some points.
Lake Tahoe has been one of the most inconsistent teams over the first half of the season, showing the skill and size to beat anyone, while also falling flat against lesser competition.
The Blue have one of the most talented group of forwards in the league, led by veterans Nick Anderson and Martin Vachal and are also very strong on the blue line, with guys like Kyle Blondin, Mattia Bortolloto and Jack Norling but they don’t have much depth at any position.
It was evident in Las Vegas that they begin to wear as games go along, as they were able to stick with Idaho for most of the opening half but fell short late. With a short bench, there’s not a whole lot they can do about it at the moment.
The powers that be have been working hard to bring in more talent however and much like they did last year, they can easily get going on a second half run and end up one of the most feared teams in the league heading into the post season.
The Blue have to come out and set the tone early in the new year however and start playing a little more fundamentally sound hockey, as their run-and-gun style does not suit them well with such little depth.
If they can lean on their veterans until the cavalry arrives, they should be able to steady the ship and head into the post-season as the team that nobody wants to play again.
Fresno Monsters (20-4-1, 1st in Western Division) @ Southern Oregon Spartans (9-16-2, 6th in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Medford, Oregon
A sudden surge by the Missoula Maulers to begin the new year has pushed the Southern Oregon Spartans down into the cellar of the Northwest Division and their start to 2014 will be far from a gimme, as they welcome in the Western Division leading Fresno Monsters this weekend.
Not unlike a number of other teams in the league, the Spartans started the season slow but have began to find their groove in recent weeks.
They aren’t going to be an offensive juggernaut by any means but consistent play from guys like Ben Henry and Arturs Buss has helped them pick up a few key victories and a healthy defensive corps, led by Mike Kowicki, Donny Nagle and Tyler Lazarek, should be able to make life a little easier on goaltenders Ian Dvorak and Jiri Ponikelsky.
They did have their troubles in Las Vegas, going 1-3-0 but they looked far better than they did at the beginning of the season and just need to pull some pieces together to get on the right track.
They have plenty of divisional games left and there’s room to climb the ladder but they have to take care of business on home ice, where they have a decisive advantage.
Fresno came to town last year and did pretty well so the Medford Madhouse won’t intimidate them but the Spartans would still like to get the crowd involved from the start and make things as tough as possible on the Monsters.
The Fresno Monsters are in a familiar spot atop the Western Division and are looking better than ever, with a great mix of veterans and newcomers on the roster.
Rookie sensation Mike Nolan and his team-leading 42 points was the story of the first half for the team but just about everyone on Bryce Dale’s roster has had a hand in the success, including veteran forwards Justin Plate, Jordan Fontaine and Austin Browning and a group of veteran d-men that have given everyone’s top forwards fits.
They’ve also been great in net, with Jerry Kaukinen and Austin Piquette splitting time and each has made the big save when they needed it he most.
With Ontario warming up behind them and the Monsters surely wanting to avoid a playoff meltdown like they experienced the last couple of seasons, expect the Fresno to finish strong and continue to bring their A game every night.
Dallas Snipers (11-13-2, 4th in Midwest Division) @ Colorado Jr. Eagles (11-9-2, 4th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Fort Collins, Colorado
The Dallas Snipers and Colorado Jr. Eagles are both clawing to hold on to a playoff spot and they’ll both be in need of points when they meet for three this weekend in the Centennial State.
Aside from playoff positioning, it doesn’t get much more evenly matched than these two, as they’re both teams that have great depth, solid goaltending and seem to come on in spurts.
Dallas came out of the gate firing and took advantage of a soft schedule to open the season. With a great group of veterans and some talented imports, they were at the top of the division for a while but have fallen back down to fourth and continue to struggle against teams with winning records.
Veteran Shane Bonds once again leads them up front, while newcomers Emil Melin and Alexander Lehnbom aren’t far behind and have adapted nicely to the North American game. The defense has been a strength of the team, with veterans Trent Williams and Luke Grignano providing plenty of grit and clearing the way in front of goaltender Alex Bebriss-Fedotovs, who returned to the team and has been the go-to guy for first year head coach Aaron Davis.
The Snipers have struggled with discipline issues and find themselves short-handed far too often. If they can find a way to turn that around and play more at even strength or even on the power play, they should be able to pick up a few more wins because of it.
The Colorado Jr. Eagles are another team that gets it done by committee, as their roster lacks any true star but has a number of hardworking guys that work very well together.
First-year head coach Steve Haddon has done a terrific job of building a team of selfless players and you can tell by the way they play that they have a great bond.
The Jr. Eagles’ best player is captain Kyle Arenson, a highly skilled defenseman that has picked up 20 points on the season and is also very strong in his own end.
Haddon also has a number of forwards that have been consistent threats all season, including Levi Weber, Luke Galatiuk and Nick Davidson.
In net, Tage Rustgi and Quinn Wold have pretty much been splitting time and each has looked steady, with the veteran Wold seeing a bit more action.
The Jr. Eagles are just a solid, blue-collar hockey team that works hard until the final buzzer and currently sit in a playoff spot because of it.
Opening 2014 at home after a snowstorm cancelled their games in Oregon last weekend, they’ll be hungry for points, especially with the Redhawks on their heels and most likely picking up some points in New Mexico.
Ogden Mustangs (18-8-2, 2nd in Northwest Division) @ Seattle Totems (10-11-2, 5th in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Mountlake Terrace, Washington
The Ogden Mustangs are a team that everyone feels can get hot at any moment and go on a big second half run. They’ll be looking to begin that run this weekend in Seattle, as they face the division rival Totems three times.
Ogden had a solid showing at the showcase, going 2-2-0 but it could have been much better for them, if not for allowing a second half comeback in a loss to El Paso.
Still a bit up and down, the Mustangs are easily one of the most skilled teams in the league, with eight forwards already over 20 points, led by the veteran Dusty Watt’s 42.
Head coach Jake Laime has a little bit of everything in his lineup, including size, speed, skill and aggression, similar to El Paso and they can adapt to anyone they play.
They have also been much better defensively this season and far more disciplined, led by captain David Clements and in net, they have a stud, in Tyler Fallica, who always gives the team a chance to win.
Holding on firmly to the second place in the division, a big second half for Ogden would mean home ice to open the playoffs and get everything clicking before likely having to head to Idaho.
The Seattle Totems have been much better than they were last season and they’ve been able to do it with very little depth, as Mike Murphy has made it work all season with a short roster.
Murphy’s top line of Frank Flight, Eric Danna and Nikolay Mamadzhanov has been on fire from the start and are tough to contain. Although they don’t have a lot of forwards outside of that trio putting up numbers, they have a number of players that work hard and are constantly moving their feet.
They have been better defensively as well, led by the big Norwegian Robin Bjoernstad and veterans Brett Losey and Kasey walker but again, depth has been an issue and they wear down too easily, making it so goaltender Bryce Fink has to see way too much rubber and it’s taken a toll on him.
Still battling for a playoff spot, Seattle would really like to pick up a few points out of the series and jumpstart their second half, as they look to return the franchise to elite status.
Idaho Jr. Steelheads (26-3-0, 1st in Northwest Division) @ Missoula Maulers (11-11-3, 4th in Northwest Division)
Two-game series in Missoula, Montana
The top team in the league takes on the hottest team in the league this weekend in a pair of games in frigid Montana, as the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, leaders of the Northwest Division, face-off against the Missoula Maulers, who have won seven straight games.
Idaho rolls into town in their usual spot atop the division and was once again solid at the showcase, going 3-1-0, with their lone loss actually coming at the hands of the Phoenix Knights, who were swept in Missoula last weekend.
The Steelies haven’t missed a beat under first-year bench boss Kyle Grabowski and although not quite as structured as in years past, they have more than enough skill to upend any team the league has to offer.
Veterans Dak Dice and Jan Blasko have been on fire from the start and currently sit one and two in team scoring, while skilled newcomers like Victor Carlsson, Macky Power and Kyle TenEyck are right up there with them.
They don’t produce as much offensive from the backend as they have but Ian Patrican is a solid puck mover, while Anton Virtanen and Viktor Ivarsson have done well with their expanded roles.
In net, I believe Sean Healy to be the best goaltender in the league and his numbers prove it, as he’s been sensational, while backup Danny Kowalski is just as capable.
Making the short trip to Missoula won’t be as big of problem for Idaho as it was for Phoenix and with a few weeks to prepare for the Maulers, expect to see an Idaho team striving to pick up their fourth straight Thorne Cup Title.
The Missoula Maulers were at the bottom of the Northwest Division for most of the first half but they played very few games and the few games they did play came against tough opponents, like Idaho.
After going prefect in Las Vegas, Missoula returned home last weekend and swept the Mountain Division leading Knights and looked very good in doing so.
They struggled to score in the first half but didn’t against a tough Phoenix team, as veterans Erich Jaeger and Cory Schafer led the way and their defense, bolstered by a few newcomers, held strong in the three victories.
In net, Sebastian Gronborg has risen to power and along with Michael McDaniel and Cody Janzen; he has helped form a trio of choices for head coach Marcus Baxter.
Playing at home, where the home ice advantage is strong, the Maulers just have to keep doing what they’ve done, which is combine their strong defense with a newfound flair for offense and give themselves a great chance in both games.
Boulder Bison (13-12-0, 3rd in Mountain Division) vs. Cheyenne Stampede (13-12-2, 2nd in Mountain Division)
Home-and-home series played Friday in Cheyenne, Wyoming and Saturday in Superior, Colorado
One of the best rivalries in the WSHL will be renewed this weekend and as always, the home-and-home environment only adds to the bad blood, as the Cheyenne Stampede and Boulder Bison meet for two.
The Boulder Bison were the better of the two teams for most of the first half but a six-game skid, which began with two losses to Cheyenne, now has them trailing the Stampede for second place in the division.
Knocked out of the playoffs by Boulder in each of the last two seasons and dominated overall, the Stampede turned it around on December 6 and 7, winning both ends of the home-and-home series and that’s where everything began to change.
Even though the Stampede didn’t have a great showcase, going just 1-3-0, they are on the right path under head coach Gary Gill and are really starting to round out their game, with the leadership of veterans like Russell Armbruster showing how it’s done.
The Stampede feature a hard-hitting offense with a handful of talented imports who know how to put the puck in the net and a defense that has come on strong, despite lacking much of a veteran presence.
Boulder’s team is young and built more around speed than anything else. Head coach Paul DePuydt knew it would take some time for his large contingent of rookies to find their way but once they did, the Bison were flying high.
Losing six straight probably has a lot to do with the inexperience on the team but the Bison have a ton of speed, which is hard to teach and can quickly pull you out of a hole and a very solid netminder in Colin Champine.
If they can get back to basics this weekend, they should be able to pick up points but it won’t be easy against the rough and tumble Stampede.
Ontario Avalanche (18-7-3, 2nd in Western Division) vs. Long Beach Bombers (13-16-0, 5th in Western Division)
Home-and-home series played Friday in Lakewood and Saturday in Ontario, California
The red-hot Ontario Avalanche have picked up steam as the season has moved along and now sit second to only the Fresno Monsters in the division. This weekend, they’ll face a Long Beach Bombers team chock full of talent and looking to get on a run and force their way into the playoffs. Just like the Boulder/Cheyenne series, this one will only be made more interesting because of the home-and-home format.
Ontario is fresh off a perfect performance at the showcase and Chris Shaw’s boys look like they’re just starting to hit their peek.
The veteran heavy lineup was dealt a blow earlier in the week when forward Joe Cangelosi left for the Southern Professional Hockey League but there are more than enough guys to carry the load with him out of the picture.
Forward Antoine Maillard is having an MVP like year and leads the team with 42 points, while fellow WSHL veterans Luke Rendino and Brett Norman aren’t far behind.
The defensive group is a bit younger but has done a great job in front of their goaltenders, who have really come around, with Chris Skeates, Drake Koegel and Daniel Cepila all shaking off rough starts to the season with great play recently.
The Avs were able to put together a strong second half run and narrowly missed the playoffs last year. Already with a strong grasp on a playoff spot this time around, a second half run seems likely again.
The Long Beach Bombers can score with the best of them but they’ve had trouble stopping teams this season.
Filip Martinec is lighting the WSHL on fire and leads the league with an astounding 69 points, while Tomas Nemeth, Konstantin Kotkov and Marcus Rhodin are also having huge offensive campaigns. If you looked at just their scoring statistics, you’d think they’re up near the top of their division but they’re not and a big part of that have been injuries, many of which have come on the backend.
The Bombers have also struggled to find consistent goaltending, as Chris White has rotated through a number of different options but it seems they’ve found a solid tandem in Jakub Krejci and Talon Miller.
Long Beach is a team to watch in the second half, as whenever they turn it on, they’ll win games in bunches and it would be nice for them to start this weekend against a team they’re chasing.