All four of the top seeds held on in the Divisional Semi-Final round of the Thorne Cup Playoffs but not without scares for the Phoenix Knights and Idaho Jr. Steelheads. Two of the four #2 seeds were taken dispatched, as Texas and the Colorado Jr. Eagles came back from 1-0 down to bounce the Dallas Ice Jets and Cheyenne Stampede, respectively. The other # 2 seeds both took care of business, with the Ontario Avalanche coming back to beat Valencia and the Ogden Mustangs making quick work of the rival Salt Lake City Moose. This weekend, four division champions and six Thorne Cup Finalists will be named.
Below is a preview of each playoff series, all of which are of the best-of-three variety:
#1: El Paso Rhinos hosting #3: Texas (Winner is Midwest Division Champion)
Games played at the Sierra Providence Events Center in El Paso, Texas
With both teams already guaranteed a spot in the Thorne Cup Finals, many people have asked if the series between the top-seeded El Paso Rhinos and #3 Texas is even necessary. If you know anything about these two squads and the way they play the game however, you know neither will be slowing down, as they’ll leave it all on the line to capture the Midwest Division title.
The league’s best team during the regular season, the El Paso Rhinos were impressive in their opening round playoff series against the Dallas Snipers, as they stayed perfect in 2014 with victories of 7-1 and 3-1.
As usual, the top line for the Rhinos was on point during the series, as Matthew, Nick and Peter Plesa combined for seven points over the two games and gave Dallas’ defense fits every time they touched the ice.
Other key players like Drew DePalma, Jiri Pestuka, Krisztian Nagy, David Nelson and Dakota Beaulieu also had strong weekends and continue to give the Rhinos the best forward depth in the entire league.
El Paso was also very solid defensively in the series against the Snipers, keeping most of the chances to the outside and giving both Adam Vay and Bryce Fink the opportunity to see just about every shot and gobble up any rebounds.
It’s one thing to take the puck away from their skilled forwards and get by their rugged defense, led by Chris Wilhite and Jack Strusz, but then you still have to find a way to beat Vay or Fink, both of whom are amongst the league’s best netminders and give up few second chances.
The Rhinos still have a penchant for taking a lot of penalties but their top-ranked penalty kill has bailed them out numerous times this season. With the way Texas was able to get the power play working last weekend, El Paso can’t afford to cut a rut to the penalty box in this series.
A team that makes very few mistakes and makes you pay for yours, the Rhinos haven’t lost a game since December 18, a neutral site contest in Las Vegas and haven’t lost at home in over a calendar year. They are also a perfect 6-0-0 against Texas this season, having outscored them 28-3 over the three games at the Sierra Providence Events Center back in November but don’t expect them to slow up, as they have a rivalry with Texas and the crowd will be packed in to see it.
Texas did a fine job of fighting through some adversity in their opening round playoff series against the Dallas Ice Jets, as Jeremy Law and Company made the most of their chances against a team that once had their number, while fighting back from 1-0 down to move on.
Whether they win or lose in El Paso, they know they’ll be coming back for the Thorne Cup Finals just over a week later but Texas is a proud team and will be playing for the title, as they don’t want to get the moniker of a team that got in on a “technicality.”
Outshot in all three games last week, Texas found a way to capitalize on all of their chances in three one-goal games that could have gone either way.
After falling 3-2 in the opener, they jumped out to a 4-0 lead the next night and held on to win 5-4, with five different players scoring goals and came from 2-0 down in the finale to win it 3-2, capped off by an Austin Murray power play marker in the third.
They have a good mix of skill and physicality and are just now starting to play their best hockey of the season, as it took them months to get some chemistry working, with players constantly jettisoning up and down between the NAHL team.
Forward Miguel Caron could be the most skilled player in the league and El Paso will be keying on him this weekend, so look for other guys like Landyn Howze, Dalton Foster and the red-hot Sebastien Tremblay to play big roles for Texas.
Making them even more physical and providing a huge lift in the Dallas series was the playoff of forwards Chris Stovall and Seth Ensor, both of whom came back to the team midway through the year after starting the season elsewhere, to provide some much-needed grit.
Their defensive play has been up and down but guys like Jimmy Anderson, Jesse Foskey and Keith Bendall have all been at their best in recent weeks but they have to find a way to limit chances on both Oliver Eklund and Ryan Mulka, whichever guy gets the start in net. They both have their strengths and each was solid against Dallas, so Jeremy Law has a decision on his hands of who to go with.
Texas won’t back down for a second and have shown streaks of terrific play, including playing the Rhinos tight back in North Richland Hills early in the season, which included an overtime loss in one of the games and they also stepped up their play while in Las Vegas, so they know how to ratchet it up when they need to.
It will be a hostile environment and they can’t let their emotions get the best of them. If they can make the most of their chances once again, convert on the power play and get a couple of solid goaltending performances, they can shock the hockey world but they’ll have to be flawless to take down the machine that is the Rhinos.
#1: Phoenix Knights hosting #3: Colorado Jr. Eagles (Winner is Mountain Division Champion)
Games played at The Ice Den in Chandler, Arizona
The two teams that will be battling it out for the Mountain Division title both showed their resiliency last week, as the Phoenix Knights and Colorado Jr. Eagles fell behind in their Divisional Semi-Final match-ups but found ways to fight back and take the final two games to move on. With each roster filled with skill and playing determined hockey, they’ll meet this weekend in the desert in what should be a very even series.
The top team in the Mountain Division from start to finish, the Knights have been a force in their first year under head coach Tyler Ramsey, who recruited hard in his home country of Canada and added on to an already solid roster.
They certainly had their ups and downs, including a freezing cold month of January but they persevered and held on to earn the top seed in the division.
After falling behind 1-0 in their opening round series to Boulder last weekend, the Knights came together once again, winning game two in blowout fashion by a score of 10-2 and building a 4-0 lead and holding on to win 4-2 in Sunday’s finale.
The Knights group of forwards truly rivals anyone in the league, including El Paso and Idaho, as they were stacked from the start and made some roster moves during the season to strengthen the unit further.
They got everyone going in the Boulder series, including Jordan Cullum, who earned the WSHL first star of the week with 10 points in the three games and his linemate Ryan McNeely, who notched six goals and has been the hottest player in the league over the last month or so.
Also having strong weekends were Max Mahood, Mitch Cobby and Mattias Marten, the last two came over in a trade from the Arizona Redhawks and continue to show chemistry while playing together. Even a couple of defensemen, in Kelby Minshull and Brennan Johnsson chipped in, as they have done all season.
The Phoenix defense has a little bit of everything and is one of the most versatile units in the league, which includes Colin Bresnehan, a fifth-year player, Charlie Allen, Nick Kujawa and Tanner Branch, to go along with the two headliners.
Their only real question mark has been in net, as they had to give-up Troy Anderson to get Cobby and Marten from Arizona and Alex Taylor has been inconsistent with a larger workload on his shoulders.
After dropping game one last week, Ramsey turned to back-up Luke Stripp, who may have taken the starting job behind two solid efforts, winning on Saturday and Sunday with 25 and 11-save efforts, while the defense in front of him tightened.
There is no denying the Knights skill and they can hurt you in a number of different ways but they can’t afford to fall behind against a Colorado team that is just as talented.
The first-year Jr. Eagles also had to battle back last weekend but they were able to do it on the road, to boot.
Playing in front of a rowdy crowd in Cheyenne, Colorado dropped game one by a score of 5-4 but came back to tie the series with a 5-2 win on Saturday and dominated on Sunday in an 8-0 shutout.
Starting from the net out, Eric Messer has been the team’s go-to guy since coming over in a trade back in January but struggled in Friday’s game and opened the door for Quinn Wold, who was the main guy before Messer’s arrival.
Wold made the most of his chance, playing great the rest of the way Friday and continuing on to wins on Saturday and Sunday and there’ just no way you can’t go back to him.
The defense of the Jr. Eagles has been rather offensive all season, as before Steve Haddon was able to bring in a few high-end forwards, the d-men were relied upon to chip in, or else the Jr. Eagles would often struggle to score goals.
Kyle Arenson, who is arguably the best all-around d-man in the league and Lance Pennington, each had four-point weekends in Cheyenne, while Kyle Robison added three.
Cory Richardson, Logan Libal and Ben Gundry all have an offensive side to their game as well but hung back and allowed the big three to get it done, while remaining solid in their own end.
The team has been steady in net and on defense but the real change over the last few weeks has been up front, where three key additions have really put the Jr. Eagles over the top.
Collin Abitz, Mitch Coan and Scott Smoot all came to the team after playing part of the season for Colorado State University’s ACHA club team and have had a huge impact, combining for 42 points in just about eight regular season games together and 21 in three playoff games last weekend.
They’re a match-up nightmare every time they have the puck and can hold it in the offensive zone, while spinning, cycling and passing for quite some time, all the while wearing the opposition down.
They’re not the only offense however, as Levi Weber, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season, had a great weekend in Cheyenne, as did Nick Davidson, Tyler Charlton, Luke Galatiuk and Tanner Ulland, who have all been with the club most of the season.
They finished the year 0-6-0 against Phoenix in the regular season but this is a completely different team now, with more talent, more knowledge of the systems in place and a ton of momentum after going into Cheyenne and defeating their rival.
#1: Idaho Jr. Steelheads hosting #2: Ogden Mustangs (Winner is Northwest Division Champion)
Games played at Manchester Ice and Events Centre in McCall, Idaho
The three-time defending champion Jr. Steelheads didn’t have an easy time with the Missoula Maulers in the opening round, as they needed three games to dispatch the fourth-seed in the division, while the Ogden Mustangs swept the nearby rival Salt Lake City Moose in a surprisingly quick series. The two teams, who have been the class of the Northwest Division all season long, will meet in McCall this weekend.
The Jr. Steelheads have been able to fly under the radar for most of Kyle Grabowski’s first season at the helm, despite sitting at the top of the division from start to finish.
The reason for that is because unlike El Paso, who rose to power while blowing teams out and scoring a ton of goals, Idaho plays a more defensive style that’s not as flashy, as they hold teams to few shots on goal, rarely allow them to score and win handily but not via blowout, most of the time.
They also don’t have a pair of forwards with over 100 points, as unlike last season, where Dominik Gabaj and Stefan Brucato finished 1-2 in league scoring with 105 and 104 points, their leading scorer his year, Dak Dice, recorded just 53 and Jan Blasko was second with 44.
This isn’t to say they can’t put the puck in the net because they certainly have the talent to do so but that’s not their style and Grabowski has done a great job of adapting to the roster he has, with some of their top guys like Kirk Van Arkel and August Von Ungern-Sternberg now gone.
In three defensive battles last weekend with the Missoula Maulers, who employ a similar style of game, Idaho won 3-0 and 5-2, after losing 3-2 on Saturday to extend the series.
The Maulers were held to just 17, 16 and 20 shots on goal, as the Steelies outshot them in each game but had trouble solving goaltender Cody Janzen.
In the end though, contributions from a number of different sources and a mistake-free style won out for Idaho.
The Jr. Steelheads were led up front by Victor Carlsson, who had five points on the weekend and veterans Randy Patzner and Jesper Jensen, two aggressive forwards not known for their offensive play but that seem to standout more in tight playoff games.
Also chipping in were d-men like Ben Hull and Oskar Af Bjur, with Idaho’s defensive unit not taking as many chances as in years past, when guys like Jake Webber roamed the blue line.
In net, Sean Healy will likely get every start from here on out, as after he earned a shutout in Friday’s opener, Grabowski gave back-up Danny Kowalski the start the next night and he struggled before being pulled. One of the best goaltenders during the regular season, Healy can steal a game but rarely has to, his only worry is being able to stay sharp while facing few shots.
Playing at home in front of what will be large crowds, Idaho has to control the game with their puck possession and stay out of penalty trouble, which they got into against Missoula.
At even strength they’re as tough to stop as anyone, as they wear you down with their precision passing and don’t give the puck up once they have it.
They’re in the Thorne Cup Finals either way, as a loss would make them the wildcard team, as the divisional final runner-up with the most regular season points but they don’t care about that at all, they want another Northwest Division banner hanging atop the Manchester Ice and Events Center.
Possibly the hottest team in the league right now, the Ogden Mustangs have had everything working over the last few weeks, including a victory over Idaho that propelled them to the #2 seed in the division.
The home ice advantage they got in their opening series against Salt Lake City was huge, as they came out like a team on fire and made quick work of their rivals, surprising many with a sweep in a series that was expected to go the distance.
Ogden is another team that boasts a ton of depth, as they’re able to win games even when top guys like Dusty Watt, who didn’t record a point against Salt Lake City, are unable to get going.
Their best player of late has been rugged forward Jimmy Peplinski, who notched a hat trick in the regular season finale against Idaho and began the Salt Lake series by doing the same.
Also coming on as of late are fellow newcomers Brody Decker, Craig Moore and Jon Mencer, while veterans like Schuyler Seyfert, Sean Haltam and Watt always seem to have a hand in the game, as well.
The Mustangs are also deep on the backend and their rearguards have scored a ton this season, as adding Mike Kowicki into a fold that includes David Clements, Cam Russell, George Babos and Charlie Reed gives Jake Laime five guys that all reached double digits in points during the regular season and they can really get it going on the power play.
Tyler Fallica is the unquestioned guy in net, as the veteran was terrific against Salt Lake, earning the WSHL Third Star of the Week with his play in the two wins, while stopping 74 of 77 shots, including a number of “Grade A” chances.
The Mustangs come into town with a ton of confidence and also know they can beat Idaho, which they did for the first time this year, going 2-4-0 overall. McCall is a tough place to play however and if they allow Idaho to set the tone and play within their comfort zone, it will be hard to come out on the winning end.
#1: Fresno Monsters hosting #2: Ontario Avalanche (Winner is Western Division Champion)
Games played at Gateway Ice Center in Fresno, California
The Fresno Monsters and Ontario Avalanche both fought both needed comeback victories to take their opening round series, as the top-seeded Monsters swept the Long Beach Bombers by scoring in bunches and the Ontario Avalanche came back from 1-0 down to bounce the Valencia Flyers with two overtime winners. Just a few weeks after they met late in the regular season in one of the best series of the year, they’ll rev it up again with the Western Division title on the line.
Behind a team full of top-notch veterans and a handful of talented newcomers, Fresno was once again able to cruise atop the division for most of the season, only having to stave off one scare from the Ontario Avalanche a few weeks back to hold on to the top seed.
Facing a team that many believed was poised for the upset in round one, the Monsters controlled the Long Beach Bombers’ top players and converted at the other end in the quick sweep, with their ability to score in bunches boding huge in both wins.
After getting ahead early in Friday’s opener, they allowed Long Beach to come back and take a 3-1 lead heading into the third. Instead of folding up, like they may have in years past, the Monsters showed how strong they are this season, as they scored three unanswered in the third to win it 4-3.
The next night was a little higher scoring but the Monsters broke a 4-4 tie in the second and went on to score five of the game’s last six goals in a 9-5 win.
Fresno was led on the weekend by rookie forward Evan Ingram, who had five points in the series and also plays with an edge to his game, while fellow rookie and leading scorer during the regular season, Mike Nolan, had four and Jacob Haynes, who has really come on as of late, had three.
Also playing well were the veterans, including Filip Winkler, Mike Fabie, Austin Browning and Conner Osborne. If other high-skill guys like Jordan Fontaine and Justin Plate can find their way onto the score sheet, it will be even tougher to slow this team down.
The defensive corps has been a strength all season, with veterans Gunnar Dircks, Michael Freeman, Dan Fitzgerald, Cory Sikich and Mark Shroyer all playing at a high level from the start and continuing that in the playoffs.
The group has size, skill, physicality and each one of them skates pretty well. A number of the Monsters’ leaders are on the backend and they were key against Long Beach, as they knew what Bryce Dale wanted and how to execute it.
Although it shouldn’t be the case, as each has a ton of skill, the goaltending situation is a bit hazy, as both Jerry Kaukinen and Austin Piquette were pulled during their starts last week, a rare feat for a team that won both games. It’s simple, they need to be better, as Ontario has a ton of depth and can make them work.
Playing at home on the same ice that the Bay Area Seals lifted the Western Division banner a year ago, expect Fresno to keep doing what they’ve done all season, playing solid in all three zones, staying disciplined and using a complete team game to get the job done.
The Ontario Avalanche fought out of a 1-0 hole after dropping game one to Valencia a last week and if head coach Chris Shaw doesn’t have any heart problems, it’s a small miracle, as they did it in dramatic fashion.
After losing 6-5 in the opener, the Avalanche buckled down in the second game as things tightened up and the two teams went into overtime tie at one.
With just over a minute left before the buzzer, veteran forward Brett Norman, who was on fire all weekend, scored to lift Ontario to victory and force a game three.
Trailing 4-2 after two early third period Valencia goals in the finale, the Avalanche clawed their way back in before Luke Rendino knotted it up with just six seconds left on the big board and the goaltender pulled.
After neither team scored in the first overtime period, Collin Warner converted in the second and the Avs poured onto the ice in ecstasy.
A team that narrowly missed the playoffs in year one, the Avalanche know what it’s like to come so close and not make it, so they’re definitely making the most of their time in the playoffs.
Much like Fresno, they too rely a lot on a heavy contingent of veterans, led by captain Ben Meadows, who anchors a staunch defensive group, which also includes Jackson Giammona and Drew Crilly.
The Avs are stacked up front, with skill guys like Antoine Maillard, who’s turned into a real game changer in his second season in maroon and black and Lubomir Fetkovic playing well and others like Brett Norman, Luke Rendino, Carl Hallberg, Zechariah Roberts and Michael Thomas all improving their scoring touch greatly, while still staying tenacious.
They were a deep team last year but it seems they have the high-end skill this season to battle with anyone and convert in all situations.
Goaltending started off as a real soft spot for them but turned into a strength with the addition of Daniel Cepila, who struggled during his short time in Long Beach but went 12-2-0 in the regular season and 2-0-0 in the playoffs once he came over to Ontario. With his strong play against Valencia and a subpar performance from Drake Koegel in game one, expect the Czech to be the guy this weekend.
The Avalanche are as hungry a team as you’ll see and do everything they can to win games, including blocking shots, playing the body and giving it all up for the team, a nod to head coach Chris Shaw, who was a fierce role player during his playing days.
Just three weeks ago these two teams met in Fresno and each picked up four points on the weekend, with Ontario winning twice in extra time and Fresno picking up a regulation win, so this series is really as close as it gets.
Both coaches are nifty, each team has tons of veterans and won’t be afraid of the spotlight and travel isn’t much of an issue at all, so you should see nothing but great hockey, with the team that makes the fewest mistakes moving on.