Weekend Preview

We’re rolling along and into week ten now, which features eight different clashes, all but one being between divisional foes, which always adds more fuel to the fire.

Below is a preview of each weekend series game:

Texas (10-7-1, 1st in Midwest Division) @ El Paso Rhinos (9-0-0, 3rd in Midwest Division)

Three-game series in El Paso, Texas

The only undefeated team left in the league is back in action this weekend after a long hiatus as the El Paso Rhinos play host to division-leading Texas.

The Rhinos haven’t played a regular season game since October 27 but they haven’t just been sitting around, as they played an exhibition series against the New Mexico Renegades a couple of weeks ago and have been put through some hard practices by head coach Cory Herman.

The Rhinos do just abou everything well and play a style that is very conducive to playoff hockey, as they don’t try to shoot the lights out but instead rely on their ability to wear teams down and take advantage of every opportunity they’re given.

This group of players looks to be one of Herman’s best, with 11 veterans on the roster and a great group of newcomers, led by the Plesa brothers, Nick, Matthew and Peter, who have been on fire since joining the team a little over a month ago.

The three Alberta natives play on the same line and Herman likened their uncanny ability to know where each other are at all times to that of the Sedin twins’ play in Vancouver.

Dakota Beaulieu, who came over in a pre-season trade from the New Mexico Renegades, currently leads the team with 14 points and is one of the most underrated players in the league, while Tom Bartel and Trey Hughes, who played together in the NA3HL last season, are right behind him, with 13 and 12 points, respectively.

Chad Cesarz has also been on fire since returning from a stint in the Tier II North American Hockey League and has picked up nine points in six games, while power forward David Nelson has eight in nine games and is just now starting to peak.

Up front, Herman can throw any of his four lines on the ice at any time and they can do whatever he asks, whether it’s scoring a goal, holding a lead or mixing it up.

The defense has been solid as well, led by Chris Wilhite, who has found an offensive side to his game this season, leading all d-men on the roster with nine points.

Also playing well are WSHL veterans Jack Strusz, Elliot Herz and Brandon Edson, who have all taken their game to the next level.

Remember the name Adam Vay, as Herman thinks he’s the best goaltender in the league and I’ve heard a few coaches share those same sentiments.

The 6’7”, 215 pounder has started and won all nine Rhinos games this season, while sporting a 1.71 goals against average and .942 save percentage.

The hulking Hungarian will leave the Rhinos in December to represent his country at the IIHF World Junior Championships, so they’ll have to get their back-ups some game action soon, to prepare for that stretch.

The only chink in the armor that I can see at the moment is that the Rhinos have taken too many penalties this season and many of them have been of the undisciplined variety, which is something Herman will want to put a stop to soon.

If they can find a way to keep their aggressive play and not get into so much penalty trouble, they may very well be the best team in the league.

When the season started, it looked as though Texas may be the team to beat in the Midwest Division, as behind a new-look roster chock full of skill, Jeremy Law and Company got off to a great start but have been up and down since.

They have been able to get back on track in recent weeks however, winning their last three straight and five of six, including two over the Dallas Ice Jets.

A big reason for the success has been team chemistry, as with bodies going back and forth between them and the NAHL team, it’s been tough to get everyone on the same page. Now that players are starting to gel, their play has improved drastically.

The arrival of Miguel Caron, who came over in a trade from the Lake Tahoe Blue, has given Texas a superstar to place on their top line with veteran captain Landyn Howze and he’s put up five points in his four games in purple and black.

Also continuing to play well are Russian forwards Nikita Salnikov and Anatoly Uspenyev, who were both pivotal in Texas’ win last Friday over the Dallas Snipers.

Defensively the team has struggled and now they have just one returner left, Jimmy Anderson, after having to dish Jack Norling in the deal to get Caron.

Newcomers have stepped up in recent weeks however to help out goaltenders Ryan Mulka and Oliver Eklund, who have each picked up their play, as well.

Texas likes to play a rough and tumble style but with the talent on the roster this year, Law has had to change things up a bit and find a way to harness both the talent and physicality, not dissimilar from what Cory Herman likes to do in El Paso.

They aren’t on the Rhinos level yet but if they can pick up a couple of wins this weekend, you can bet they’ll be a confident bunch moving forward.

Salt Lake City Moose (9-4-0, 3rd in Northwest Division) @ Seattle Totems (6-7-1, 4th in Northwest Division)

Three-game series in Mountlake Terrace, Washington

In a series starting tonight, the Salt Lake City Moose continue their strong road trip as they head to Seattle for three with the Totems.

The Moose, who won’t play at home again until January 17, are coming off a strong effort last weekend, in which they took of two of three games from the Southern Oregon Spartans in the Medford Madhouse.

The most improved team in the league by a mile, the Moose are off to the best start in team history and even when they weren’t flying so high, they were still able to play well against the Totems last year, winning all but one of their six meetings.

Their success this season has come from a tremendous amount of depth at every position and a newfound hunger, instilled by head coach Jeff Carr, who has his team ready to go every time they step onto the ice.

Last season, 11 players finished the year with double digits in scoring and through just 13 games so far this season, 10 have already reached that mark.

Newcomers Brett Meyer and Adam Kresl have joined veteran Cole Corson atop the team lead in points with 17 each, while rugged d-man David Barnes, who recorded just 11 points all of last season, is fourth on the team with 16.

Everyone has pitched in somewhere along the way for a team that wears down their opponents through tenacity and the ability to roll four lines for a full 60 minutes, a luxury few teams own.

Facing a Seattle team that has skated a few players short for most of the season, the Moose will look to tire them out and feast on their mistakes. If they can control each game and slow down the Totems top forward line, they’ll have a good chance to continue their roll.

That aforementioned top line, featuring returner Frank Flight and newcomers Eric Danna and Nikolay Mamadzhanov, has combined for 55 of Seattle’s 96 points on the season and they have only gotten stronger in recent weeks.

The Totems had last weekend off, so they should be well-rested coming into their first clash of the season with the Moose, who they were able to narrowly beat out for the fourth and final playoff spot in the division, despite beating them just one time.

Seattle has won five of their last six games overall, including three against the rival Southern Oregon Spartans.

A lot of their success can be attributed to the goaltending of Bryce Fink, who just continues to make huge stops and finds ways to keep his team in games. He sees a ton of rubber and is a workhorse in Mike Murphy’s crease, allowing his team to take more chances knowing they can rely on him to weather a storm.

The offense has been steady all season, with Flight and Mamadzanov leading the charge since game one but the story the last couple of times out has been the play of the defense, who have finally started to help Fink out.

Robin Bjoernstad, a hulking Norwegian defenseman, has really started to get comfortable recently and his play has showed it. Veterans Brett Losey and Kasey Walker aren’t as offensive but each plays a pivotal role on the backend, as well.

Playing with a short roster, the Totems need to make sure to take advantage of all of the chances they get and of course, continue to get the big saves from Fink.

They’re playing with a lot more confidence lately and are discovering that Totems swagger (I hate using that word) that they never seemed to find lasts season.

Boulder Bison (11-5-0, T-1st in Mountain Division) @ Dallas Ice Jets (8-3-0, 4th in Midwest Division)

Three-game series in Grapevine, Texas

As is often the case with two teams that play similar styles, the Boulder Bison and Dallas Ice Jets always seem to play each other tough. When they meet in Grapevine this weekend for three games, the camera may have trouble keeping up, as both of these teams can fly.

The Bison are the hotter of the two teams coming in, winning five of their last six games to move into a tie for first place along with the Phoenix Knights.

I recently had the chance to speak to Bison head coach Paul DePuydt and he confirmed what he told me prior to the start of the season; that his young players might take a little while to get used to the junior game but once they do, they’ll be very good.

His prediction was spot on, as his team started slowly, before exploding over the last few weeks, with a number of young guns chipping in and leading them to a number of big victories, including one that snapped the Idaho Jr. Steelheads’ 40-game winning streak.

Matt Hefter, who finished second on the team to Ryan Gauthier in points last season, currently leads the Bison with 22 points but Boulder hasn’t had to rely on top flight players as they’ve had to in years past but have instead used their depth to get the job done.

Rookies Charles Joly, Kevin Behrens and Chris Lupinski have all been on fire over the last few weeks, as have veterans like Hefter, Seth Ensor and Ben Schwenk.

Chance Creger and Greg Sodbinow have been solid on the backend and have helped a number of rookies find their way, while Colin Champine continues to impress in net. His numbers aren’t as sparkling as they were last season but he’s been every bit as good, especially in their win over Idaho.

Making the long road trip, the Bison have to keep things simple and just play their game. They won’t be able to outskate the Ice Jets like they do against other teams in the league, so it will be a true battle of coaching and skill.

The Ice Jets have been surprisingly quiet so far this season but there are a couple of reasons for that. First, they have played an extremely light schedule, playing back-to-back weekends just once and only 11 games in total. Making it even harder to get in a rhythm is the fact that Paul Taylor’s team is much younger than they have been in years past and with only four WSHL veterans on the roster, they’ve gone through their fair share of growing pains.

The Jets were off last weekend and I’m sure the practices they had to endure were tough, as the week prior they were beaten twice by Texas, the first of which marked their first divisional loss in nearly two calendar years.

Nothing gold can stay and you can’t expect to go 30-0-0 in your division every season but Taylor demands perfection from his players and although their start has been strong, it hasn’t been “Ice Jets strong.”

Chris Schutz, a forward who came up through the Ice Jets Academy program, currently leads the team with 20 points, while fellow newcomers Dmitry Kuzentsov and Andrej Valo aren’t too far behind.

Captain Yannick Aube currently has 13 points in 11 games, while former Bison Scott Folden has 10.

After that, the scoring drops off a bit, as a few young guys are still looking to find a groove but the return of third-year forward Johnny Henson has helped a ton, as he’s amassed six points in the five games he’s been back.

Defensively, Bryan Siersma is the lone returner and he’s been solid, as have Spencer Roth and Matthew Heim, who have adapted well to the junior game.

In net, the team is without two-year starter Michael Baldwin, who is playing collegiately but Tyler Hough has looked just fine in his place, as the rookie has put up a great goals against average of 2.14 and save percentage of .932.

Dallas is a lot like Boulder, not just in the way they play the game but in the fact that they have a number of young guys that are waiting to breakout.

The Bison have been able to do that over the last few weeks but the Ice Jets youngsters haven’t been able to get on that roll due to their schedule.

If they can get find that groove this weekend and pick up a couple of wins, it should be a good start to the rest of the season for a team waiting to takeoff.

New Mexico Renegades (2-13-0, 6th in Mountain Division) @ Phoenix Knights (11-1-0, T-1st in Mountain Division)

Three-game series in Chandler, Arizona

Fresh off their first two victories of the season, the New Mexico Renegades head to the desert to take on the top team in the division, as they face the Phoenix Knights for three.

The Renegades entered last weekend’s series in Tulsa with a record of 0-12-0 and had scored just seven goals on the season.

After dropping game one, they went on to win games two and three, while amassing 14 total goals on the weekend, six of which came off the stick of forward Nikita Pervyakov, who they acquired earlier in the week from Long Beach.

The offensive breakout wasn’t just Pervyakov’s doing however, as guys like Damond Brokke, Zach Comfort and Max Legere put together great weekends and helped the team breakout of the slump.

Also a big factor in the victories was goaltender John Groth, who faced far less shots thanks to a much better defensive effort from Sam Armitage and company but did his part in net, winning on both Saturday and Sunday.

The Renegades still rank at the bottom of the league in a number of categories and can’t even begin to think about a playoff spot yet but you have to commend this group of players, who were pushed around through the first few weeks of the season but kept coming out and trying their best. The two wins were a product of their fortitude and ability to continue competing despite often being overmatched.

They’ll have their hands full with the high-powered Knights, who can score in bunches but they have a ton of confidence coming in and I guarantee you they won’t back down an inch.

Winners of nine straight, the Knights were able to rest-up with a bye last weekend and will surely be flying come Friday night.

With a good mixture of veterans and high-end newcomers, first-year head coach Tyler Ramsey has the Knights looking like true contenders not only in the division but in the hunt for the Thorne Cup, as they have everything you’d like to see including size, speed, skill, systems and goaltending.

Working from the net out, the Knights have two veteran netminders that are stellar, in Troy Anderson and Alex Taylor. Each has fantastic numbers this season and are basically interchangeable, although Anderson has seen the bulk of the time in the crease this season.

Five veterans man the backend for Ramsey, led by the team’s unquestioned leader, captain Kelby Minshull, as well as Nick Kujawa, Tanner Branch, Charlie Allen and even Colin Bresnehan, who in his fifth season with the organization, recently made the switch from forward.

Up front, Jordan Cullum is a superstar and one of the best players in the league, while newcomers like Robert Smith, Max Mahood and Shane Fitzpatrick have been great, as well.

Overall there aren’t many weaknesses on this club, as they can keep up with the speed of teams like Boulder and are more than physical enough to bang it out with some of the Texas teams.

With a tough stretch of games certainly coming up at the Showcase and into January, the Knights can’t begin to look ahead, as every team in the division can jump up and bite them. If they play their game and don’t get ahead of themselves, they should be able to have their way with the Renegades.

Long Beach Bombers (7-10-0, 5th in Western Division) @ Fresno Monsters (13-1-1, 1st in Western Division)

Three-game series in Fresno, California

Without top scorer Tomas Nemeth, who was recalled earlier in the week by the Topeka Roadrunners of the NAHL, the Long Beach Bombers will be looking for someone else to step up when they head to Fresno for three with the division-leading Monsters this weekend.

Nemeth is currently tied for the league-lead in scoring with former linemate Filip Martinec, as the duo has 41 points in just 17 and 16 games played, respectively.

The third part of Chris White’s top line, rookie Konstantin Kotkov, is third with 35 points, giving the Bombers the top three point scorers in the entire league.

Despite the high-powered top line, the Bombers aren’t cruising atop the division but instead are having to work their way up from the bottom, as they are just 7-10-0 through their first 17 games of the season.

After sweeping the Dallas Snipers at home a couple of weeks ago, the Bombers lost both games to the Ontario Avalanche last weekend, as they continue to tread water.

Even without Nemeth, they still have one of the best offenses in the league and are absolutely lethal on the power play, so you get the feeling it’s just a matter of time before they break out.

Look for guys like Marcus Viitanen, Alexander Fibig and rookie Valeriy Ledovskiy to step up in Nemeth’s stead and help carry the load, along with Martinec and Kotkov, who have torn it up from the start.

The Bombers play a very wide-open style, so it can often be tough for their defense to keep scores low but White has made a point over the last two weeks to improve his goaltending, which has helped the Bombers keep opponents in check.

The acquisitions of both Talon Miller and Lucas Paulsen have strengthened the team and allowed their skill players to take more risks.

The Bombers remain a team that are scary when they pull it all together but struggle when they make mistakes and start to run around.

Playing against the division leaders, they have a great chance this weekend to get a couple of big wins to right the ship and get them started on a little run before the Showcase.

Winners of 11 straight, the Monsters were able to enjoy the bye last weekend from their usual spot atop the division.

Although fans are used to seeing the Monsters get off to great starts, the team Bryce Dale has put together this season is built to last, as they do a lot of the little things extremely well and aren’t a run and gun team like they have been in the past.

With a ton of veterans on the roster, it’s been rookie Mike Nolan stealing the spotlight, leading the team with 29 points and excelling in every situation.

After Nolan, the next six leading scorers on the team are all veterans and two of them are defenseman, showing depth that the team has lacked the last couple of seasons.

Austin Browning is the top returner with 19 points, while Mike Fabie, Jordan Fontaine and Michael Freeman each have 14.

This Monsters team isn’t as big as people are used to seeing from them but they play just as hard, have plenty of talent and don’t take nearly as many penalties.

In net, Austin Piquette and Jerry Kaukinen have split time and each has been terrific, making the big saves and not allowing a softie get them off their game.

The Monsters don’t want to make the series into a shootout, as although they have the firepower to compete, that’s not their game this season.

They instead will rely on their systems play, great passing and speed to breakdown the Bombers defense. Playing in front of the home crowd, the Monsters will look to avoid a slip up against a team that can make them pay if they make mistakes, so expect to see solid fundamental hockey from the Western Division leader.

Arizona Redhawks (5-6-1, T-3rd in Mountain Division) @ Cheyenne Stampede (5-7-1, T-3rd in Mountain Division)

Three-game series in Cheyenne, Wyoming

For the second straight weekend, the Arizona Redhawks are set to face a team they are tied with in the standings, as they head to Cheyenne for three with the Stampede.

In their match-up with the Colorado Jr. Eagles last weekend, the Redhawks offense was hard to stop, as the top line of Mattias Marten, Oscar Hagborg Olsson and Mitch Cobby, led the team to two wins over their first-year foe.

The trio of veterans has been unstoppable all season, combining for 80 points and causing matchup problems for every team they face.

The Redhawks recent success has come due to depth however, as even if teams begin to key in on the “King” line, they’re able to find other way to score, including production from Anton Melin, Chance Taylor and Danny Bello.

Goaltender Colton Pankiw has once again been solid, as well, making the big saves when he has to, especially with a young defensive corps in front of him but newcomer David Deadman, who came over in a trade from the Phoenix Knights, picked up both wins in Colorado, giving head coach Rob Powell a great one-two punch in between the pipes.

This Arizona team has a lot of fight in them and constantly come at their opponents in waves. If they can find a way to strengthen their defense and help out the goaltenders a bit more, they’re going to continue to be in games. With the talent on the top line alone, they should be able to compete for a playoff spot all season.

Cheyenne will be ready to go when the puck drops on Friday night, especially since they’re probably steaming after a pair of loses to the rival Boulder Bison last weekend.

The Stampede held leads in both of those games but allowed the Bison to fight back to get the win each time and will be looking to avenge that this weekend against the Redhawks.

They have too much talent on the roster to not have a better record, as head coach Gary Gill has put together a solid team, with great veteran leadership and highly-skilled newcomers, the problem is that nobody seems to be on top of their game on the same night.

Heath Lantz currently leads the club with 20 points and has been the team’s steadiest offensive weapon, while fellow veterans Russell Armbruster and Jimmie Kotilainen aren’t far behind.

Alexander Andersson, Branko Oktavec and Filip Oravec are three high-level import players that have been solid so far but each has even more potential than they’ve shown.

If all six of the aforementioned players can get going on the same night, the Stampede could be very hard to stop, as they have the skill to play with anyone.

They’ve had some breakdowns defensively but overall have been pretty solid, led by the play of Jacob Eisenstat, who has flourished in every situation, while Sam Mallory continues to be the guy in net, although they have a couple of capable imports behind him, should he slip up.

Playing their next seven games at home, and wearing special military themed jerseys this weekend, the Stampede will look to put it all together for a series and get going on a run, as they’re far better than their record indicates.

Missoula Maulers (4-3-3, 5th in Northwest Division) @ Southern Oregon Spartans (4-10-1, 6th in Northwest Division)

Three-game series played Friday and Saturday in Medford and Sunday in Klamath Falls, Oregon (Outdoor game)

Both near the bottom of the division, the Missoula Maulers and Southern Oregon Spartans will be looking to begin their ascent to the top when they meet for three this weekend.

Playing inside the Medford Madhouse is certainly tough on visiting teams but making things even more interesting for the visiting Maulers is an outdoor game on Sunday, at the Bill Collier Memorial Arena in nearby Klamath Falls, with temperatures expected in the 40’s.

Although the ice sheet is covered, the partially open facility should have the feel of a winter classic but unfortunately for fans, you wont’ be able to see it unless you’re in attendance, as there’s no internet in the area for a sustainable broadcast.

The host Spartans continue their eight game home streak and are in desperate need of some wins, going just 1-3-1 over the first five games, including dropping two of three to Salt Lake City last weekend.

They are another team that is far better than their record shows but haven’t had much consistency to their game so far this season.

They don’t have the offensive firepower they did last season but they also don’t have the ridiculous amount of penalty minutes, as they play a much more disciplined style under new head coach Jeremy Bachusz.

The team has struggled through some injuries and are starting to get back to full health, so they’re going to try and start climbing out of the hole they’ve dug themselves early in the season.

Arturs Buss leads the team with 17 points and Austin Sartorius has 14 but outside of those two, the Spartans don’t have many game breakers to rely on.

Bachusz does like to use his depth and they have plenty but there aren’t a ton of goal scorers, so they have to thrive on games that are low scoring.

The return of Mike Kowicki has benefitted their defense greatly, as they struggled to find their way early in the season and will only get better when Tyler Lazarek returns form injury within the next few weeks.

Although Jiri Ponikelsky and Ian Dvorak haven’t been bad in net, neither has stolen the show and taken over the job, so the competition continues until someone takes it over.

The Spartans will have to use their home ice to their advantage to get out of the funk they’re in, playing against a team that won’t be shocked by a big crowd.

The Missoula Maulers have been very similar to the Spartans early in the season, as they too play a defensive style and don’t rely on scoring a ton of goals to win games.

Their WSHL tenure has been up and down so far, as last weekend they proved they can hang with a very talented team, in the Ogden Mustangs and were close with the Phoenix Knights the weekend before but for whatever reason, they just haven’t been able to pull out many wins.

Missoula doesn’t have a single player who has reached double digits in scoring and Eric Jaeger leads the team with just eight points in 10 games.

Head coach Marcus Baxter does a good job of using all 18 skaters but soon they’ll need to start putting the puck in the back of the net a bit more, especially when you start to play teams like Idaho, who they’ll face six times this season.

Their strength has been in between the pipes, as both Michael McDaniel and Cody Janzen have been steady, while the defense in front of them has been solid, as well.

What the Maulers need to get going is a breakout game, which they haven’t had yet this season. If they can get all parts working together, they’re a very good team and I think if they can string a few wins together, they can really get the confidence going and start their move.

They have the talent, they’re very well coached and they are going to head into Medford hungry, so we’ll see if they can pick up some points and help the cause.

San Diego Gulls (3-15-1, 6th in Western Division) @ Ontario Avalanche (11-6-1, 3rd in Western Division)

Single game played Friday in Ontario, California

Coming off a three-game sweep of So Cal rivals last weekend, the Ontario Avalanche will be looking to continue their hot play when they host the San Diego Gulls on Friday night.

Finally playing up to their potential, the Avalanche broke out in two wins over the Long Beach Bombers last weekend, with a victory over the Valencia Flyers sandwiched in between.

The biggest reason for the offensive explosion was simple, they were finally able to bury their chances, as the defensive-minded team found a way to breakthrough, led by eight points from the WSHL First Star of the Week, forward Antoine Maillard.

It wasn’t just Maillard however, as a number of players, including Luke Rendino, Michael Thomas, Zechariah Roberts, Brett Norman, Joe Cangelosi and Calle Hallberg had great weekends, showing the team’s tremendous depth.

Another reason for the success was due to the solid goaltending efforts from both Daniel Cepila and Drake Koegel, which is an area they’ve struggled in all year.

Always a contender, the early season struggles of the San Diego Gulls have now continued far too long, as the notoriously slow starters continue to falter.

It hasn’t been for a lack of scoring in recent weeks, as veterans Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma have awoken, while newcomers Michael Leone and Kalvis Ozols have also started to chip in but they just keep getting in their own way, whether it’s penalty trouble, for a team that is normally very disciplined, goaltending issues, which have lingered all season or not capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes.

Head coach Craig Carlyle has got to be pulling his magnificently styled hair out, as just as it finally seemed his team was figuring things out, which started when they became the first team to beat the Fresno Monsters this season a few weeks back, they come right back down to earth the next time out.

He knew he had a young roster on his hands but I can’t imagine he thought the growing pains would last this long.

With the Western Division as tight as it is, they need to start stringing some wins together quickly and they’ll have their chance, with a number of divisional games coming up.

San Diego Gulls @ Valencia Flyers (6-5-3, 4th in Western Division)

Single game played Saturday in Valencia, California

The next night, the Gulls will travel north to Valencia for a single game against the Flyers.

Under first-year head coach Josh Berge, the Flyers have carved out a niche as a hardworking, tenacious team that has surprised a number of opponents this season with their play, including the Lake Tahoe Blue, who they took two of three from a couple weeks ago.

Just three veterans are on the roster, forward Austin Ehrlich, who leads the team with 23 points, defenseman Sam Taferner and goaltender Mark Becica, most of the roster is made up of feisty youngsters who are all looking to prove their worth, many of which have come up through the Flyers youth system.

Guys like Zach Paxman, Jakob Kranabetter, Jason Hart, Jared Waldman and Luc Whyte are all getting their first tastes of junior hockey and each is excelling, as Berge continues to bring them along by putting them in great situations to succeed.

Playing against the struggling Gulls, they’ll be looking to pick up a win on home ice and get back to their winning ways, as things really start to tighten up in the division.