Contenders abound

SCOTT FISHER -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:39 AM ET

There is no longer a beast of the east.

In past WHL seasons, one or two favourites were long established well before the final post-season party invitations were sent out.

This year, the Eastern Conference is up for grabs. With a little more than a month left in the regular season, simply nailing down a playoff berth is enough for most teams to have a legitimate shot at playing for all the marbles.

Calgary Hitmen GM/head coach Kelly Kisio, whose club will likely lock up its eighth consecutive playoff berth in the next 10 days, agrees the conference will be wide open when the post-season begins at the end of March.

"Whoever is injury-free and gets hot going into the playoffs is probably going to come out," Kisio says. "For sure, it's up for grabs. There's probably seven teams that could get going and win this side."

It would be a stretch to suggest anyone other than the Kootenay Ice, Kelowna Rockets or Seattle Thunderbirds could come out of the west. But the only team(s) without a reasonable chance of escaping the first round is whoever wins the turtle race -- Regina or Moose Jaw -- for the final spot in the Eastern Conference. With about 15 games left on the schedule, here's how the playoff race shapes up:

CENTRAL DIVISION

The tightest division in the league features four teams fighting for nothing over the final month but home-ice advantage. There will be no easy first-round opponent, although head-to-head matchups might suggest otherwise.

* CALGARY HITMEN: The Hitmen have an 11-8-2 record within their division but if you throw out their 4-0 record against the soon-to-be-eliminated Swift Current Broncos, suddenly the picture isn't as rosy. Calgary does have a winning record against two of the three remaining playoff teams (Lethbridge, 2-1-1 and Red Deer, 5-2-1) but are a dreadful 0-5 against Medicine Hat. Clearly, if the Hitmen hope to advance beyond the opening round for the first time in four years, avoiding the Tigers will be essential.

* MEDICINE HAT TIGERS: The defending WHL champion Tigers have to be considered the team to beat. Led by top scorer Stefan Meyer, the Gas City gunslingers boast the most explosive offence of the four clubs. And with world junior d-man Cam Barker anchoring the blueline, the Bengals have surrendered the fewest goals against as well.

* LETHBRIDGE HURRICANES: Few expected the 'Canes to be challenging for top spot in the east. Lethbridge, which missed the playoffs in 2003-04, has already matched last season's 71 points. The emergence of Colton Yellow Horn, who is battling for the scoring crown, the trade-deadline acquisition of reigning scoring king Tyler Redenbach and the strong play of world junior blueliner Brent Seabrook have the 'Canes believing this could be the year.

* RED DEER REBELS: On paper, the Rebels are likely the weakest of the bunch. Yet, with future Calgary Flame Dion Phaneuf and captain Colin Fraser logging huge minutes, Red Deer has managed to keep pace in this competitive division. And with Brent Sutter pulling the strings, the Rebels can never be counted out.

EAST DIVISION

* SASKATOON BLADES: The worst team in the WHL a season ago, finishing a whopping 32 points below anyone else, the Blades have rebounded in a big way. With local products Mike Green (tops in the league with a plus-minus rating of plus-41) and Wacey Rabbit leading the way, the Blades, who visit the 'Dome Sunday, would have the easiest road if they can hold onto top spot and draw either Regina or Moose Jaw in the first round.

* BRANDON WHEAT KINGS: The Wheaties aren't as balanced as Saskatoon but their top-end talent is second to none. Eric Fehr, who may be the only WHLer to eclipse 50 goals this season, leads the league in points while Calgary product Ryan Stone is No. 1 in assists with teammate Tim Konsorada in second spot.

* PRINCE ALBERT RAIDERS: Much like the Hitmen and Vancouver Giants, a lot more was expected of the Raiders in 2004-05. But with injuries to top scorers Kyle Chipchura and Jeremy Colliton, P.A. has struggled. However, with world junior backup Rejean Beauchemin between the pipes, the Raiders could be the darkhorse of this division.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Nigel Dawes of the Kootenay Ice scored seven goals and eight points in four games to take weekly honours.


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