March 1, 2011
Western Hockey League hits crunch time
By SCOTT FISHER, QMI Agency
As the WHL regular season enters its final few weeks, there’s still plenty on the line.
There’s also a few certainties.
Like the Saskatoon Blades, who will lock up home ice throughout the playoffs and clearly represent the team to beat this spring.
The Red Deer Rebels look like they’ll secure the Eastern Conference’s second seed by winning the Central Division.
But the battle for third and fourth couldn’t be tighter, with the Medicine Hat Tigers and Kootenay Ice in a virtual dead-heat.
There’s no major advantage in the opening round for the team finishing third. But the payoff would come in
Round 2, where the fourth seed would likely earn a matchup with the high-powered Blades.
The battle for the final playoff spot in the East could also go down to the wire, but the Prince Albert Raiders look to have the inside track on snagging a postseason berth for the first time since 2007.
The Raiders play five of their last nine games against teams below them in the standings. The Lethbridge Hurricanes have their work cut out for them, playing six of their last nine tilts on the road.
The fight at the top of the Western Conference will be an interesting one to watch as the Portland Winterhawks and the Spokane Chiefs slug it out. The No. 1 seed may not be decided until the final day of the season, when the two powerhouses meet in Portland.
The Kelowna Rockets and the Vancouver Giants have been embroiled in a season-long scrap for the B.C. Division crown.
The eventual winner will get the No. 2 seed in the West — for the opening round.
The teams are re-shuffled for Round 2 based on points, meaning the B.C. winner (barring upsets) would not have home ice after the opening series.
A trio of B.C.-based squads — the Kamloops Blazers, Prince George Cougars and Chilliwack Bruins — are in the hunt for the final two playoff spots in the West.
The seventh-place team would have a much better chance in the opening round.
The race for the Bob Clarke Trophy, handed out to the WHL’s top scorer, is a two-horse race between Tigers sniper Linden Vey (Los Angeles Kings) and Spokane Chiefs centre Tyler Johnson.
Unless there’s a massive late-season collapse in Red Deer, Rebels goaltender Darcy Kuemper (39-11-4, 1.89 GAA and a .932 save percentage) is a sure bet for goaltender of the year.