The month of February has come and gone. Western Hockey League teams are bearing down on playoff spots, with some jockeying for position still destined to be a big part of the March schedule.
The 68-game schedule is coming to an end and the Central Division standings provide only a pair of absolutes. The Kootenay ICE are on the outside looking in and the team will play it’s last game in Cranbrook, BC on March 17th.
We’ve tossed in another couple of items this time around – each team’s record when leading after two periods and their records when trailing after 40 minutes. It’s pretty apparent that the potentially playoff bound teams in the Central Division are great front runners. However there is a lot to be decided in the Central Division, first through fifth has not yet been decided and one of Calgary, Red Deer or Medicine Hat could still miss the playoffs with Brandon lurking not far behind.
Here we go, from worst to first – but let’s start by looking ahead to the playoffs!
THE RACE TO THE POST-SEASON
Dogfight. That is the best way to sum up the teams in contention for a playoff spot, more specifically the teams in the top three spots as it currently stands. Edmonton is the leader of the pack but they are just two points clear of the Lethbridge Hurricanes for the division crown. The surging Calgary Hitmen are a further 6 points behind Lethbridge.
Medicine Hat and Red Deer have cooled off of late and hold down both wild card slots, while tied with 67 points a piece, just three back of Calgary. The last 17 days of the season will be exciting as there are a lot of inter-divisional match ups remaining and none of the teams in the division have actually clinched a playoff birth.
Kootenay ICE (11-39-7-3…32 points)
Games remaining: 8
Divisional games: 6
Edmonton 1; Red Deer 2; Calgary 2; Medicine Hat 1; Lethbridge 0
February Record: 1-7-0-2
Record when leading after two periods: 7-0-1-1
Record when trailing after two periods: 3-37-2-2
Average Home Attendance: 2,201 in 29 games.
They left the playoff race sometime around Christmas and were officially eliminated in February.
There hasn’t been a lot to talk about in the city of Cranbrook this season, as the Kootenay ICE stumbled their way through the 2018-19 regular season. The team actually took a sharp fall from their 61 point effort of last season and some of that can be attributed to the news that came out in final week of January.
To no one’s surprise the ICE ownership group announced that the team was headed to Winnipeg at the conclusion of the current season. It had been speculated that the team would be moved following a couple of seasons of efforts to bring the team to respectability and fill the seats in the rink.
There are a few positives for the team moving forward. Peyton Krebs put up 62 points in the 56 games he has played which good enough for 37th overall. The young forward has pretty much done it all by himself with 20-year-old Jaeger White accumulating 14 less points for second on the team. Krebs should be a high draft pick at this summer’s NHL Draft, and that will garner some attention for the new team in Winnipeg.
The team signed a plethora of Manitoba based hockey players throughout the season. It is hoped that with the influx of homegrown players the team will be able to grow and market them to their new fan base.
Red Deer Rebels (31-24-4-1…67 points)
Games remaining: 8
Divisional games: 5
Edmonton 1; Calgary 0; Medicine Hat 1; Lethbridge 1; Kootenay 2
February Record: 3-8-2-0.
Record when leading after two periods: 22-2-1-0.
Record when training after two periods: 4-17-2-1.
Average Home Attendance: 4,039 in 30 games.
A tale of two teams really as the Red Deer Rebels have been flirting with missing the playoffs over the last three weeks after leading the division through most of the first half of the season.
The goals haven’t been there for Red Deer as the team’s offense took a nose dive through January and February. With recent wins in Moose Jaw and Regina, the Rebels do appear to have the ability to put the puck in the net with 12 goals over those two games. It remains to be seen how consistent they can become after going an entire month’s worth of time between regulation wins.
With a tough stretch of games remaining, the Rebels will be hard pressed to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. They need to continue to surprise teams ahead of them in the standings and hope that one or two of the teams ahead of them slip a little bit. Brandon is also right on their heels with 65 points and a game in hand. Those two teams meet in Red Deer on March 8th. The team also needs to beat Medicine Hat in their match up in Medicine Hat on March 13th. Red Deer has yet to beat them this season.
On the scoresheet it has been a great year for 20-year-old Chicago Blackhawks signee Brandon Hagel. He is fourth in the WHL in scoring with 91 points. He also became the Rebels all-time leading assist man with his 162nd assist. He now sits at 169 assists. He is one goal away from 100 on his career.
Medicine Hat Tigers (31-24-3-2…67 points)
Games remaining: 8.
Divisional games: 6.
Edmonton 1; Calgary 1; Red Deer 1; Lethbridge 2; Kootenay 1
February Record: 4-7-1-0
Record when leading after two periods: 24-2-1-2
Record when trailing after two periods: 4-20-0-0
Average Home Attendance: 3,338 in 29 games.
Another team with a topsy-turvy kind of year. A poor start followed by eight wins in ten games then a pretty good stretch through December and January followed by a pretty bad February. The team is on a six game slide scoring just 10 goals and having been shut out twice in that stretch. GM/Head Coach Clouston has yet to really figure out this team.
A lot of their success can be attributed to their import rookie goaltender Mads Sogaard. Despite being shellacked at the World Junior Hockey Championships, Sogaard has remained a steady force between the pipes for the Tigers. His 2.53 goals against average and .925 save percentage has him among the league leaders in both categories. On the other hand, NHL drafted Jordan Hollett is not experiencing the tandem role as well.
James Hambin and Ryan Jevne lead the way on offense for the Tigers. Six Tigers have more than 40 points on the season but beyond that core group the offense really tails off for the team as they are the second lowest scoring team in the division, ahead of only the ICE.
Calgary Hitmen (32-23-5-1…70 points)
Games remaining: 8.
Divisional games: 7
Edmonton 3; Red Deer 0; Kootenay 2; Lethbridge 1; Medicine Hat 1
February Record: 7-3-2-0
Record when leading after two periods: 26-1-2-1
Record when trailing after two periods: 2-21-0-0
Average Home Attendance: 7,144 in 30 games.
The little team that could. The team has suffered through it’s share of injuries, especially to those players who would be considered in the elite level of the league. Carl Stankowski came in with known injury history, as well as a condition that could put him on the shelf and it did. He has appeared in just 21 games this season and his numbers have not shown the brilliance they did when he led the Seattle Thunderbirds to the WHL’s promised land. The team also lost Jake Kryski to injury and he was producing at over a point-per-game.
There certainly have been some bright spots as the team brought in James Malm from the Vancouver Giants and he has put up 53 points in 43 games for the Hitmen. Kaden Elder was also brought in this season and he has nearly scored a point-per-game. The real revelation for Calgary though has been the play of Mark Kastelic. His 43 goals are good for third in the WHL and he has a shot, albeit slim, of reaching the 50-goal plateau this season.
The biggest story of this season though for the Hitmen is the play of rookie netminder Jack McNaughton. His 22-12-3-1 record is what shines above all the other stats he has. The team has played exceptionally well when he is between the pipes and that has helped Calgary to their best points percentage since the 2015-16 season.
Lethbridge Hurricanes (33-18-5-5…76 points)
Games remaining: 7.
Divisional games: 4.
Edmonton 0; Red Deer 1; Calgary 1; Medicine Hat 2; Kootenay 0
February Record: 8-3-1-1 (Best in the division)
Record when leading after two periods: 21-0-2-1
Record when trailing after two periods: 4-17-1-0
Average Home Attendance: 3,884 in 31 games.
The Hurricanes have been one of those teams that has flown in under the radar even though you expected them to be good. The team was quiet throughout the year and they have quietly put together the second best record in the division.
General manager Peter Anholt did a good job of patching together a squad that is fighting for a division title. Their import goaltender didn’t work out so they released him and brought up Reece Klassen. When the tandem between he and Carl Tetachuk wasn’t up to the liking of the team, Anholt traded for Liam Hughes from the Seattle Thunderbirds. That meant the team could expend Klassen. But then Hughes decided at an inopportune time that he should retire. All Anholt could do at that point was bring up Bryan Thomson and hope for the best. And the best is what he is getting, except it is out of rookie goaltender Carl Tetachuk.
Thanks to Tetachuk and his stellar February, the Hurricanes are on track for the playoffs and have the Oil Kings in their sights.
Anholt also made the savvy move of bringing in Jake Leschyshyn and Nick Henry from the floundering Regina Pats. All they have done is score at over a point-per-game pace and helped pace the Hurricanes. This team has seven players with 59 or more points. NHL draft eligible forward Dylan Cozens is second in team scoring with 75 points and second in goals to the suddenly surging Jake Elmer. Elmer has goals in 10 straight games totalling 14 goals.
Edmonton Oil Kings (35-18-4-4…78 points)
Games remaining: 7.
Divisional games: 6
Red Deer 1; Calgary 3; Medicine Hat 1; Kootenay 1; Lethbridge 0
February Record: 8-3-0-0
Record when leading after two periods: 25-1-2-2
Record when trailing after two periods: 4-15-2-1
Average Home Attendance: 7,161 in 30 games. *best in WHL
It is possible the MVP of the WHL plays his games in Edmonton. Trey Fix-Wolansky is the best player by a long shot on a team that could be headed for it’s first division title since the 2013-14 season. Their lead though is very slim and they do not have an opportunity to play the team trailing them before the season is out.
Fix-Wolansky has been dynamite for the entire season, scoring 92 points. He was passed over for Team Canada at the world juniors and he showed everyone that it was a mistake not to take him. The unsigned Columbus Blue Jacket draft pick has carried the Oil Kings on his back and helped his new coach along the way.
Brad Lauer guided his team through an interesting first half of the season. The team opened with a five game win streak and then followed that up with losses in eight straight. Then followed that up with points in nine straight games. Since then the team has mellowed out and taken the division lead.
Andrew Fyten and Josh Williams were the only big additions to the team while Brett Kemp was the big subtraction. These deals by Kirt Hill have worked out well for the team and produced on the score sheet.
Edmonton is miles ahead of where many people thought they would be but it appears that the addition of Brad Lauer was the move that had the biggest impact on this team.