When the Western States Hockey League made the jump from 16 to 22-teams this summer, many felt the league's talent pool would be diluted and the overall level of play would drop off. Just two weeks into the 2012-2013 regular season, the doubters have been proven wrong, as the league seems to be more exciting, talented and competitive than ever.
Below is a recap of each weekend series:
Dallas Snipers (3-2-0, T-1st in Midwest Division) @ Wichita Jr. Thunder (1-2-0, 4th in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Wichita, Kansas
In just six games under head coach Travis Clayton, it's been very clear that the Dallas Snipers will not be the pushover they were during their first season in the league.
After splitting a pair of games with the Texas Brahmas to begin the season, the Snipers made the trip to Wichita, Kansas, for their first-ever look at the Jr. Thunder.
Game one was a tight-checking affair, as the Jr. Thunder proved they will be no slouch either but despite outshooting the visiting Snipers 39-31, Wichita fell by a score of 5-4.
Three returners led the charge in the Snipers win, which gave them a winning record for the first time in franchise history. Shane Bonds, Justin Becton and Jake Gordon each tallied three points and have got to be ecstatic with the way things are going, after experiencing what they did last year.
In game two, the Snipers were downright dominant, winning by a score of 9-2 behind five points from J.J. Pitchley and a solid effort in net by Thomas Scoggin, who was acquired from the nearby Ice Jets in the offseason.
The Jr. Thunder didn't quit in the final game of the series and skated off with the first win in franchise history, beating the Snipers 4-3.
Marco Medina was fantastic in net, stopping 24 of the 27 shots he faced, while earning his first victory of the season.
Arizona Redhawks (1-1-1, 3rd in Mountain Division) @ Boulder Bison (2-1-0, 2nd in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Superior, Colorado
New division or not, the Arizona Redhawks are proving their success last season was no fluke.
Taking on an always fast and physical Boulder squad, the Redhawks were able to play tough all weekend against their new division foe.
In game one, it was veteran Ryan Gauthier leading the way for the host Bison, scoring twice, including the game-winner in overtime.
Game two was another tight one but Arizona came out on top with the 4-3 win, thank to Nathan Lee's three points and a strong effort from goaltender Fredrik Johansson, who picked up his first win of the season.
Game three was dominated by Boulder but goaltender Nick Carroll stood on his head for Arizona and turned aside 41 of the 43 shots they threw at him.
Daniel Kelso's goal halfway through the third period proved to be the game-winner however, as the Bison start off the year strong.
Fresno Monsters (3-0-0, T-3rd in Pacific Division) @ Bay Area Seals (2-4-0, T-3rd in Pacific Division)
Thee-game series in Daly City, California
They've only played each other three times but it's there's already a rivalry brewing in northern California, as the first-year Seals and perennial power Monsters made it very clear this weekend that they don't like one another.
Despite beating Fresno in the pre-season, the Seals couldn't quite keep up with the lethal Monsters, as they dropped their first three home games in club history.
It was widely speculated that this season would be one of rebuilding for Fresno but over the last couple of weeks a few of their top players have returned, including leading scorer Nick McKee and top defenseman Gunnar Dircks.
In all, the Monsters outscored their neighbors to the north 28-9 over the three-game set and proved once again that they are the team to be beat in the Pacific Division, sweeping the Seals with relative ease.
Bay Area's lack of structure was evident throughout and even though they are physical and talented, the Monsters picked them apart and exposed some gaping holes.
There's no doubt the Seals have the ability to compete in the division but they'll need to make some adjustments and clean up the way they play the game.
Phoenix Knights (2-1-0, 1st in Mountain Division) @ Texas Brahmas (2-2-1, 3rd in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in North Richland Hills, Texas
After an abysmal 2012-2013 season, the Phoenix Knights look as though they're ready to return to their winnings ways of old, after playing very well in Texas to begin their season.
Trailing 1-0 after the opening period of game one against the physical Brahmas, the Knights outscored the home team 4-1 over the final two periods, en route to a big 5-2 victory to kick off Kurt Goar's coaching tenure on a high note.
The following night, the Brahmas played with a little more jump in their step and held what seemed to be a commanding 4-1 lead with just over six minutes left in regulation.
The Knights didn't quit however and were able to fight back and tie the game with three late goals and send the game into overtime and eventually a shootout.
In the shootout, all three Brahmas shooters converted and goaltender Rutger Kesling stopped all three Arizona chances in a 5-4 Brahmas' victory.
Phoenix made a statement in the finale, as the Knights rolled behind three points each from Colin Bresnehan, Keanen Romero, Evan Smith and Kyle McLean, winning by a score of 6-2.
Salt Lake City Moose (0-2-0, 5th in Northwest Division) @ Idaho Jr. Steelheads (2-0-0, 1st in Northwest Division)
Two-game series in McCall, Idaho
The Salt Lake City Moose are yet another team that struggled during the 2011-2012 season but have come back strong in year two.
They may not have anything to show for themselves after two games in Idaho against the back-to-back Thorne Cup Champions but they took a big step forward and proved they can compete.
In just a quick two-gamer, Idaho outscored the visiting Moose 11-4 and won both games, handling their business as many expected but nobody predicted the fight the Moose put up.
After getting beat soundly and shutout 5-0 in the season opener for both teams, Salt Lake came back the following night and put up a great fight, eventually losing by a score of 6-4.
Many will be quick to say that there are no moral victories in hockey but for a team that finished dead last in the division last season, losing by just two in an arena where not one single team was able to win during the 2011-2012 regular season, is a huge momentum boost.
Stefan Brucato was his usual self in the two wins for Idaho, picking up where he left off after his six-goal performance in the Thorne Cup Championship Game back in April, by notching a goal and six assists in the two wins.
His Jr. Steelheads have a few kinks to work out but they will only get stronger as the season goes along and they learn John Olver's system, which is a bad sign for the rest of the Northwest Division.
Pacific Division One-Gamers
Friday September 28
Valencia Flyers (3-1-1, 1st in Division) @ Long Beach Bombers (2-0-0, T-3rd in division)
The Valencia Flyers came off an opening weekend sweep of the Ogden Mustangs and had a bit of a hiccup, getting blown out by a new-look Long Beach Bombers squad, by a score of 10-4.
The Bombers played off the home crowd early and jumped out to a 3-0 lead, never looking back. Stephen White, one of the top returning defensemen in the league, notched two goals and three assists and Czech forward Jakub Sramek impressed in his first game in North America, picking up a pedestrian six points in the win.
Ontario Avalanche (3-2-0, 2nd in Division) @ San Diego Gulls (0-2-0, 6th in Division)
The first-ever meeting between the Ontario Avalanche and San Diego Gulls was a good one, as each team gave up few scoring chances in the type of game that you should get used to seeing from the Pacific Division.
Antoine Maillard and Collin Warner gave the Avalanche a 2-0 lead and it held up, as they took the 2-1 victory.
Saturday September 29
Valencia Flyers @ Ontario Avalanche
The next evening the Flyers took to the road again and headed south to Ontario, where they got their first-ever look at the Avs.
Valencia came out strong to open the game and jumped out to a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes of play, only to let Ontario notch three goals of their own in the second.
With the Avalanche up 5-4 late in regulation, forward Preston Nowak scored with just nine seconds on the clock to force overtime and eventually a shootout.
In the shootout, Taylor Emerick's goal in the eighth round was enough to lift the Avalanche to the 6-5 victory.
San Diego Gulls @ Long Beach Bombers
The Bombers continued their hot start to the season with a 3-2 win over the long time rivalry San Diego Gulls.
Again, it was Jakub Sramek collecting three points and leading the way, as the Bombers begin the year 2-0-0.
Three Stars of the Week
- Jakub Sramek (Forward, Long Beach Bombers)- Czech forward Jakub Sramek is exactly the kind of guy the Bombers offense has been missing over the last few seasons and head coach Chris White is happy to have him. In his first two games of North American hockey, the 5'9" 165 pound forward notched an astounding nine points in two Long Beach victories.
- Shane Bonds (Forward, Dallas Snipers)- Shane Bonds was one of the few bright spots for the Dallas Snipers last season and despite his team's lopsided record, he kept his head up the entire time. This season, his patience has paid off, as his Snipers have began the year with a record of 3-2-0 and have proven they can compete with anyone. In three games in Wichita over the weekend, the second-year forward led Dallas with seven points.
- Stefan Brucato (Forward, Idaho Jr. Steelheads)- It was just another ho-hum weekend for Stefan Brucato, as the Jr. Steelheads top returner collected one goal and six assists in the Steelies opening weekend sweep of the Salt Lake City Moose. If there's a more intelligent player in this league, I'd love to see him.
We're just getting up to speed, as we get ready for week three, in which 15 games will be played, including a Wednesday night Midwest Division clash in Dallas.
Be sure to head over and like us on Facebook and check-back later this week for the weekend preview.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League