The ongoing theme so far this season has been that of parity across the entire Western States Hockey League. Week four was just another example of how far the league has come and even with 22 teams, the talent level has remained high and the scores have been close, including another handful of "surprises" over the weekend.
Below is a recap of each weekend series:
Texas Brahmas (4-5-1, 2nd in Midwest Division) @ Tulsa Jr. Oilers (1-5-0, T-4th in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Tulsa, Oklahoma
The Texas Brahmas were hopeful their slow start to the season would come to an end this weekend, as they got their first-ever look at the Tulsa Jr. Oilers.
The Jr. Oilers didn't begin their WSHL tenure the way they had hoped a couple of weeks earlier, as they were bombarded by a high-flying Dallas Ice Jets squad and left with little to take away from an opening weekend blowout.
On Friday night in Tulsa, the Jr. Oilers showed their ability to bounce back and took game over Texas by a score of 5-4.
Despite being outshot by more than double, the Jr. Oilers were able to stick around all night thanks in large part to the goaltending of Chris James.
The newly acquired Nate Nelson played hero in front of the home crowd, as he notched his first of the year with 6:19 left in regulation to break the tie and lift Tulsa to the first victory in franchise history.
The Brahmas attack didn't slow in the second game of the series and again more than doubled Tulsa's shots but this time, Texas was able to pick up a win.
Will Barber proved why Jeremy Law handed him the captaincy this season, as the third-year forward led by example and picked up three points, while goaltender Zane Sampson was solid in net, as the Brahmas took the 5-2 victory.
The score was the same in the finale, as the Brahmas jumped out to a 3-0 first period lead and were able to hold off Bobby Watson and the Tulsa offense in the victory.
Six games into their first season, the Jr. Oilers find themselves at the bottom of the Midwest Division but unlike a couple of weekends ago, there were a lot of positives to take from the weekend.
Head coach Zac Desjardins didn't let his team sulk after three big defeats to Dallas and came back with a solid game plan to help his team be more competitive. The recent addition of former Tulsa Rampage forward Bobby Watson never hurts either.
Texas showed some resiliency themselves, as the loss in the opener could have sent them reeling but they were able to regroup and win the final two games of the series.
Dallas Ice Jets (7-0-0, 1st in Midwest Division) @ Wichita Jr. Thunder (1-5-0, T-4th in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Wichita, Kansas
It's still very early but by the looks of it, the Dallas Ice Jets are going to run away with the Midwest Division.
Their schedule hasn't been the toughest and they've yet to face any real adversity but the Ice Jets look like the typical systematic, lightening-fast and ultra-deep team that we're already used to seeing Paul Taylor put together.
This weekend, they took the show on the road and made a visit to the first-year Wichita Jr. Thunder.
The Jr. Thunder didn't struggle as mightily as the Jr. Oilers in their opening weekend of play but still had some things to work on after losing two of three to the Dallas Snipers.
Tomas Nemeth scored two goals in the opener for the host Thunder but that was about it, as the Ice Jets dominated the game in every facet and skated away with the big win.
Tied at one after the first period of game two, the Ice Jets went on the offensive over the final two periods and outscored the Thunder 10-2 and wound up winning, 11-3.
Again, Nemeth picked up two goals in game two but Wichita's lack of discipline led to the Ice Jets' power play notching six goals on the night, as 16 different Dallas skaters recorder at least one point.
The Thunder actually got on the board first in the third and final game of the series but the Ice Jets were once again just too much to handle and shelled Marco Medina with 72 shots, in a 10-3 victory and series sweep.
Richard Bohan, Johnny Henson, Mathias Walbum and Jordan Deckard each collected three points in the win, further showing the unmatched depth Dallas currently has.
It's obvious Tomas Nemeth is a gamer but he needs some help if the Thunder hope to contend in the Midwest Division. Head coach Rob Weingartner has a solid top line in place but one or two more pieces would be a huge help.
Dallas is now 6-0-0 against the two new teams in their division and already look to be on cruise control. Last season, they didn't have a single player in the top-40 in league scoring, which was a testament to their depth. This season however, they have five of the six top scorers in the league and although the numbers may be skewed a bit, they seem to have more top-end talent than they did last season, which is a scary thought.
El Paso Rhinos (4-2-0, T-2nd in Mountain Division) @ Boulder Bison (4-2-0, T-2nd in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Superior, Colorado
Last season, the Boulder Bison and El Paso Rhinos didn't play each other once, effectively ending a rivalry that had been the leagues' best over the previous few years. This past weekend in Colorado, there was no love lost in a great weekend of Mountain Division hockey.
The El Paso Rhinos came into their second consecutive weekend on the road looking good, after opening the season with a clean sweep over the Arizona Redhawks in Peoria.
With a new coaching staff and a young roster, the Boulder Bison had been inconsistent in their opening weekend of play but rose to the challenge of hosting the Rhinos.
El Paso came out flying in game one and took a 2-0 lead just over halfway through the opening period on goals from David Nelson and Daniel Voyska.
Boulder didn't back down however and fired back with two of their own before the end of the period, as Ryan Gauthier and Ben Schwenk scored to knot the game at two.
The Bison opened the second period with an offensive explosion, scoring three times before the midway point and taking a 5-2 lead, which they were able to hold on to and win by a score of 5-4.
The game was as even as could be, as each team notched 47 shots on goal, had seven power play opportunities and although the league doesn't keep the statistic, I felt both squads had equal puck possession time.
Game two was filled with penalties, as the physical play picked up, leading to each team getting 10 chances with the man advantage on the night.
Boulder, despite being outshot heavily, was able to notch a power play marker and pull away late for the 4-2 victory, taking the first two games of the series.
Colin Champine took the win in net for the Bison and looked very good, stopping 51 of the 53 shots he faced.
With a sweep looming, Hunter Behrens' two goals, coming just over two minutes apart near the middle of the third period, gave Boulder what looked to be a commanding 5-3 lead.
El Paso turned up the heat however and scored three times in a span of 2:54 to salvage a win, in a series that was as exciting as promised.
Tommy Malkmus was the player of the game for the Rhinos, as the first-year forward had a hand in all four of El Paso's third period goals, finishing with a goal and three assists.
The Rhinos losing two of three, goes to show how tough the Mountain Division will be this season. El Paso is best when they control the game with their physical style of play, which they got away from at times this weekend.
They have the skill up front to contend with anyone but goaltending may be an issue as the season goes along, as neither Allan Cukier or Austin Brihn have seized control of the starting spot, yet.
After struggling at times against Arizona in their opening weekend, the Boulder Bison have to be happy after playing a great weekend of hockey against one of the league's top teams.
Paul DePuydt's goaltending was terrific, as was the offensive depth the Bison showed, a good sign for a team that lost a ton of top forwards this season.
In just their fourth season in the league, the Bison have continually shown an uncanny ability to surprise teams and always seem to up their play against division leaders.
Southern Oregon Spartans (4-3-0, 3rd in Northwest Division) @ Ogden Mustangs (4-3-2, T-1st in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Ogden, Utah
Another great divisional series over the weekend took place in Ogden, Utah, where the second-year Mustangs hosted the Southern Oregon Spartans for three games.
Through their first four games of WSHL play, the Spartans had only seen their long-time NORPAC rival Seattle Totems and looked good while beating them three times.
The Mustangs began the year by getting swept at home by Valencia but seemed to make some adjustments and bounce back the following weekend with a series victory over the Bay Area Seals.
Jake Laime's boys had all systems going this weekend, as they played some of the best hockey we've seen from them.
The two teams combined for 108 shots in game one, with the Mustangs peppering Max Richter with 58 and winning by a score of 6-3.
With 84 combined penalty minutes in the third period alone, it was rather clear these two didn't like each other already.
Tim Talty led the way for the Spartans in game two, picking up three points on the night but with the game tied at four late in regulation, Zach O'Mara scored to give Ogden the lead and Sean Haltam added an empty-netter in the 6-4 Ogden victory.
Talty was on his game again in game three but this time, his Spartans were able to pull out a win, as they led 5-2 after one and held on for the 7-2 victory, avoiding a costly sweep.
Southern Oregon was in all three games and had their chances but Ogden was much more opportunistic.
Head coach Mike Stanaway has to be happy to see Tim Talty, their leading scorer from last season, heating up and along with Nick Stirmel, could be one of the best one-two punches in the league.
Southern Oregon will have to regroup quickly, as they host the Mustangs this weekend in a rare home-and-home three game series.
Ogden finally seemed to play up to their potential this weekend and proved they can compete with anyone.
A couple of their top players, including forward Christian Kraus, got caught up in the rough stuff and will need to skate away from it from now on because the Mustangs need their skill guys on the ice.
This upcoming weekend, when the two meet in Medford, it will come down to who keeps their composure.
New Mexico Renegades (1-2-0, 5th in Mountain Division) @ Phoenix Knights (4-1-1, 1st in Mountain Division)
Three-game series played in Chandler, Arizona
Aside from the Dallas Snipers, the Phoenix Knights have been the surprise story of the young season.
After an abysmal year under a new management team, the Knights have returned for season two and look like a true contender in the Mountain Division.
After opening up the season by winning two of three over the Texas Brahmas, the Knights once again looked solid in three games against the New Mexico Renegades over the weekend.
Due to an odd schedule, the Renegades were finally playing their first three games of the season, after sitting around for three weeks, while some teams, like the Brahmas, have already played 10 games.
The two new division rivals played each other tough all weekend and it showed right from the start in the opening game.
The two teams traded off goals to start the contest, with New Mexico scoring first and Phoenix answering three times to tie the game.
Robert Crisci's power play goal with 1:08 left in regulation broke a 5-5 tie and gave Phoenix the game one victory.
Game two was just as high scoring but New Mexico goaltender Joey MacConnell made big saves at the right times and the Renegades picked up their first win of the season, by a score of 7-5.
With the game tied after two period of play in game three, the Knights scored four straight goals to open the third and took the eventual 7-3 win and series victory.
Veteran forward Daniel Gowans picked up four points in the Knights' victory.
The Renegades looked vastly improved over the three games and have a deeper roster than we're used to seeing from them. You can't take much from their opening weekend, as Phoenix was already in the flow of the season and New Mexico was just getting started.
With a record of 4-1-1, the Knights find themselves perched nicely atop the Mountain Division standings. Last season, it seemed that they couldn't get roster enough players to compete but so far this season, they have plenty of talent wanting to play for head coach Kurt Goar.
The way these two teams played over the weekend just goes to show how tough the Mountain Division is going to be this season.
Idaho Jr. Steelheads (5-0-0, T-1st in Northwest Division) @ Salt Lake City Moose (0-4-1, 5th in Northwest Division)
Three-game series played in Salt Lake City, Utah
They may be winless five games into the 2012-2013 season but the Salt Lake City Moose are another team that has improved exponentially from last season.
They were competitive while still losing both games in Idaho against the Jr. Steelheads to open the season and despite being swept by Idaho at home this past weekend, they played well enough to earn a point in game one.
Idaho is one of the few non-surprises in the league. After five games they are undefeated and already looking like the favorite to win yet another Thorne Cup Title.
Idaho led 1-0 pretty much the entirety of the opening game but Brian Giorgi's power play marker with 1:21 left in regulation was enough to send the game into overtime.
After the extra period solved nothing, Dominik Gabaj notched the game-winner in the shootout, as Idaho picked up the 2-1 victory in a game that was much closer than they would have hoped.
The Jr. Steelheads were much more dominant in game two, outshooting the host Moose 51-24 and winning by a score of 5-2, that could have been much more if not for the goaltending of Talon Miller.
After scoring the shootout winner in game one, Gabaj accumulated four points in the middle game of the series.
Idaho carried play once again in game three and cruised to a 7-1 victory, with Josh Haverstrom notching four points in the win.
The Moose showed the ability to stick around and after playing Idaho five times, have to be happy to only see them once more during the regular season.
Their goaltending kept them in each game but they will need some defensive help if they want to nab a playoff spot.
Idaho's big guns, including top-returner Stefan Brucato and a handful of new import players, were just too much to handle over the long weekend and their speed on the big ice surface seemed to wear down the Moose.
The back-to-back Thorne Cup Champions are off and running but will get a big test next weekend, when they travel to Seattle to clash with the Totems.
Pacific Division One-Gamers
San Diego Gulls (2-5-0, 6th in division) @ Ontario Avalanche (4-4-0, T-3rd in division)
Game played Friday in Ontario, California
No team in the league has lost as much top-end talent as the San Diego Gulls did coming into this season and head coach Craig Carlyle has been looking for ways to fill the gaps.
After an 0-5 start to the season, his boys picked up a big win on Friday night in Ontario, which he hopes will catapult them back into contention.
In that game against the first-year Avalanche, San Diego's top line of Justin Lazalde, Zen Hamil and Tyler Giovannetti, combined for nine points and carried the Gulls to a 5-3 victory.
Long Beach Bombers (4-2-0, T-3rd in Division) @ Ontario Avalanche
Game played Saturday in Ontario, California
The next evening, the Avalanche welcomed in the Long Beach Bombers, who have been the surprise of the Pacific Division so far this season.
After being done-in by the top line of the Gulls the night before, the Bombers top line, made up of three imports, Jakub Sramek, Mans Nystrand and Nikita Kortokov, combined for 11 points in an 8-5 Long Beach victory.
The Avalanche played well enough to win but couldn't put the brakes on the "U.N. Line" and fell for the second consecutive night.
San Diego Gulls (2-5-0, 6th in Division) @ Valencia Flyers (4-3-1, 2nd in Division)
Game played Saturday in Valencia, California
After the win in Ontario on Friday, San Diego continued the momentum the next evening in Valencia, as their top line carried them to victory once again, this time by a score of 5-3.
Justin Lazalde's third goal of the game, gave the Gulls a 3-1 lead with 11:06 left in regulation but the Flyers fought back to tie the game, as Jacob Larsson and Eddie Keshishian each notched a goal.
The Gulls struck twice more however, both times directly off of Flyers' turnovers and finished the weekend with two huge wins.
Long Beach Bombers @ Valencia Flyers
Game played Sunday in Valencia, California
In a rare Sunday matinee affair, the Long Beach Bombers traveled north to Valencia to take on the Flyers, as the two teams met for the third time already this season.
After losing the first two meeting between the two, the Flyers came out hard and behind a fantastic third period, took the 5-3 win.
Ludovic Beaupre notched two goals and an assist and for the second straight game, Jacob Larsson scored a third period goal, as the Flyers broke a mini-losing streak.
Long Beach has, what I consider to be, the best top line in the league.
Jakub Sramek and Nikita Korotkov are both small but possess tons of skill and see the ice very well. One is a Czech and the other is a Russian but they must have ESP because they look like they've been playing together for years. Combine those two with the hulking Swede, Mans Nystrand and it spells trouble for opposing teams.
Another import, goaltender Jiri Sykora, could be the best netminder in the entire league as well but seemed to tire a bit against Valencia. He's started all six games so far this season and the Bombers have been outshot in every one of those games, meaning a lot of work for the big Czech. He'll get to rest this weekend however, as the Bombers will be inactive.
Valencia opened the season strong but has tailed off a bit since returning home. They were solid against Long Beach and Eddie Keshishian, who finished second in the league with 72 points last season, has picked up his play as of late.
The Flyers will enjoy a nice weekend off as well, before returning to host the Bay Area Seals on Friday October 26.
Three-Stars of the Week
- Justin Lazalde (Forward, San Diego Gulls)- With the Gulls off to one of the worst starts in franchise history, Craig Carlyle needed one of his few returning players to step up this weekend and Justin Lazalde did just that. The undersized forward can flat out fly and his speed caused problems for both opponents this weekend. In two big divisional wins over Ontario and Valencia on back-to-back nights, Lazalde was fantastic, notching seven points and helping pick his team up off the mat.
- Will Barber (Forward, Texas Jr. Brahmas)- Another guy that helped pick his team up this weekend is forward Will Barber, the captain of the struggling Texas Jr. Brahmas. With his team in need of some leadership, Barber led by example and amassed seven points over a three-game weekend against Tulsa and aided his team in picking up four big points in the Midwest Division standings.
- Jake Webber (Defenseman, Idaho Jr. Steelheads)- In an unusually tight series against the Salt Lake City Moose, Jake Webber was his usual self, quarterbacking John Olver's vaunted power play and picking up five points in three Idaho victories.
Week five is just a few days away and will feature a ton of great divisional rivalries, including Idaho visiting Seattle and the battle of the two Dallas teams. As always, all games can be seen live on fasthockey.com
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League