It may have taken a while but after five weeks of regular season hockey, we can finally say the Western States Hockey League is in full swing, as all 22 teams have now began their season. This past weekend was filled with more action, including a handful of intra-division matchups that may help set the tone for the rest of the season.
Below is a recap of each weekend series:
Tulsa Jr. Oilers (1-8-0, 5th in Midwest Division) @ Wichita Jr. Thunder (4-5-0 T-2nd in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Wichita, Kansas
The battle of the two first-year teams in the Midwest Division was close but in the end, the the Wichita Jr. Thunder had just enough firepower to sweep the visiting Tulsa Jr. Oilers.
A trio of imports led the way for the Jr. Thunder, as Andrii Istominov, Filip Martinec and Tomas Nemeth combined for 28 points on the weekend, helping their team pick up six big points and move all the way up into a tie for second in the division.
Game one was all Wichita, all night, as the Jr. Thunder led 6-0 after 40 minutes of play, thanks in large part to Martinec's natural hat-trick in the second period.
The Jr. Oilers put together a solid effort in the third but it wasn't nearly enough, as the Thunder held on for an 8-4 win.
Tulsa played some of their best hockey of the year on Saturday night and outshot a team for the first time this season but each of the aforementioned Wichita imports notched a goal in the third period, as the Jr. Thunder came from behind for the 5-3 victory.
In the finale, Ben Reaman scored the first two goals of the game, handing Tulsa a 2-0 lead but once again, Wichita fought back and wound up scoring the next five consecutive goals, en route to a 5-3 win, marking the first series victory and sweep in franchise history.
Tulsa and head coach Zac Desjardins showed up to play and were in every game, they just don't have the top-end talent to hang around late.
They're getting better every game however and are a completely different team than the one that got blown out by the Ice Jets to begin the season.
Wichita is flying high after a strong weekend of hockey in front of the home crowd and has to be happy with their offensive production.
Their depth is questionable but when you have three guys combine to average over nine points per game, you don't really need it.
They'll have to improve defensively but the Jr. Thunder are definitely on the right path and will only continue to get better as they gain confidence.
Ontario Avalanche (7-4-0, 1st in Pacific Division) @ Texas Jr. Brahmas (3-7-2, T-2nd in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in North Richland Hills, Texas
The only inter-division matchup of the weekend pitted the first-year Ontario Avalanche against the struggling Texas Jr. Brahmas.
If the long trip took any sort of toll on the Avalanche, you wouldn't have been able to tell, as Ontario continued their strong play and took all three games, in a big sweep on the road.
The opening game of the series was a shootout, as the two teams combined for 99 shots on goal but Jesse Gordichuk fared far better in net than either of the two Texas netminders and Ontario cruised to a 9-2 win.
The two teams were knotted at one after 40 minutes of play in game two but the Avalanche pulled away late, scoring three-third period goals in a 4-1 victory.
Matt Yost and Seth Ensor both scored power play goals in the opening period, pacing the Jr. Brahmas to a 2-0 lead in game three but Ontario's attack was just too much, as Antoine Maillard's goal sent the game into overtime, where Ryan Espinoza provided the game-winner.
Another weekend in the books and another disappointment for the Jr. Brahmas, as once again, they stuck around but couldn't find a way to pull out a win.
Jeremy Law and his boys are well aware of what the Ice Jets and even the Snipers are doing ahead of them and they'll have to figure something out soon to try and stay close.
The Avalanche may be one of the deepest squads in the league, as head coach Chris Shaw has put together a team that wins by committee and seems to have different goal scorers each night.
Goaltender Jesse Gordichuk, who started and won all three games over the weekend, has been their MVP so far this season and is a calming influence on the rest of the team.
The Avs keep finding ways to win and play a style of hockey that will keep them in games all year.
Phoenix Knights (5-3-1, 1st in Mountain Division) @ Cheyenne Stampede (2-0-1, 5th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Cheyenne, Wyoming
The long wait is over in Cheyenne and by the looks of it, the new-look Stampede made the most of their long pre-season, as the retooled franchise was impressive in their opening weekend of the regular season.
With a rebuilt roster, first-year head coach Marty Quarters led the Stampede to two victories and an overtime loss, in three games against the first-place Phoenix Knights.
Despite outshooting the visiting Knights by a large margin in their season opener, the Stampede surrendered two second period goals and needed a Kevin Rosset goal with 1:41 left in regulation to force overtime.
With 52 seconds remaining in the extra period, Jared Nussbaum hushed the home crowd with his first goal of the season, lifting the Knights to an overtime victory.
The Stampede shot the lights out in game two as well but had a better result, as they scored three times in the third period in a 6-3 victory.
Alex Johansons, Heath Lantz and Ryan Demyen each tallied goals in the big third period for Cheyenne and all three came within a span of 1:40.
Cheyenne's power play was clicking on all cylinders in the finale, as they scored four times with the man advantage and won by a score of 6-3, behind three points from Demyen.
Phoenix remains atop the Mountain Division but got hit with some reality on the road, as they were outshot heavily in each contest and took some untimely penalties.
They're still one of the better teams in the league and have shown depth at each position, which will go a long way in the physical Mountain Division.
General Manager Mark Lantz has to ecstatic after seeing what his completely revamped program was able to do over the weekend.
They were fast, physical, aggressive and fired up to play hockey, something they lacked last season.
It's only one weekend of hockey but if the Stampede can play that way consistently, they'll be right around the top of the division all year.
New Mexico Renegades (4-2-0, T-2nd in Mountain Division) @ Arizona Redhawks (1-6-2, 6th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Peoria, Arizona
Another tough Mountain Division series took place in Peoria, Arizona over the weekend, as the Arizona Redhawks looked to get back on the winning track against the New Mexico Renegades.
After opening the regular season by losing two of three in Arizona against the Knights last weekend, the return trip went much better for the Renegades, as they swept the Redhawks over three tight games.
Pontus Wikner's goal 4:07 into the third period tied the opening game of the series at three but Luc Fournier scored on the power play just a couple of minutes later and then assisted on Kenny Orlando's goal late in regulation, as New Mexico took the 5-3 victory.
The Redhawks controlled play for most of the middle game of the series and outshot the Renegades 54-29 but needed Travis Cornwell's goal with four seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
While on the power play, Fournier's fifth goal of the season gave New Mexico the win, as he put it home with 29 seconds left on the clock.
TJ West scored both Arizona goals in the series finale but New Mexico made the most of their 22 shots on goal, as they were able to beat Fredrik Johansson three times in a 3-2 win and series sweep.
The Redhawks played well, especially in the final two games of the weekend but had a few defensive breakdowns and their goaltending wasn't anything to write home about.
Rob Powell has assembled a team that has shown flashes of brilliance but inconsistency and a lack of depth has plagued them early in the season.
The new-look New Mexico Renegades are off and running after starting the season late, much like the Cheyenne Stampede.
A couple of newcomers, including junior hockey veterans Dakota Beaulieu and Luc Fournier, have led the way early in the season and have the Renegades looking like a contender in what is surely the deepest division in the league.
Ogden Mustangs (5-5-2, T-2nd in Northwest Division) @ Southern Oregon Spartans (6-4-0, T-2nd in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Medford, Oregon
Just one week after they clashed three times in Utah, the Southern Oregon Spartans and Ogden Mustangs met for three more, this time however, the Spartans played in front of the home crowed at the "Medford Madhouse."
After losing two of three the weekend before in Ogden, Southern Oregon was able to turn the tables on the visiting Mustangs and win two of three on home ice.
Avik, Joe and Eligah Bordak combined for seven points, as the Spartans took game one by a score of 5-3, despite being outshot by the visiting Stangs.
Ogden outshot the Spartans once again in game two, this time by a margin of 58-38 and Schuyler Seyfert scored 5:13 into the third period, as the Mustangs skated away with a 4-3 victory.
Southern Oregon played their best game of the weekend in the finale on Sunday, outshooting and outplaying the Mustangs for most of the contest and winning by a score of 6-4, behind four points from Drew Jarvis.
The two division rivals finished the regular season 3-3-0 against each other and won't meet again this season, unless they encounter one another in the playoffs.
Ogden has bounced back admirably after a tough opening weekend of the season and has played well in every game since.
Winning just one game in one of the toughest places to play in the entire league, isn't terrible and they have to be happy about the way they played in the opener, which they could have easily won as well.
The Spartans have finally found some depth and a lot of that has to do with the recent play of Nick Stirmel and Tim Talty, who started off the year slow but have really picked up their game.
With the two veterans both on fire, the opposition has to focus more attention on them, opening the door for other guys to step up.
Idaho Jr. Steelheads (8-0-0, 1st in Northwest division) @ Seattle Totems (1-5-1, 4th in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Mountlake Terrace, Washington
In what was supposed to be a matchup between two of the top teams in the league, the Idaho Jr. Steelheads continued their early season dominance with three big victories over the Seattle Totems.
If Stefan Brucato isn't playing Tier II hockey somewhere by season's end, I'd be very surprised. The second-year forward had another pedestrian weekend, as he picked up nine points over three Idaho wins.
In game one, he notched five points while Dominik Gabaj and Jake Webber each collected three, as Idaho cruised to a 9-2 victory.
Game two was much closer, even though Idaho outshot the host Totems by 30. Bryce Fink stood on his head in net and was able to keep his team close but the Jr. Steelheads eventually pulled away for a 5-3 win.
In the finale, Blake Mendenhall was solid in net, helping keep the Jr. Steelheads perfect through three weekends of play, with a 3-0 win.
The Seattle Totems haven't started their WSHL tenure as they would have hoped, as their NORPAC dominance hasn't exactly carried over.
It's widely known that they moved a lot of talent on from last season's team but they tend to rebuild quickly. So far, the only real bright spot has been the play of Fink in net.
Idaho continues to cruise and is strong in every area of the game.
They have shown a tendency to get more chippy than they have in recent years, which may or may not be a good thing. When you have as much talent as they do on their roster, you can get away with a few bad penalties here and there.
San Diego Gulls (5-5-0, 3rd in Pacific Division) @ Bay Area Seals (3-9-0, 6th in Pacific Division)
Three-game series in Oakland, California
The matchup of the marine animals took place over the weekend in Oakland, as the San Diego Gulls flocked north to take on the first-year Seals.
After starting the season 0-5-0, the Gulls have done a complete 180 in the two weekends since, going 5-0-0 and evening their record up.
The story of the weekend was depth for the visiting Gulls, as five different players scored goals in the opening game of the series, which was rather calm for a divisional matchup, as San Diego won by a score of 5-3.
Six different Gulls scored in the first period alone in game two, as seven total scored a goal on the night, in a 7-2 victory.
The depth continued in the finale, as four different players scored and goaltender Reed Kinsey stopped all 31 shots he faced in a 4-0 victory.
Bay Area outshot San Diego in two of the three games but goaltending was an issue on the weekend and hampered them throughout.
They have shown the ability to play physical, have a good amount of depth and have toned down their after whistle play but have now lost nine of their last ten games after staring the season 2-1.
San Diego's turnaround has a lot to do with their depth, which was non-existent over their first couple of weekends.
Head coach Craig Carlyle said it would be a rebuilding year with the young roster he put together but if they can play the way they have over the last two weeks, they'll be just fine.
They have an elite top line and when they don't have to lean on it, they're that much better as a team, as they showed in a dominant performance this weekend.
Dallas Snipers (4-4-0, 2nd in Midwest Division) @ Dallas Ice Jets (9-0-0, 1st in Division)
Home-and-home series played Friday in Plano and Saturday in Grapevine, Texas
The surprise story of the year so far faced their biggest challenge of the young season, as the Dallas Snipers took on the Dallas Ice Jets in a quick home-and-home series in Texas.
The upstart Snipers hosted Friday night's game and were very competitive, proving they aren't an early season fluke.
Just about every facet of the game was even, except for the power play numbers, as the Ice Jets converted on three of their 10 chances, while the Snipers couldn't put one in over 11 opportunities on the man advantage.
In the end, Austin Rehwinkel's two goals helped lead the Ice Jets to a 4-2 victory in a great game of hockey.
The next night, the two teams did it again but this time, the Ice Jets were home in Grapevine.
It wasn't nearly as close the second time around however, as the Ice Jets beat-up the Snipers much like they did all of last season and stayed perfect with a 7-0 shellacking.
Mathias Walbum, Kyle Tonoli, Conner Enciso and Yannick Aube each collected two points in the victory and goaltender Brody Sharp turned aside all 23 shots he faced in his first shutout of the season.
As far as the Snipers have come, they still have a ways to go if they want to be mentioned in the same breath as the Ice Jets.
Travis Clayton's bunch played very well on Friday but seemed to take a step back on Saturday and will need to find a way to grind out some tough wins.
Despite the two losses, they are still playing the best hockey we've ever seen out of them and combine their improved play with the struggles of the Jr. Brahmas and it looks as though the Snipers have an inside shot at second place in the division.
Nobody in the league, outside of John Olver in Idaho, makes better game-to-game adjustments than Ice Jets head coach Paul Taylor.
After getting their first-look at the Snipers on Friday and winning in a close game, he had his team ready the next night and it showed, as they cruised to an easy victory.
With the talent he has in place, the overall attitude of his team and the sluggish play from the rest of their division (other than the Snipers), Taylor has the Ice Jets looking like they may run the table in the Midwest Division.
Three-Stars of the Week
- Filip Martinec (Forward, Wichita Jr. Thunder)- The first-year Wichita Jr. Thunder notched not only the first series victory in franchise history but the first sweep in franchise history over the weekend, as they took all three games from the Tulsa Jr. Oilers. A huge reason for the success was the play of a trio of import players, who combined for 28 points in the three wins. The best of the three was Czech-born Filip Martinec, who notched 12 points on the weekend, including a natural hat-trick in period two of game one.
- Ryan Demyen (Forward, Cheyenne Stampede)- The new-look Stampede are off to a great start and first-year forward Ryan Demyen had a huge hand in Cheyenne's opening weekend victories over the Phoenix Knights. The Hubbard, Ohio native picked up six points in three games, helping the Stampede rumble out of the gate.
- Jesse Gordichuk (Goaltender, Ontario Avalanche)- It's awfully rare that you see a goaltender start all three games over a weekend, especially on a long road trip from southern California to Dallas. Jesse Gordichuk did just that, however and was fantastic in doing so, winning all three games and allowing just five goals on 122 shots, improving his record to 7-1-0 overall.
We're just a few days away from week six, which will be our busiest weekend of the year thus far, as 24 games are scheduled to be played. As always, you can watch all of them live on fasthockey.com
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League