We are off and running in the new year, after an opening weekend that saw a handful of teams take big strides toward a solid stretch run. Things really start to open up now, as everyone gets in on the action and will look to bolster their roster for what should be the best playoff race we've seen to date.
Below is a recap of each weekend series/game:
Ontario Avalanche (15-16-0, 4th in Pacific Division) @ Bay Area Seals (12-15-1, 6th in Pacific Division)
Three-game series in Daly City, California
Don't look now but the Bay Area Seals are on a roll out west and after going a perfect 4-0-0 at the Showcase, they returned home to Daly City and swept three games from the Ontario Avalanche this past weekend.
The Seals recent surge comes on the heels of a slew of acquisitions, which included three Slovakians while in Las Vegas, as well as the even more recent signings of forward Corey Wamsteeker and defenseman Mac Putio out of Canada.
The Seals looked solid from the start on Friday, as they jumped all over the other first-year franchise in the Pacific Division early on, scoring three times in the opening frame and going on to a 7-2 victory.
Mark DeVaughn, Josh Mikes and the two new Slovakian forwards, Kristian Kucera and Filip Ondracek, each notched two points in the Seals' win, while goaltender Filip Orcik stopped 32 of the 34 shots he faced, moving his record to 4-0-0 since joining the team.
The home team got off to a great start again the next afternoon, as Martin Vachal and Brian Cochran each scored first period goals to pace the Seals to a 2-0 lead.
The Avalanche got within one early in the second on a goal by Tyler Sybil but that would be as close as they would come, as Bay Area responded each time they got close and skated off with a 5-4 victory.
Forward Griffin Leach led the Seals' offensive charge with three points, while Orcik played well again in net, stopping 31 of 35.
Ontario took their first lead of the weekend in the finale, after a Jackson Braniff goal 2:54 into the second period made it 2-1 but it didn't last long.
The Seals rattled off the next five straight and went on to a 9-4 win and big series sweep, moving them within just two points of Long Beach for fifth place in the division.
Kucera and Ondracek led the offense, each notching five points in the win and once again, Orcik was solid in net, moving his record to 6-0-0.
After dwelling in the Pacific Division cellar for most of the first half, the Seals have now put the league on notice, winning seven straight and nine of ten.
They have acquired top-end talent at every position and have finally found some discipline, which really hurt them early in the season.
They have a long way to go to get into the middle of the playoff race but if they can keep the momentum going, they can be a real threat.
Ontario didn't play as well as they could have but I'm sure they didn't expect this big of a challenge from the Seals.
They are still one of the more complete teams in the league and they will surely rebound but it was an all-around tough weekend for the Avs.
Up next for the Seals is three games at home against the second place Valencia Flyers, which will really show what kind of team Zac Lytle has.
Ontario has a weekend off before playing a home-and-home series with the Long Beach Bombers.
Tulsa Jr. Oilers (7-21-0, 4th in Midwest Division) @ Texas Brahmas (15-15-2, 2nd in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in North Richland Hills, Texas
The other team that really surprised with a perfect record at the Showcase was back at it and picking up points over the weekend, as the Texas Brahmas took two of three games from the Tulsa Jr. Oilers.
With a tough first half in the rearview mirror, the Brahmas were ready to go on Friday night and took it to the Jr. Oilers in every facet of the game.
Tulsa actually got on the board first, as David Morong continued his recent hot streak with a goal 7:39 into regulation but it was all Texas from that point on.
Matt Yost and Peter Bulling each tallied before the end of the period to give the Brahmas a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes of play and Bulling opened the second period with two more goals to complete his hat-trick and blow the game wide open.
Everyone got in on the action late as Landyn Howze, Evan Davis and Garrett Weitzel all found twine to make it 7-1 Brahmas, before Tulsa finally answered with a goal from Matt Winkle to make it 7-2, which wound up being the final score.
As has been the case too often this season, Tulsa's offense had a few good chances but the defense gave up 55 shots on goal in the loss, while Eric Messer stopped 27 of the 29 shots he faced in the win for Texas.
Tulsa continued the trend the next evening, giving up an astounding 67 shots on net but behind outstanding goaltending from Tyrus VanMatre, they somehow found a way to win and win big, by a score of 6-1.
Leading scorer Bobby Watson assisted on five of the six Tulsa goals and VanMatre stopped 66 of 67 in a big win for Tulsa, which actually pushed them into fourth place in the Midwest Division.
The score was also 6-1 in the finale but it was the other way around, as the Brahmas fired 62 shots on net and captain Will Barber notched four points to lead the offensive charge.
Six different players scored for Texas, as the offensive depth has really started to get going and Messer stopped 38 of 39 in his second win of the weekend.
Three wins would have been nice but the Brahmas picked up four big points and evened their season record up and now have a solid hold on second place in the division.
The sheer amount of shots and goals scored is a great sign but even more promising for head coach Jeremy Law, is the depth his team showed, with nearly everyone getting in on the action throughout the weekend.
Tulsa continues to give up a ton of shots but somehow, they find ways to pull out a game here and there and it's been enough to sneak them into the playoff race.
Their top line of Bobby Watson, David Morong and Matt Winkle has really sparked their offense and others have started to chip in as well.
VanMatre's performance in net is a good sign but sooner or later, they have to find a formula to slow the oppositions' offense a bit.
Tulsa will now enjoy two weeks off, before playing nine straight home games, including six against divisional opponents.
They'll be rooting for the Brahmas this weekend, when Texas makes the trip to Wichita to take on the Jr. Thunder for three.
Valencia Flyers (16-11-2, 2nd in Pacific Division) @ Southern Oregon Spartans (14-12-0, 3rd in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Medford, Oregon
Seven new faces in the lineup and a new coach behind the bench didn't stop the Southern Oregon Spartans from putting up a fight this weekend, as they played host to the Valencia Flyers for three games.
With just a couple practices under their belt after the well publicized 14-player trade with the New Mexico Renegades, which saw the Spartans part ways with a handful of their top scorers, new head coach Joe Grimaldi had his boys ready to go on Friday night but a tough Valencia Flyers squad came out strong to start the game.
Kevin Antipov and Ludovic Beaupre each scored in the opening frame and had the visitors ahead 2-0 after 20 minutes of play.
Just 7:19 into the middle period, the Flyers had extended their lead to 4-0 after Antipov notched his second of the night and Hunter Jensen added one of his one.
Kevin Edwards scored twice in the third period to pull the Spartans within two but the Flyers answered with two of their own, as Antipov scored to complete his hat-trick and rookie forward Kory Medeiros added another late, to give the Flyers a 6-2 win in the opener.
The next night it was the Spartans who started hot, as Eligah Bordak and Sam Holeczy each scored opening period goals to give the home team a 2-0 lead.
Hunter Jensen and Austin Ehrlich scored 1:44 apart in the second period for Valencia to tie the game at two, before Tommy Bennett gave the Spartans the lead back with a goal 14:35 into the period.
Not to be outdone, Jensen added his second of the night just before the end of the period and then notched another early in the third to record the Flyers' second hat-trick in as many nights, before Lakoda Coleman's goal iced the game late, as Valencia took game two by a score of 5-3.
Goaltender Mark Becica picked up his first junior hockey win in net for Valencia, as the rookie came on in relief of ill starter Stephen Palmer and stopped 14 of the 15 shots he faced.
Looking for the sweep, the Flyers were stymied by goaltender Sean Buckley the next day, who turned aside all 31 shots he faced in a 3-0 Southern Oregon victory.
Eligah Bordak concluded a solid weekend of hockey for himself by picking up three points in the win, the first in Joe Grimaldi's coaching tenure.
The two wins for Valencia, combined with a tough weekend for Ontario, leaves the Flyers alone in second place in the division with 34 points, just six points back of the Fresno Monsters.
They will get a couple of players back from injury this weekend, when they head north again for three games against the new-look Bay Area Seals.
The Spartans will re-group during the week and then host the rival Seattle Totems for two games over the weekend.
Fresno Monsters (20-5-0, 1st in Pacific Division) @ Long Beach Bombers (13-15-1, 5th in Pacific Division)
Three-game series in Lakewood, California
The Bay Area Seals weren't the only team full of surprises over the weekend in the Pacific Division, as the struggling Long Beach Bombers took two of three from the division-leading Fresno Monsters.
The series started as many would have predicted, as the Monsters dominated game one in a 4-0 victory.
Veteran forward Nick McKee led the way with two goals, while goaltender Corey Foster stopped all 17 shots he faced in the Fresno win.
Trailing 1-0 after one period of play in game two, the Bombers turned it up the rest of the way and behind two goals from Mans Nystrand and solid goaltender of Brian Parsons, topped the Monsters by a score of 4-1.
Stephen White and George Chisholm each collected three points in the win, while Eric LaPorte and Nikita Korotkov joined Nystrand with two points a-piece.
Parsons, who has served as the primary back up to Jiri Sykora throughout most of the season, stood on his head and stopped 52 of the 53 shots the Monsters threw at him in the win.
The Monsters again led by a goal after 20 minutes of play in the series finale but the Bombers came back with goals from Tyler Balaguy and Nikita Korotokov, before the Monsters knotted the game at three on a Brandon Besch goal.
The Bombers responded again however, as Balaguy netted his second goal of the game late in the period to give Long Beach a 4-3 lead heading into the third period.
With 4:02 left in regulation, Cory Kachel scored for Fresno to tie the game at four and take some of the air out of the building but with just 2:02 before the buzzer, Nystrand scored from Korotkov and LaPorte to secure a 5-4 Long Beach win.
The two losses mark the first series loss of the season for Fresno, who still sit comfortably atop the Pacific Division but have a bevy of divisional contest coming up.
Long Beach stays two points ahead of Bay Area for fifth place in the Pacific and are suddenly just three points out of a playoff spot, after going 3-1-0 at the Showcase.
Chris White and his team have gone through some roster moves, injuries and their fair share of ups and downs but it seems he has righted the ship at the right time and they look poised to make a run.
They travel south on Friday for a single game against the rival San Diego Gulls.
Fresno head coach Bryce Dale was noticeably unhappy with his team after the game and his team will surely have a rough week of practice, before playing host to the Salt Lake City Moose for three games.
Salt Lake City Moose (7-13-1, 5th in Northwest Division) @ Ogden Mustangs (16-13-5, 2nd in Northwest Division)
Two-game series in Ogden, Utah
The battle of Utah raged on over the weekend in Ogden and the Mustangs' dominance was on display, as the second place team in the Northwest Division started the year off right.
The Mustangs have one of the more talented rosters in the league but discipline and consistency have been question marks for them throughout the first half. It is early in the year but if this weekend was any indication, the Mustangs have turned a new leaf in both departments.
Zach O'Mara, Dusty Watt and Christian Kraus each tallied goals in the opening frame, handing the Mustangs a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes of play.
Ben Russell and Zach Brannon each scored to push the lead to 5-0 in the second, before the visitors finally responded in the third on a Nick Luitgaarden goal.
For good measure, David Clements added another late in regulation and the Mustangs won 6-1, behind goals from six different players.
The offensive depth was great, as was goaltender Tyler Fallica, who stopped 27 of 28 in the win.
The dominance carried over into game two, as Zach O'Mara notched a hat-trick to lead the way and help the Mustangs shutout the Moose by a score of 8-0.
Bobby Chamberlain and Christian Kraus each collected three points in the win as well and goaltender Joe Keyser played well while giving Fallica the night off and picked up his first shutout of the season in a 26-save effort.
The Mustangs took care of business when they had to and finish the season series with a record of 7-1-1 against their in-state rivals.
If Ogden can click like they did over the weekend and get the depth they did against Salt Lake City, they will be one of those "scary" teams to play come playoff time.
They have the goaltending, their defense is really coming along and their offense can score with anyone.
They're peaking at the right time too, as they head north to Idaho for two games against the Jr. Steelheads this weekend, in a building where they played very well earlier in the season.
The road doesn't get any easier for the struggling Moose, as they head to Fresno for three against the Monsters this weekend.
Dallas Snipers (10-14-3, 3rd in Midwest Division) vs. Dallas Ice Jets (26-2-0, 1st in Midwest Division)
Home-and-home series, played Friday in Grapevine and Saturday in Plano, Texas
The two teams in the league that have the city of Dallas in their name got together for a home-and-home series over the weekend, where the Ice Jets continued their reign over the Snipers.
The Ice Jets played host on Friday night and were quickly in a hole, as the Snipers kicked the scoring off 8:39 into the opening frame, with a Xander Hoskins goal.
It was all Ice Jets from then on however, as the home team scored the next eight goals in an 8-1 victory.
Conner Enciso continued his hot play at the Showcase with a hat-trick in the game, while five other Jets enjoyed multiple point nights.
Veteran netminder Michael Baldwin stopped all but one of the 27 shots he faced in the win.
The two teams met in Plano the next night, where the Ice Jets once again put up eight goals and won by a score of 8-2 this time around.
Paul Taylor's crew slung 73 shots on goal and converted on five of their 13 power play chances, with Joncarlo Westerlund notching the team's second hat-trick in as many nights in the win.
All but four skaters tallied at least one point for the Ice Jets, while Westerlund and Brandon Unser picked up four each.
Baldwin was in net yet again, stopping 24 of 26 in a light night of work.
The Ice Jets continue to prove they are the top dog in the division and it doesn't look like they are going anywhere.
I'd imagine they are using the loss to Idaho at the Showcase as motivation, which may be one of the best things that could have happened to this team.
They seem poised for a Thorne Cup appearance yet again but they can't slow down, especially with a trip to Boulder, Colorado for three games against the speedy Bison on the docket this upcoming weekend.
The Snipers have hit a rough patch as of late but still have the ability to beat some of the top teams in the league.
Offense has really been a struggle and will need to get back on track when they host the New Mexico Renegades for three games this weekend.
Three Stars of the Week
1. Filip Orcik (Goaltender, Bay Area Seals)- Every season there's a team that makes a huge acquisition that changes their trajectory just in time for the stretch run. The Bay Area Seals welcomed three Slovakian import players to their roster while in Las Vegas and haven't lost since. Forwards Kristian Kucera and Filip Ondracek have been great but neither compares to the way goaltender Filip Orcik has played in net. In his six starts with the team, Orcik has posted a goals against average of 2.00 and a save percentage of .923, while not losing a single game.
2. Peter Bulling (Forward, Texas Brahmas)- The Texas Brahmas are another team that have really turned their season around and a big reason for that has been the play of Peter Bulling. The Swedish-born forward scored five goals in three games against Tulsa over the weekend, helping his team to two big wins.
3. Mans Nystrand (Forward, Long Beach Bombers)- Another Swede that helped his team in a big way over the weekend is Mans Nystrand of the Long Beach Bombers. The hulking forward was on the ice during all of the pivotal moments of the Bombers' two wins over the Fresno Monsters and also collected three goals and an assist, including the game-winner in the finale. The two wins for Long Beach mark their first-ever series victory over Fresno and move them within just three points of a playoff spot.
Honorable Mentions: Joncarlo Westerlund (DIJ), Conner Enciso (DIJ), Hunter Jensen (VAL), Austin Ehrlich (VAL), Kevin Antipov (VAL), Eligah Bordak (SOR), Kristian Kucera (BAY), Filip Ondracek (BAY), Nikita Kortokov (LBB), Bobby Chamberlain (OGD), Christian Kraus (OGD), Zach O'Mara (OGD)
The second weekend of the year is a full one, as all but two teams are in action, in 10 tough weekend series.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League