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Western States Hockey League Weekend Preview (January 25-27) - Junior Hockey News

Published: Thursday, 24 Jan 2013
By: Brent Maranto

The second half of the season is now in full swing, as we enter week three of the new year and it's a pretty busy one this weekend, with a few huge series taking place, as teams jockey for position.

Below is a preview of each weekend series/game:

Long Beach Bombers (13-17-2, 6th in Pacific Division) @ Tulsa Jr. Oilers (7-21-0, 5th in Midwest Division)

Three-game series in Tulsa, Oklahoma

They both currently sit at the bottom of their respective divisions but the Tulsa Jr. Oilers and Long Beach Bombers are still right in the thick of the playoff hunt and will be looking for points when they meet this weekend in Oklahoma.

The Bombers haven't been the same since losing a number of players to injury and roster moves early in the season and although their top line is still one of the best in the league, they haven't been able to find the depth to make up for the losses.

Chris White got his boys back on track at the Showcase, as his team went 3-1-0 and looked good in doing so and followed that up with a great beginning to the new year, taking two of three from the Fresno Monsters in one of the best weekends in franchise history. In subsequent weeks however, they've fallen back down to earth, losing their last three to divisional foes, which combined with the recent play of the Bay Area Seals, has pushed the Bombers into the cellar.

Forwards Nikita Korotkov and Mans Nystrand have carried the offense all season, with 55 and 46 points respectively and defenseman Stephen White has been his usual offensive self.

They have a lot of new faces in the lineup but still have enough veterans around, including forward Eric LaPorte, to help rally the team and push them right back up the standings.

After the three games in Tulsa, the Bombers finish the season with 11 straight divisional games, which will make or break their season. Points are a must this weekend however, as Long Beach can't let the long trip get to them.

The Tulsa Jr. Oilers are also dwelling in the cellar of their division but sit just two points back of the Wichita Jr. Thunder for the fourth and final playoff spot.

They have shown flashes of brilliance in their first season in the league but consistency and depth have been the main issues throughout.

Bobby Watson leads the team in scoring and combined with David Morong, have formed a nice little 1-2 punch on the top forward line. Outside of those two and linemate Matt Winkle, offense has been hard to come by.

They give up a ton of shots defensively but have recently started to figure it out and pull together in front of their three netminders, none of which has really taken over the number one job.

When they get depth and defense, they win hockey games but when they don't, they struggle to compete. The good news is that win or lose against Long Beach, their season will most likely be decided in the six remaining games on the schedule against Wichita.

It will be two teams in need of wins in Tulsa and it should be a battle.

El Paso Rhinos (24-5-2, 1st in Mountain Division) @ Dallas Ice Jets (29-2-0, 1st in Midwest Division

Three-game series in Grapevine, Texas

In what promises to be one of the best series of the regular season, the two teams that played for the Midwest Division Title last season will battle it out in Grapevine, as the El Paso Rhinos make the trip across the state to take on the Ice Jets.

In year one, the Ice Jets busted onto the scene last year and nipped at the heels of the mighty Rhinos all season long, before eventually getting ousted rather easily in the playoffs. After getting an invite to the Thorne Cup Finals due to the Rhinos hosting the event, the Jets surprised everyone by making it to the title game before losing to Idaho in overtime.

After the divisional realignment prior to the 2012-2013 season, El Paso and Dallas are no longer division rivals but with both head coaches, Paul Taylor and Cory Herman, always open to competition, they decided to keep the rivalry alive.

Each team currently sits atop their respective division, they both can score, they both play great defense, both excel at special teams and both are coached terrifically.

There is no doubt they are two of the league's elite but they do it in very different ways.

The Rhinos rely on their physical play to force turnovers, where they pounce on the puck like wolves amongst sheep. That's not to say they lack skill but they can cycle and dig pucks out of the corner like you wouldn't believe.

The Ice Jets are predicated on speed and movement, much like their name suggests. Everyone on their roster can score goals, they're very good with their stick work and they move laterally very well, opening up lanes as the defense struggles to keep up.

This matchup is a hockey fans dream and is worth your money and then some.

The Ice Jets pretty much have the Midwest Division wrapped up but I'm sure that won't stop guys like Richard Bohan and Brandon Unser from putting on the jets this weekend.

Defensively, the team is stacked and goaltending has been every so solid, with Michael Baldwin and Brody Sharp providing, what I believe, is the best one-two punch in the league.

El Paso will rely on guys like Mike Rivera and David Nelson to bring their veteran savvy to the series and make the smart plays. Newcomer Austin Hoff has fit in seamlessly after being acquired prior to the showcase and looks like he's been with the team all year.

Defensively they are just as tough, with Trent Edwards and Chris Wilhite laying the body on unsuspecting forwards.

Goaltending has been shaky but Austin Brihn has seemed to figure things out lately, while Alex Palumbo was recently brought in just in case he falters.

This series will be a barnburner and could very well be a pre-cursor to a playoff matchup. Go watch it!

Phoenix Knights (12-15-4, 4th in Mountain Division) @ Boulder Bison (16-12-2, 3rd in Mountain Division)

Three-game series in Superior, Colorado

El Paso may be atop the Mountain Division but the Boulder Bison aren't far behind and with their ability to slay WSHL giants, they are a team not a whole lot of people want to face.

This weekend, they'll welcome in the Phoenix Knights, another Mountain Division team currently in a playoff spot, in what should be a fast-skating affair.

The Bison were up and down throughout the first half of the season, beating teams like El Paso but dropping a couple to the Arizona Redhawks.

After going 2-2-0 at the Showcase, Boulder began 2013 with the toughest back-to-back weekends you will ever see.

The weekend of January 11, they played host to the Dallas Ice Jets for three games and came close in a couple but wound up getting swept.

The next weekend, they made the trip to McCall, Idaho for three with the league-leading Jr. Steelheads and won game one, before almost taking two of the three games in the series.

They seem to rise to the challenge of playing a tough opponent and Phoenix has enough skill to take a couple so they can't take the Knights lightly.

It took them a little while to get it but it seems the Bison have figured out first-year head coach Paul DePuydt's system, which isn't too dissimilar from that of Brent Cullaton's, who coached the team through their first three years.

They have plenty of speed and guys that can get the puck to Ryan Gauthier, who rarely fails to convert.

They are young on the backend but Jake Spinder and Patrick Grace have helped ease some rookies into the flow of things.

We've said it a million times but their goaltending has been nothing short of spectacular, behind both Dax Deadrick and Colin Champine, who are studs between the pipes.

This team has a lot of firepower and can heat up in a hurry, the definition of a team you don't want to see in March.

Phoenix is no slouch however and although they're now on their third coach in a season and a half, it seems Eric Murrieta has gotten his players to buy in and give it their all.

The Knights have hit injuries for the second straight season but when healthy, they have a bevvy of scorers, including Nick PappasTommy Kaddatz and Kyle McLean.

They have so much talent at forward, they've been able to move top returner Jarrod Levos to the backend, where his knowledge and vision, combined with a motor that can support two, sometimes even three minute shifts, has helped the team a ton.

In net, rookie Alex Taylor has struggled to find the puck at times but he looked very good in Las Vegas and has plenty of size to fill up the 4 X 6.

New Mexico is getting stronger just a few points back of them and Phoenix will be looking for a couple wins at altitude to stay in the four spot.

Salt Lake City Moose (8-17-2, 5th in Northwest Division) @ Cheyenne Stampede (18-8-2, 2nd in Mountain Division)

Three-game series in Cheyenne, Wyoming

The Salt Lake City Moose have had a couple of tough weekends to start the new year and it won't get any easier this weekend, when they make the trip to Wyoming's capital for three with the Stampede.

Much like Boulder, the Stampede have shown they can beat some very tough squads and have the talent to stick with any team the league has to offer.

After a strong series in Arizona last week, they leaped Boulder and now sit second to only El Paso in the Mountain Division and will look to keep the roll going at home, where the crowd is always loud.

Swiss forward Kevin Rossett has really come on for head coach Marty Quarters and leads the Stampede with 44 points, while rookie Ryan Demyen isn't too far behind with 33.

They have size, speed and plenty of skill but the biggest thing they posses, especially at the forward position, is depth, where Quarters has the ability to roll four lines all night if he wants to.

They make the smart plays defensively but don't have a ton of offense from the backend, which I'm sure goaltender Daniel Cepila appreciates, as he has gotten a lot of help around the crease as of late, helping his sparkling numbers look even better.

With teams like Cheyenne, Boulder and El Paso currently holding the first, second and third spots in the playoff race, the Mountain Division playoffs are going to be as unpredictable as we've ever seen, especially if a team like Phoenix or New Mexico can pick up the pace behind them.

General Manager Mark Lantz' roster overhaul during the off-season has worked wonders so far and a lot of the credit also has to go to Quarters, who has implemented his systems and has this team playing like a contender.

Salt Lake is at the bottom of the Northwest Division but picked up a big win over Southern Oregon last weekend and with plenty of games left, they aren't too far removed from the playoff hunt.

Unlike Cheyenne, Salt Lake has struggled to find depth behind forward Patrick Dwyer, who has to do a lot of work on his own.

Their defense has gotten stronger but the reason the team has been able to win games, especially against teams above them in the standings, has been their goaltending.

Both Alex Burdekin and Talon Miller continue to play well, despite seeing tons of rubber. In their win over the Spartans last Sunday, Burdekin faced 63 shots and stopped all but two.

They are only seven points out of fourth place, with seven games in hand on Seattle, who currently holds the spot. Playoffs aren't out of the question and if they can pick up wins, even just one a weekend, they will make a real push because they're a team that hasn't given up yet and have a roster full of fight.

They won't go down easy but can they keep up with Cheyenne's speed? Should be another fun one to watch.

Fresno Monsters (25-6-0, 1st in Pacific Division) @ Valencia Flyers (16-12-3, 3rd in Pacific Division)

Three-game series in Valencia, California

The Fresno Monsters are tops in the Pacific Division once again but are currently without their entire top forward line, which could mean trouble in a weekend series against the division rival Valencia Flyers.

Three of their top six scorers, Nick McKeeJustin Plate and Jordan Fontaine, are all deservedly playing for the Monsters' North American Hockey League squad and as happy as head coach Bryce Dale has to be for his top line, he's got to be scurrying to figure out who's going to score goals for them.

Without the trio however, the Monsters offense looked just fine against San Diego last weekend, as Kyle GodfreyFilip Winkler and Austin Browning had no problem shouldering the load and leading the team to two victories.

One thing they may have trouble with this weekend is suspensions, after a little bit of a donnybrook with the Gulls, in which a handful of players got tossed and may face further disciplinary action.

In the end though, they are the Monsters and they know how to win hockey games, especially in Valencia, where they have never lost in regulation, in nine all-time appearances.

Goaltender Tom McGuckin, who played his first game of the season after returning from a battle with cancer, is expected to start seeing more playing time and that is bad news for the rest of the league. When on top of his game, he's as good as it gets and makes Fresno that much better.

The Flyers are waiting and ready however and looking to avenge a playoff knockout at the hands of the Monsters last season, in a tight three-game series in which the Flyers looked like the better teams for long stretches of the weekend.

Valencia has been up and down pretty much he entire season, beating teams like Ogden, Southern Oregon and Seattle but recently dropping a pair against Bay Area, while also struggling at the Showcase.

They have scorers, led by veteran forward Austin Ehrlich, who led the league in goals by a rookie last season and new additions Ryan McBride and Jack Kennelly are both big bruisers from north of the border that can also put the puck in the net.

Defensively, the Flyers have gotten better as the season has gone along, thanks in large part to the addition of Tyler Lazarek, who played his first two seasons in the league as part of the Monsters but with a crowed back end this season, was deemed dispensable and the Flyers were happy to have him.

In goal, Stephen Palmer can steal a game and when in the zone, is as tough to beat as anyone in the league, while backup Jesper Sannerborg is more than capable.

Although the rivalry has been one-sided these two teams have some history and it should make for a great weekend of hockey.

Idaho Jr. Steelheads (30-1-1, 1st in Northwest Division) @ Southern Oregon Spartans (18-13-0, 3rd in Northwest Division)

Three-game series in Medford, Oregon

The top team in the league heads to the toughest place to play in the league this weekend, as the Idaho Jr. Steelheads head to Medford, Oregon for three against the Southern Oregon Spartans.

Idaho made quick work of the Spartans when they visited McCall, Idaho earlier in the season and have only gotten stronger since, while the Spartans have been impressive in their few games under new head coach Joe Grimaldi.

The back-to-back Thorne Cup Champions have faced some adversity this season, including recently losing top defenseman Jake Webber to injury but they continue to roll along.

Last weekend, they gave up a big lead late to Boulder in the opener of a three game series and fell in overtime but rebounded nicely to take the next two games.

Their top line of Stefan Brucato, who leads the league in points by a mile, Dominik Gabaj and Tyler Kruenegel is unstoppable; literally. You just can't keep the trio off the scoresheet for an entire night. Put it this way, I'd take all three of them on my fantasy hockey team in a heartbeat.

Defensively they move the puck with ease and lay the body to separate the opposition from the puck, not to fire up the crowd or injure an opposing player.

In net, Blake Mendenhall has been great, while backup Daniel Selby has looked just as good.

Their special teams is a nightmare to deal with and whatever adjustments you make, John Olver will counter them with an even better set of instructions for his team.

It's no wonder they've been the top team in the league since entering the league in 2009 and it will take a lot for Southern Oregon to gain a point out of this series.

The Spartans rely on their physical play, which worked well for El Paso earlier in the season, as they played Idaho tough and actually won a game in McCall.

If the Spartans can keep their heads, which they've been doing more of under Grimaldi and take advantage of their opportunities, they can stick around.

Forward Jeff Salzbrunn has been steady since coming over from Fresno, while the Bordak brothers, Avik, Joe and Eligah, can put the puck in the net as well, if they stay out of the box.

Defensively, captain Connor Quinn is in for a busy weekend and will surely be matched against the Brucato line, which doesn't end well for most.

Sean Buckley has been great in net all season and can steal a game if needed.

Playing at home will be a big boost and the Medford Madhouse will be excited to see how their Spartans stack up against the league's best.

Bay Area Seals (14-15-1, 5th in Pacific Division) @ San Diego Gulls (18-13-2, 2nd in Pacific Division)

Three-game series in Escondido, California

The hottest team in the league, the Bay Area Seals, will look to keep their improbable playoff push going when they ride hot goaltender Filip Orcik into San Diego, for three with the second place Gulls.

The first battle of the marine mammals took place earlier in the season up north and the Gulls took care of business with ease but that was a long time ago and since then, the Seals have made a ton of acquisitions and are now looking like a true contender.

San Diego is fresh-off a trip to Fresno, who they were able to take a game from the Monsters but head coach Craig Carlyle would have liked more.

San Diego's top line was held in-check for the most part and as they go, so do the Gulls, even with the recent hot play of Eric Baldwin and other second and third line forwards.

With Reed Kinsey taking over most of the minutes in the San Diego crease this season, last year's number one, Brian Walters, was dealt for goaltender Nick Taylor out of the Eastern Junior Hockey League and Taylor is expected to compete with Kinsey throughout the rest of the season for the top spot.

The Gulls are an odd team because they have talent and tons of it but consistency and their ability to hang on to leads has plagued them.

They still sit in second in the division but are right in a pack with Valencia, Bay Area and Ontario and one of those three will miss the playoffs.

They tend to play well at home, where they are supported well and look for Zen Hamil to have a big weekend, using his size and skill to take over the game.

Filip Orcik has been the story for the Seals, as the Slovakian netminder, acquired just prior to the Showcase, has backstopped the team to a record of 8-0-0 since coming aboard and has looked unbeatable.

Coming over with him from Slovakia were forwards Filip Ondracek and Kristian Kucera, who have both jumped right in with guys like Wes Starr and Josh Mikes to further bolster the Seals offense.

Ladislav Hruska recently returned form a suspension on the backend and has been a stud for head coach Zac Lytle and plays nearly the entire game.

The Seals have pulled themselves out of the cellar and will be looking for more this weekend in San Diego but the Gulls will give them all they can handle.

Texas Brahmas (17-16-2, 2nd in Midwest Division) vs. Dallas Snipers (11-16-3, 3rd in Midwest Division)

Home-and-home series, played Friday in Plano and Saturday in North Richland Hills, Texas

The second and third place teams in the Midwest Division will do battle this weekend, in a home-and-home series that will be sure to get the blood flowing.

The Texas Brahmas started the season very slowly but have come on hard as of late and are now comfortably in second place.

The biggest difference over the last 15 games for Jeremy Law and Co. has been depth, with forwards Peter BullingWill BarberChase WoodsCole Rose and Landyn Howze all picking up their play significantly.

Jack Norling and Reilly Moore have been standouts on the backend and each provides a good amount of offense, while goaltending has come along as well.

They've now won 13 of their last 16 but still haven't shown the ability to stick with the division leading Ice Jets.

The Snipers held the second spot for most of the season but with the recent Brahmas' surge and lack thereof on their side, they've fallen down into third.

Dallas' offense, which was so hot to start the season, has gone cold as of late and the only real consistent forward has been Shane Bonds.

Guys like JJ PitchleyAaron Krominga and Michael Kohler have the skill to chip in but just haven't been able to find twine lately, a big reason for the team losing seven of their last eight.

They are still leaps and bounds above where they were at this time last season and goaltending has been very good but the Snipers showed a lot of promise early in the season and have tailed off since, not a good sign for a team ready to make their first-ever playoff appearance in a couple of months.

A couple of wins this weekend would be a nice spark for the rest of the season but they'll have to grind it out to pick up points in a tough pair of games.

Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League


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