It seems that right around this time of year every season, we're reminded that anything can happen in the Western States Hockey League and any team can rise to the occasion and pick up a few big wins in an "underdog" situation. Last weekend, we witnessed the Valencia Flyers took two of three games from the first-place Fresno Monsters and the El Paso Rhinos invade Grapevine and do the same to the Dallas Ice Jets. The fun doesn't stop this weekend, as we have six big series on tap, five of which are divisional battles.
Below is a preview of each weekend series/game:
Wichita Jr. Thunder (7-22-2, 4th in Midwest Division) @ Tulsa Jr. Oilers (7-23-1, 5th in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Tulsa, Oklahoma
The two teams fighting for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Midwest Division are set to clash for three huge games this weekend, as the Tulsa Jr. Oilers play host to the Wichita Jr. Thunder.
The series, which begins on Thursday evening, may not make a difference to the rest of the division but both of these first-year programs can gain a huge momentum boost with a couple of wins, while nabbing the final playoff spot for the time being.
The two teams are eerily similar, as each has played the same amount of games (31) and owns the same amount of wins (7) but Wichita leads by a single point in the standings, thanks to one more overtime/shootout loss.
They've already met six times on the season, with Wichita holding a commanding lead in the series, going 5-1-0 against a team that is quickly becoming their rival.
Wichita has the top-line firepower, with guys like Filip Martinec and Andrii Istominov, leading the charge all season long but Tulsa has come on as of late and behind Bobby Watson and David Morong, can easily match the Thunder attack.
The two offenses and defenses are nearly identical and both have struggled mightily this season, so this series could come down to goaltending, where both teams have been vastly improved since the Showcase.
The Jr. Oilers are coming off a hard-fought series against Long Beach, where they only were able to come up with a point from an overtime loss, despite being in every game of the series.
Wichita meanwhile, has enjoyed the last two weekends off and have been able to rest-up and recover for what could be their biggest series of the season.
It may only be the battle for fourth place but this series is going to be electric, with the two teams quickly getting sick of one another and each in desperate need of points. Friday and Saturday's games will also be played at the BOK Center, home of the Central Hockey League's Oilers, which will only make for an even better environment for this playoff style hockey series.
Cheyenne Stampede (21-8-1, 2nd in Mountain Division) @ El Paso Rhinos (26-6-2, 1st in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in El Paso, Texas
The top two teams in the Mountain Division are set to go at it this weekend in El Paso, as the Rhinos look to keep their roll going against a team they took two of three from on the road just a few weeks back.
The Rhinos have been downright dominant as of late, including a series last weekend in which they took two of three games from the Midwest Division leading Dallas Ice Jets and looked very good in doing so.
Their physical style is a tough matchup for any team in the league and their ability to score goals and force turnovers is a coaches' nightmare.
They scored 16 goals over the three games in Cheyenne three weeks ago and forced a good amount of penalties, as their style tends to wear down opposing teams.
It seems like each week, it's someone different stepping up to lead the way for the Rhinos and last weekend, Chad Cesarz was great against Dallas.
Cory Herman's ability to roll four lines of offense, trust all six defenseman and use three goaltenders has been huge this season and will be needed against a speedy Cheyenne squad.
After dropping the series to El Paso at home, the Stampede have bounced back to win their last six straight and have gotten everybody in on the action.
Kevin Rossett and Ryan Demyen have quickly become one of the most lethal forward duos in the league, while goaltender Daniel Cepila's numbers continue to be some of the leagues best.
They've been working hard on their special teams as of late and it's helped them in recent series to pull out some big wins.
They know they can keep up with the speed of the Rhinos but will have to stay out of the box, especially in the hostile environment within the Sierra Providence Events Center.
It will be a long trip into a place few tams are successful but the Stampede are a confident bunch and they have the pieces needed to make it a great weekend of hard-hitting hockey.
Salt Lake City Moose (8-20-2, 5th in Northwest Division) @ Seattle Totems (9-18-7, 4th in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Mountlake Terrace, Washington
The Salt Lake City Moose are currently out of a playoff position but a couple wins against the fourth-place Seattle Totems could make the race a lot more interesting.
It's not too far fetched of an idea either, as earlier in the season, the Moose shocked the league when they swept the Totems at home, marking the first series sweep in franchise history.
Since then, both teams have been up-and-down, with Seattle having to battle through a ton of injuries and suspensions and the Moose in search of some form of offense.
Last weekend, the Cheyenne Stampede swept the Moose but each game was very close, like a lot of the games that Salt Lake has played this season.
Their offense is the team's downfall but defense and goaltending has been fantastic as of late and has kept the team in games against almost everyone in the league. If they could find a way to light a fire under a couple of forwards and manufacture a few goals, they'll start beating teams in no time.
Patrick Dwyer has been the most consistent forward but aside from him, there have been few bright spots in the goal column.
Seattle is going to be well rested, having only played two games over the last month and a half, both losses to the Southern Oregon Spartans.
They haven't won back-to-back games since December 1 and have looked almost disinterested at times.
This of course drew the ire of head coach Mike Murphy at the Showcase, who preaches intensity on the ice and was visibly upset with his team's effort in Las Vegas.
With that much time off however, you have to think Murphy will have his guys healthy and ready to go for three big games, especially if they want to hang on to a playoff spot.
There is still plenty of good news for the Totems however. Not only are they slowly getting back to full health and getting a few top players back in the lineup but they also play nine of their last 12 games at home.
They've been there before and know what they have to do down the stretch but it starts with a big series this weekend, as the Northwest Division playoff race heats up.
Dallas Snipers (12-17-3, 3rd in Midwest Division) @ Phoenix Knights (12-18-4, 4th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Chandler, Arizona
The only non-divisional matchup of the weekend features two teams with nearly identical records, as the Dallas Snipers travel to the desert for three with the Phoenix Knights.
Both teams currently hold a playoff spot in their respective division but neither has been doing very well as of late and if they don't get going, they will be on the outside looking in before they know it.
Phoenix fought valiantly last weekend in Colorado and were in every game but couldn't pull out a win over the Boulder Bison and now sit just three points ahead of New Mexico for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Mountain Division.
Much like Dallas, their offense has shown flashes of brilliance this season and at other times, it has gone missing.
Nick Pappas, Tommy Kaddatz and Kyle McLean can all fill the net but each has had long stretches of scoreless games and very rarely have they all three been "on" on the same night. If they can get together and pick up their play, they are three of the top forwards in the league.
In the Knights defense, they have been ravaged by injuries for the second straight season and have made yet another coaching change, bringing Eric Murrieta in during the season to replace Kurt Goar after only a couple of months at the helm.
He's done a good job of getting his team ready to play and positioning the Knights to compete each night, regardless of who's in the lineup.
They have the ability to beat some of the better teams in the league and when healthy, the Knights are rather deep in every area but they are still young and learning how to win at this level.
The Snipers are very similar, as they got off to a great start and were scoring with ease but have struggled over the last couple of months.
They have a firm hold on third place in the Midwest Division however and will surely meet the Texas Brahmas in the opening round of the playoffs, who they split a two-game set with last season.
Shane Bonds has been one of the few steady forwards on the roster, while Aaron Krominga has had a pretty solid year for himself as well.
Some of the newcomers will have to pick up their play and help Bonds carry the load, as they don't get a ton of scoring from their back-end.
Goaltending has been good and they play pretty well defensively, thanks in large part to Travis Clayton's system, where they finish every check and clog up the neutral zone nicely.
Both of these teams are true sleepers that can get on a roll and surprise some teams. The talent and coaching is there on both ends, it's just a matter of how bad they want it.
Fresno Monsters (26-8-0, 1st in Pacific Division) @ Ontario Avalanche (17-17-0, T-5th in Pacific Division)
Three-game series in Ontario, California
After starting the season 17-0-0, the Pacific Division leading Fresno Monsters are just 9-8-0 over their last 17 games and after losing two of three in Valencia, they'll look to turn it around in Ontario this weekend.
The Avalanche, who have hit a rough patch as of late and are now outside of the playoff picture (by a couple of points) were the ones that handed the Monsters their first loss of the season back on December 16 and have played some of the best teams in the league pretty tough.
Head coach Chris Shaw has done an admirable job of getting his team ready to play every night and picking up the right players to bolster his roster throughout the season.
The Avs had last weekend off, after taking both games of a home-and-home series from Long Beach but were swept by the upstart Bay Area Seals prior to that.They have the depth in all areas to compete, as Shaw has four forward lines, each contributing something different, three pairings of defenseman, who showcase size and speed and a handful of goalies that can steal a game.
Ontario is a very good hockey team that can wear you down over a long game and that might come in handy against a Fresno team currently bit by the injury bug.
After not losing a single series since December of 2011 in El Paso, the Monsters have now dropped two series this calendar year, as they lost two of three in both Long Beach and Valencia.
They are without Justin Plate, Nick McKee and Jordan Fontaine, the trio who formed Bryce Dale's top line and combined for 128 points that are now in the Tier II North American Hockey League, so that could be a big reason for the recent drop-off.
They still have plenty of offense, with forwards Mike Fabie and Filip Winkler really starting to heat up and they have become very good in net, especially with the return of Tom McGuckin.
Idaho Jr. Steelheads (33-1-1, 1st in Northwest Division) @ Ogden Mustangs (16-15-5, T-2nd in Northwest Division)
Two-game series in Ogden, Utah
The Idaho Jr. Steelheads had a tough weekend in Medford, Oregon last week but as good teams always seem to do, they were still able to pick up all six points on the weekend and have all but locked up the top spot in the Northwest Division. This weekend, they'll head south to Ogden, Utah for two games against the Mustangs.
Ogden, who has the talent to compete with anyone, played Idaho tough up in McCall early in the year but were ran out of the building by the Steelies in their most recent meetings, as Idaho showed just how good they can be when clicking on all cylinders.
Stefan Brucato and Dominik Gabaj have been fantastic all year and have only gotten better with a new running mate, forward Kyle Mistunaga, who has been dominant in his few games with the team.
Their defense is just as solid and will only get better when Jake Webber returns from injury and Blake Mendenhall has been a wall in net.
Of course, they are once again the favorites to take the Thorne Cup for the third straight season and to make matters worse for challengers, the four-day event will be held at their home rink in the resort town of McCall.
Ogden is coming off a nice little break and will be back at home, where they tend to play with a lot more emotion.
They've made a handful of roster moves within the last couple of months and have the speed and skill to keep up but they can't let themselves get in a hole early.
Their recent struggles, combined with Southern Oregon's recent push, has them tied for the second spot in the division, which means home ice in the opening round of the playoffs.
With the players Jake Laime has on the roster, this team can challenge Idaho and plant a seed of doubt heading into the playoffs but which Mustangs team will show up?
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League