With just about every team in the Western States Hockey League still in contention for one of the 16 playoff spots across the league, a few improved their chances with solid showings this past weekend. On the flip side, a few teams slipped up and although their playoff hopes aren't in jeopardy yet, it could end up being one of those weekends they look back on and wish they would have gotten more out of it.
Below is a preview of each weekend series/game:
Dallas Ice Jets (34-3-1, 1st in Midwest Division) @ Tulsa Jr. Oilers (10-26-1, 4th in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Tulsa, Oklahoma
The Tulsa Jr. Oilers were absolutely demolished by the Dallas Ice Jets in their first series in franchise history back in September and although they didn't come out with a win their second time around against the division leaders, they showed how much they have improved in the five months since.
The Jr. Oilers looked much more comfortable, now in control of a playoff spot but the Ice Jets were just too powerful yet again.
In game one, Conner Encisco, Richard Bohan and Nick Felan each picked up a goal and two assists, while the newly-acquired Kyle McLean chipped in with a goal and an assist of his own, in a 6-2 Dallas victory.
Tulsa was outshot heavily in game two as well but took an early lead, thanks to a goal from David Morong.
The Ice Jets fired back with three straight however and never relinquished the lead, going on to a 5-3 win, with Sam Akins and Christian Elsborg leading the way with two goals each.
Eight different Dallas players enjoyed multi-point games in the series finale, as the Ice Jets cruised to an 8-1 victory and series sweep.
The Ice Jets took care of business when they had to, which they've done all season long and look even better now with guys like Elsborg, Felan and McLean in the lineup. They are going to be very tough to beat, especially with home ice throughout the playoffs, unlike last season where they had to go to El Paso for the Midwest Division Finals.
Tulsa may have lost each game and the scores may look closer than the games actually were but they are one of the most improved teams in the league and are playing with a ton of heart.
David Morong, Bobby Watson and Matt Winkle have been a solid top line for head coach Zac Desjardins and their goaltending has really come around, as they've seemingly gotten used to seeing 50 plus shots a night.
Again, it may not look like much better than their first series against Dallas but they went from being outscored 35-1 over three games, to 19-6; I'd say that's a great improvement.
They have Wichita coming up in a couple weeks, which will more than likely decide the final playoff seed in the Midwest Division.
Seattle Totems (10-23-7, 4th in Northwest Division) @ Idaho Jr. Steelheads (38-1-1, 1st in Northwest Division)
Three-game series played in McCall, Idaho
The Seattle Totems' playoff hopes have been fading fast over the last few weeks, losing a few games and trading away some of their better players hasn't helped and neither did a tough weekend series with the Idaho Jr. Steelheads.
Looking for their third consecutive Thorne Cup Title, the Jr. Steelheads were active during the roster movement deadline, bringing in three top-end forwards and each had an impact in their series sweep of the Totems.
Seattle was solid early on in the opener, allowing just a first period goal by Stefan Brucato, before Brandon Gregoire knotted the game up 1:10 into the second.
It was all Idaho from that point on however, as they rattled off five straight goals in a 6-1 victory.
Brucato finished the evening with four points, while linemate Dominik Gabaj amassed three helpers and returnee Filip Kasaly, who had 60 points with the 2011-2012 championship squad, scored a goal in his 2012-2013 debut.
Game two was very similar early, with Brucato pacing Idaho to an early lead and Seattle responding to tie it up, before allowing the Jr. Steelheads to go on a roll again.
In a 7-1 victory this time around, Jan Blasko led the way with two goals, while the youngest player in the league, August Van Ungern-Sternberg, picked up a goal and an assist.
A depleted Seattle lineup looked spent in the finale, as Idaho controlled played the entire game and skated off with a 6-0 win and series sweep.
Tyler Kruenegel and Dominik Gabaj each tallied a goal and two assists, which now puts Gabaj into a tie with Stefan Brucato for the league lead in scoring, each currently sitting at 92 points.
In net, Daniel Selby turned aside all 25 shots he faced in his second win of the weekend.
In what was one of the many "trap" series this weekend, Idaho didn't slow down a bit and much like Dallas, they continue to take care of business when they have to. The new talent on the roster has made them an even deeper team, if that was possible and hosting the Thorne Cup Finals doesn't hurt their chances either.
Seattle was able to keep it close early on in all three games but don't seem to have the firepower left to hang with the Idaho's of the league.
Mike Murphy and his team aren't going to give up however and they still have Connor Haney and Bryce Fink, so anything can happen but they literally can't afford another loss, with Salt Lake City just one point back with a game in-hand.
Boulder Bison (21-14-3, 3rd in Mountain Division) @ El Paso Rhinos (31-7-2, 1st in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in El Paso, Texas
The El Paso Rhinos are another first place squad that further cemented their top spot this weekend, over three big games against the always feisty Boulder Bison.
Boulder currently sits third in the division but are battling with Cheyenne for the second spot and have shown the ability to play with anyone in the league when they're on top of their game.
Game one looked like a typical Mountain Division game with plenty of speed, hitting and scoring chances but very few goals from either side.
Both defenses were on display, especially El Paso's, who have been the leagues' best over the last few months.
Mikey Rivera led the way with two goals, including an empty-netter to ice the game late, after Brenden Gust had made it 2-0 El Paso, as the Rhinos played the kind of hockey Cory Herman dreams of in a 3-0 victory.
Alex Palumbo picked up the shutout win in net, stopping all 23 shots he faced, showing he won't give up the starting job easily to newcomer Kiefer Giroux.
The next night it was Boulder's goaltender stealing the spotlight, as backup Zane Sampson was fantastic, stopping 38 of the 39 shots he faced in a 4-1 Bison win.
Veteran forwards Matt Hefter and Ryan Gauthier each picked up a goal and an assist in the win, as Boulder's defense matched El Paso's performance from the night before.
Trailing 3-1 heading into the third period of the final game of the series, the Bison offense awoke and got goals from Deon Kidd and Oleg Hayduk to tie the game and force overtime.
After overtime solved nothing, the two teams headed to a shootout that went into the ninth round, before Taylor Bargar provided the game-winner for the Rhinos.
El Paso has now essentially locked up home ice in the playoffs and although I say it every week, they look ten times better than they did at this point last season and that was a team that won the division. If you've scored on their defense/goaltending over the past couple of months, keep the puck because it hasn't happened very often.
Boulder has carved out a nice little niche as one of the peskiest teams around. They have the skill and speed to hang with teams like El Paso, Idaho and Dallas but haven't had a ton of consistency elsewhere.
They are one of the teams to watch heading into the post-season, as it wouldn't be surprising to see them in McCall for the Thorne Cup Finals.
Cheyenne Stampede (23-14-1, 2nd in Mountain Division) @ Ogden Mustangs (18-17-6, 3rd in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Ogden, Utah
The Ogden Mustangs finally found some consistency this weekend and when they do, they are a very tough team to play against, just ask the Cheyenne Stampede.
Game one was a back and forth affair, with Kody Rodriguez and Olle Vennstrom both scoring to give Ogden two separate leads but Dario Trupina and Noah Eckebrecht each tying the game up for Cheyenne and eventually forcing overtime.
After a scoreless yet exciting overtime period, the two teams headed to a five-man shootout, where Ogden goaltender Tyler Fallica stopped all four shooters he faced and Kody Rodriguez and Dusty Watt each scored to win it for the Stangs.
The middle game of the series was an old west shootout, with the two teams going back and forth all night in an 8-5 Cheyenne victory.
The Stampede showed their resiliency in the win, fighting back three separate times behind a great offensive effort from defenseman Jimmie Kotilainen, who picked up four points on the night.
Heath Lantz, Ryan Demyen and Russell Armbruster each had solid showings as well, picking up three points a-piece.
Ogden looked dominant early in the finale, jumping out to a 4-0 lead and although it got dicey late, they prevailed by a score of 5-3.
Again it was Dusty Watt leading the way with three points, while Michael Dery and Sean Haltam picked up a pair of points each.
The two wins for Ogden are huge, especially with Southern Oregon picking up four points as well. The Mustangs are still fighting for the second seed and will need to win out in order to have a chance it seems.
Cheyenne was solid once again and continue to be one of the more consistent teams around. They ran into a team that finally got all pieces working together and when Ogden does that, they are as tough to play as anyone around. The Stampede did pick up three points however and are still two points ahead of Boulder in the race for the second spot in the Mountain Division.
Arizona Redhawks (12-25-6, 6th in Mountain Division) @ Valencia Flyers (22-15-4, 2nd in Pacific Division)
Three-game series in Valencia, California
The Valencia Flyers were fresh-off a road sweep of the Fresno Monsters but came down to earth in one of the "trap" series, dropping two of three to the Arizona Redhawks at home.
The Flyers looked dominant in the opener and far from the team that eventually lost the next two games, as seven different players cored goals in a 7-0 victory.
The three newest forwards in the Valencia lineup, all acquired during the trade deadline, had solid debuts, as Sean Kalbak and Alex Milligan tallied two assists each, while Shelby Kosteshyn picked up an assist of his own.
Goaltender Stephen Palmer was also solid in the victory, picking up his third shutout of the season while stopping all 19 shots he faced.
Things didn't look much better early the next night for Arizona, as Valencia jumped out to a 3-0 first period lead.
The Redhawks responded with fury however, scoring three goals 3:08 apart before the end of the period to tie the game.
Ludovic Beaupre and Lakoda Coleman scored to give the Flyers a 5-3 lead early in the third but once again the Redhawks fought back and tied the game, thanks to goals from Jaren Habel and Oscar Hagborn-Olsson's third of the evening.
With time winding down however, the Flyers got the lead back on a Kevin Antipov marker, only to see the Redhawks tie the game up with 1:03 left and force overtime.
After neither team scored during the overtime period, the two teams headed to a shootout where the Redhawks prevailed on goals from Hagborn-Olsson and leading scorer Mattias Marten, while goaltender Fredrik Johansson stopped four of the five Valencia shooters in a 6-5 Arizona win.
The pace slowed considerably in the finale, as expected over a three-game weekend and after 40 minutes of play the Flyers held a 1-0 lead on a goal from Austin Ehrlich.
The Redhawks came out flying in the third however and scored three goals in a span of just 6:26 to take a 3-1 lead that they would never let go of, in a solid series victory.
Pontus Wikner, one of the many Swedes on the Arizona roster, picked up two goals in the win while Fredrik Johansson stopped 27 of the 28 shots he faced in the win.
The wins for Arizona don't mean nearly as much as the losses do for Valencia but it does keep their playoff hopes alive, albeit slim.
They have struggled through injuries and roster moves all season but taking two of three from the Flyers shows the talent this team has.
The two losses mean it's now going to be very tough for Valencia to get home ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as they play well away from home.
The roster, which has seen numerous changes since the first of the year, is still gelling together and once settled, should be very potent.
New Mexico Renegades (17-19-1, 5th in Mountain Division) @ Salt Lake City Moose (11-24-4, 5th in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Salt Lake City, Utah
The New Mexico Renegades and Salt Lake City Moose both helped themselves this weekend and although both teams remain on the outside looking in on the playoff race, each picked up pivotal points.
Both fifth-place teams have been red-hot as of late and both have games in-hand on the teams above them, so any points were a plus when they met for three in Utah's capital.
In game one, the players that have been so good for New Mexico lately, mainly three players that came over in a trade with the Southern Oregon Spartans, carried them to victory.
Lane King, Tim Talty and Nick Stirmel combined for seven points and goaltender Zach Woodman stopped 41 of the 43 shots he faced in a 4-2 Renegades win.
Despite being outshot heavily again in game two, the score was the same, as four different Renegades enjoyed a multi-point night in another 4-2 victory.
Dakota Beaulieu, who carried the offense for most of the first half, led the way with two assists.
The Moose offense, which had been solid all weekend, was on display in the finale, outshooting New Mexico for the third straight game and winning by a score of 5-2.
Martin Tolkner led the way with three points, while Brandon Grognet, Alex Pomerville and Patrick Dwyer each collected a pair of points in the win.
New Mexico continues to keep their roll going and got plenty of points from their newest additions, who have blended nicely into the existing roster.
Woodman has been solid in net and they are now just one point out of a playoff spot, with three games in-hand on Phoenix, essentially holding their own ticket.
Salt Lake City has improved vastly over the last couple months and have found the offense that was non-existent previously.
They no longer have to rely on Patrick Dwyer to be their lone form of goal scoring and are just one point back of Seattle with one game in-hand because of it.
Fresno Monsters (29-13-1, 1st in Pacific Division) vs. Southern Oregon Spartans (23-16-1, 2nd in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Medford, Oregon
The Fresno Monsters have hit a real rough patch as of late and it continued in Medford this weekend, as the Pacific Division leaders dropped two of three to the Spartans.
The Monsters, who began the season 17-0-0 but due to injuries and a rash of roster moves, are just 12-13-1 since and have now lost three of their last four series. For most teams, it wouldn't be too alarming but it's really unprecedented for the Monsters, who have been one of the top teams in the WSHL since entering the league in 2009.
Southern Oregon has been coming on strong however and behind scoring depth, solid defense and great goaltending have really cemented their playoff spot, as they look for home ice advantage in the opening round.
The Monsters got off to a good start in the opener however, scoring three times in the opening period and holding off the Spartans the rest of the way in a 3-0 victory.
Playing in his first game with the Monsters after being picked up at the trade deadline from Wichita, Andrii Istominov notched a goal and an assist, while Filip Winkler added two helpers.
In net, Tom McGuckin stopped all 33 shots he faced in his first shutout of the season and he's only going to get stronger.
Mike Kowicki, Kevin Edwards and Sebastian Romeo each picked up three points in the middle game of the series and the Spartans held off a late Fresno rally in a 5-4 victory.
Mike Fabie picked up two goals in the loss for Fresno, while Istominov continued his hot start with two assists.
Fresno jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the finale but the Spartans fought back a couple of times and scored the final five goals of the game in a 6-4 win.
Avik Bordak and Sebastian Romeo each collected three points and goaltender Sean Buckley took over for starter Austin Brihn and stopped all 13 shots he faced in the win.
They still look as though they're going to take the top spot in the Pacific Division but the losses are beginning to mount in Fresno and Bryce Dale has got to be at least a little worried. They still have plenty of talent, especially with the acquisition of Istominov but they don't seem to have that confidence we're so used to seeing from the Monsters.
Southern Oregon needed a couple of wins, especially with Ogden having themselves a good weekend and are now looking very good to begin the playoffs at home.
They're one of the hotter teams in the league right now and will be looking to ride the wave next weekend against the Bay Area Seals.
San Diego Gulls (20-16-3, 3rd in Pacific Division) @ Ontario Avalanche (19-20-0, 5th in Pacific Division)
Single game played Saturday in Ontario, California
Coming off two losses in San Diego the weekend before, the Ontario Avalanche redeemed themselves in the only single game of the weekend, taking down the Gulls at home and keeping their slim playoff hopes alive.
Sean Reynolds, Sean Carpenter and Michael Thomas each scored first period goals to get the Avs out to a 3-0 lead before the Gulls responded in a big way.
Nico Loesch got San Diego on the board late in the first, before Ludwig Carlson pulled the visitors within one in the second and then Cody Jahrig and Zen Hamil completed the comeback with goals early in the third to give San Diego a 4-3 lead.
Ontario didn't give up however and Taylor Emerick knotted the game at four just a few minutes later, before Tyler Sybil provided the game-winner late in regulation.
The Gulls' playoff hopes are still looking good but they have to keep winning the games against the teams below them.
Ontario is currently fifth in the division and will need to win out and hope for some help if they hope to make the post-season.
Three-Stars of the Week
1. Dominik Gabaj (Forward, Idaho Jr. Steelheads)- Stefan Brucato seems to grab all the headlines in Idaho but linemate Dominik Gabaj has been just as good, if not better this season. The native of Slovakia picked up nine points in three weekend wins over Seattle and has now moved into a tie with Brucato for the league lead in scoring with 92 points on the season.
2. Dusty Watt (Forward, Ogden Mustangs)- The Ogden Mustangs found some consistency in two weekend victories over Cheyenne and gritty forward Dusty Watt was a big reason for the success. Watt collected three goals and two assists on the weekend but a lot of what he does won't show up on the scoresheet, as he's a leader on and off the ice.
3. Jimmie Kotilainen (Defenseman, Cheyenne Stampede)- The Stampede had their hands full with Watt and the Mustangs offense this past weekend but defenseman Jimmie Kotilainen didn't seem to have a problem. The native of Sweden picked up six points form the backend, while helping the Stampede pick up three big points in the standings.
Honorable Mentions: Richard Bohan (DIJ), Conner Enciso (DIJ), Kyle McLean (DIJ), David Morong (TUL), Jan Blasko (IDA), Kody Rodriguez (OGD), Ryan Demyen (CHY), Oscar Hagborn-Olsson (AZ), Dillon Thomas (AZ), Joacim Lovgren (AZ), Lane King (NM), Tim Talty (NM), Brandon Grognet (SLC), Andrii Istominov (FRE), Kevin Edwards (SOR), Sebastian Romeo (SOR)
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League