We are down to the final three weekends left in the 2012-2013 regular season and as expected, the battles for the last few playoff spots are going to come down to the wire. We expect to see another swarm of movement, with tough divisional battles and intriguing inter-division contests on the docket this weekend.
Below is a preview of each weekend series/game:
Tulsa Jr. Oilers (10-26-1, 4th in Midwest Division) @ Dallas Snipers (13-20-4, 3rd in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Plano, Texas
A week after dropping all three games at home to the Dallas Ice Jets, the Tulsa Jr. Oilers take to the road this weekend for three in Dallas but this time around they'll be taking on the Snipers.
Despite losing all three games to the powerful Ice Jets, the Jr. Oilers still sit fourth in the Midwest Division and the playoffs are well within sight.
They played well against the Ice Jets, especially if you compare their performance to the three blowout losses they suffered to Dallas to begin their inaugural year.
Forward David Morong has been fantastic since being picked up from El Paso and looks great on a line with Mr. Everything, Bobby Watson and the underrated Matt Winkle.
The output from the top line has been great but head coach Zac Desjardins knows it can only get them so far, so he's been working extensively with the defense and goaltending and it's showed.
The Jr. Oilers still give up far too many shots but the defense, led by Andy Howard and Elliot Langford, have began to gel and play with some more confidence.
That confidence likely comes from the three goaltenders behind them, who have really turned up their play over the last month, despite the fact that not a single one of them has risen to the top to take the starter's job.
Now, this is an impressively improved hockey club but they still have just 10 wins and will need to pick up more points in order to hold onto the last playoff spot in the division.
Even if they do make it into the post-season, they'll have their hands full with the Ice Jets and will need to come up with some sort of system to slay the giants; possibly some sort of trap because they don't have the firepower get into a shootout with them.
We're getting ahead of ourselves however and the biggest thing on their minds should be picking up points this weekend against the Snipers.
The Snipers are back on the ice after enjoying a nice little weekend off and I'd imagine they're going to be hungry for points.
As you may recall, the Snipers got off to a great start in their first season under head coach Travis Clayton and held the second seed in the division for most of the first half.
Over their last 14 games however, their offense has fizzled and they've fallen to third in the division, picking up just three victories in 2013.
They need to get back to the basics and play within their limits, instead of going for the fancy play.
The Snipers were at their peak when they played great team hockey, getting everyone in on the action, getting the puck out of the zone on the first attempt and getting bailed out by their goaltending when the first two failed.
Shane Bonds has been the go-to forward all season, as he should be but much like JJ Pitchley has done as of late, other guys need to step-up and help shoulder the load.
Aaron Krominga has had a great season but has tailed a bit and Trey McMillen has plenty of talent but has been up and down all year.
They don't have a highly skilled backend but they have guys that like to play the body, make the simple plays and move the puck up ice.
In goal, Alex Bebriss-Fedotovs seemed to take over the top spot early on but has cooled off since but neither Joe Sheppard nor Thomas Scoggin have been much better. All three are still solid goaltenders and have the skill to steal a game when needed.
Travis Clayton wants to get his team back on track prior to the post-season, where the level of play rises considerably.
They're at home this weekend and I expect they'll have a solid showing.
Boulder Bison (21-14-3, 3rd in Mountain Division) @ Wichita Jr. Thunder (7-28-2, 5th in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Wichita, Kansas
The Wichita Jr. Thunder are still trying to catch Tulsa in the Midwest Division playoff race but points won't be easy to come by this weekend, when they play host to the Boulder Bison.
Boulder hasn't missed a beat in their first season under Paul DePuydt, who has his team playing much like Brent Cullaton did in his three seasons at the helm. It's the same old Boulder Bison; tons of speed, skill and tenacity, which more than makes-up for a lack of size.
Much like last season, they've shown the ability to take down some of the better teams in the league, including wins in Idaho, El Paso and Cheyenne but haven't been able to dominate many series.
They looked great in El Paso last weekend and after getting shutout in game one, they turned around to win game two, before losing in a shootout in the finale.
Ryan Gauthier and Taylor Porrier seem to grab all the headlines in Boulder but their depth was on display last weekend, with guys like Deon Kidd, Matt Hefter and Oleg Hayduk having themselves nice weekends against the Rhinos.
They're a very sneaky team, as they don't do anything exceptionally well but are solid in all three areas and can jump up and bite you in a hurry.
The defense corps is inexperienced but Jake Spinder, Duncan Reeves and Patrick Grace have helped get some fresh faces acquainted to the league as the season has gone along.
Colin Champine has been the man in net for DePuydt and they're going to live and die by him, with Dax Deadrick no longer with the team (although backup Zane Sampson played very well in El Paso.)
They trail Cheyenne by just a few points, with two games left against their nearest rival and they'll be looking for the sweep against a wounded Wichita team, who has gotten rid of their top two scorers.
The Jr. Thunder return to action after a bye weekend and their lineup will look entirely different.
After trading leading scorer Filip Martinec to Long Beach about a week before the trade deadline, they then dished second leading scorer Andrii Istominov to Fresno on deadline day, signaling a full re-build.
The moves, although smart, come as a surprise for a team that held the fourth and final playoff spot in the Midwest all season but after getting swept by Tulsa just a few weeks back, you could see it coming.
There are still a few top-end guys left, including Jan Jindra, Jan Ruzicka and Jakub Kolarik but do they have enough firepower to hang with Boulder?
Defensively, they are similar to Tulsa, in the fact that they give up a ton of shots and rotate through about three goaltenders, all of whom have had their moments at some point throughout the season.
With three games against Boulder, any points will be a plus, especially with a trip to Grapevine to face the Dallas Ice Jets coming up next weekend.
Regardless of what happens however, they still conclude the season with three at home against Tulsa, where the final post-season spot will likely be decided.
Arizona Redhawks (21-14-3, 6th in Mountain Division) @ New Mexico Renegades (31-7-2, 5th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Rio Rancho, New Mexico
The Arizona Redhawks are clawing for their playoff lives and the New Mexico Renegades can deal a glancing blow this weekend, in a three-game series that will prove pivotal in the Mountain Division standings.
After dropping game one by a score of 7-0 in Valencia last week, the Redhawks responded to win the final two games of the series and now sit six points out of playoff spot with three games to go.
Now, even if they win out, any points form the Phoenix Knights will do them in and New Mexico can still very easily go on a run and do the same but there still remains at least a glimmer of hope.
Arizona has been bothered by injuries all season but their top forward line, which has been inconsistent most of the way through, was fantastic in Valencia.
Mattias Marten, Mitch Cobby and Oscar Hagborn-Olsson looked like one of the better top lines in the league and the kind of offensive threat that head coach Rob Powell expected when he put the team together back in August.
Defensively, Joacim Lovgren was exceptional against a highly skilled group of Flyers forwards, while newcomer Dillon Thomas battled hard and after settling down, was very good against his former team.
In net, Colton Pankiw has been the guy since coming to the team in early November but Fredrik Johansson stole the show in both Arizona wins last weekend, looking like the goaltender Powell thought he's be when he brought him in to start the season.
Overall, you have to think the Redhawks will miss the playoffs but what the team showcased in Valencia is big heading into the off-season, especially if they can play the same way in New Mexico.
The Renegades are the hottest team in the division and what once looked like a long shot, is now almost a sure thing, as they sit one point out of a playoff spot with three games in-hand on the fourth place phoenix Knights.
The reason for the recent success? An unprecedented change in talent, in which the Renegades brought in seven players from the Southern Oregon Spartans, along with head coach Mike Stanaway late in the first half of the season.
Forwards Tim Talty, Anthony Gervino and Nick Stirmel have played as expected; exceptionally well but the biggest surprise has been the play of Lane King.
In his 11 games with New Mexico, the native of Waunakee, Wisconsin has notched 23 points, including at least one point in his last seven outings.
Nick DeSimone and Tyler Dunn have also helped improve a backend that needed some work and the play of guys like Eric Hewitt and Matt Marcin has improved because of it.
Zach Woodman has solidified his starting spot and has been great, while seeing more shots than I'm sure Mike Stanaway would prefer.
Overall, they are a team that can attack you in every facet. They have skilled forwards, power forwards, tough guys, offensive defensemen, defensive defensemen and solid goaltending.
If they keep going the way they are, they'll not only make the playoffs but they'll be a tough team to handle in the opening round and beyond.
Cheyenne Stampede (23-14-1, 2nd in Mountain Division) @ Phoenix Knights (18-17-6, 4th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Gilbert, Arizona
In another Mountain Division clash, the Cheyenne Stampede head to the desert for three with the Phoenix Knights, who can feel the Renegades breathing down their neck.
The Knights have been right in the middle of the playoff hunt all season and despite really picking up their play as of late, they have to be worried about what New Mexico is doing behind them.
They still sit one point ahead of the Renegades, in fourth place but their final six games of the season are against the top two teams in the division, Cheyenne and El Paso.
Although it's cliché, they have to take it game-by-game and focus on picking up points.
Eric Murrieta, who took over for Kurt Goar nearly halfway through the season, has done a great job of injecting some discipline into this team and getting them to play with some heart.
Nick Pappas has really bought in and leads the team with 37 points, while defenseman Jarrod Levos has been the heart and soul of this team over the past two seasons.
They did trade forward Kyle McLean just prior to the deadline and their offense will take a hit because of it but guys like Tommy Kaddatz and Keanen Romero have stepped up their play in his place.
The backend is young but Levos plays nearly 30 minutes a night and Kelby Minshull has been solid since returning to the team.
In net, Alex Taylor has had his fair share of growing pains but when on top of his game, he is hard to beat.
The Knights have to keep doing what they've done over the last month, picking up points and moving forward, while not worrying about the things they can't control.
Cheyenne is going to be ready to play, after dropping two of three in Ogden last weekend.
With Boulder playing three in Wichita, the Stampede know they'll need to pick up points in Phoenix and they can't afford a letdown if they want to open the playoffs at home.
If the award were given out, Marty Quarters would be up for coach of the year in the WSHL, taking a completely re-tooled team and turning them into a true title contender in just his first year at the helm.
The Stampede have been one of the more consistent teams throughout the season and a lot of that has to do with their depth, with every line contributing each night.
Kevin Rossett and Ryan Demyen have led the offensive charge the whole way, with guys like Russell Armbruster, Heath Lantz and Ryan Carroll also chipping in, while playing responsibly in all situations.
The recent pick-up of Jimmie Kotilainen has looked great already, as the Swedish forward was awarded the league's third star of the week for his efforts in Ogden.
They have a ton of offense on the backend, where Dario Trupina is always a threat to put the puck in the net and Trevor Zakrajsek quietly doing the same.
Goaltender Daniel Cepila has been great in his first year of North American hockey, while Sam Mallory provides a great back-up option.
This team is a lot like Boulder and can hang with anyone in the league; they just have to start taking care of business where they need to, much like what is in front of them this weekend.
Ogden Mustangs (12-25-6, 3rd in Northwest Division) @ Seattle Totems (22-15-4, 4th in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Mountlake Terrace, Washington
The Ogden Mustangs were able to put it all together last weekend against Cheyenne and will be looking to do more of the same this weekend, when they head to Seattle for three with the Totems.
It may be the only time it ever happens but the biggest Ogden Mustangs fans this weekend are going to be the rival Salt Lake City Moose, who sit just one point back of Seattle for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Northwest Division.
Although Ogden has already clinched a spot, they'll be looking to keep their momentum going, as they try to move up into second in order to gain home ice in the playoffs.
The Mustangs got everyone in on the action last weekend against Cheyenne, including a great amount of offensive depth, led by the gritty Dusty Watt.
With Watt leading by example, other guys took notice and stepped up their level of play, including Michael Dery and Sean Haltam, two players head coach Jake Laime would love to see heat up.
Defensively, they have improved greatly with the additions of Grant Killian from El Paso and Drew Crilly from Ogden but they still lack offense from the backend.
Tyler Fallica has been the man in net since coming aboard and has continued to make the big saves all season long.
As we say every week, they have Idaho-esque talent and just need to get everything working together, which they did against Cheyenne and will be looking to do again this weekend.
Seattle is holding on for their playoff lives with Salt Lake City picking up the pace and they now sit just one point ahead of the Moose.
The Totems were beat-up pretty good in Idaho last weekend and weren't able to muster much of any offense throughout the series.
With Petr Novak now with Southern Oregon, they'll need Brandon Gregoire, Frank Flight and others to pick up the slack and carry them to some victories.
Connor Haney, arguably the top defenseman in the league, still anchors a backend that was actually able to hold Idaho relatively in check.
With just a few games left in the season, the Totems need to come together and find a way to pick up some points, or be out of the playoffs in the first time in who knows how long, dating back to their NORPAC days.
Southern Oregon Spartans (17-19-1, 2nd in Northwest Division) @ Bay Area Seals (11-24-4, 5th in Pacific Division)
Three-game series in Vacaville, California
After starting slow, the Southern Oregon Spartans have seemed to transition smoothly to WSHL play but will face a big task this weekend, with three road games against one of the hottest teams in the league, the Bay Area Seals.
Both of these teams had an auspicious start to the season but have turned it up recently due to roster moves and an overall change in mentality.
The Bay Area Seals were down and out in the Pacific Division but were able to pull off a handful of big roster moves and head coach Zac Lytle got his boys to buy in and they're now right in the thick of things, thanks to points in 19 straight games.
Forwards Filip Ondracek, Kristian Kucera and Nick Anderson have been brought in and have immediately paid dividends, looking dominant most nights.
They have gotten stronger defensively as well, with Mac Putio and Scott Nordstrom joining big Ladislav Hruska in front of goaltender Filip Orcik, who has been the best goaltender in the league since coming to the team in mid-December.
They are playing inspired hockey, with all four lines chipping in and goaltending saving the day when needed.
They have games in-hand on the entire division and are nearly a lock to make the playoffs now, if not for a collapse as large as their rise has been.
Southern Oregon has been similar to Bay Area lately, playing great hockey over the last few weeks to really cement their playoff position.
The Spartans have finally gotten away from reckless play and have been successful thanks to solid, physical, yet controlled hockey.
With no Tim Talty to rely on, guys like Avik Bordak and Jeff Salzbrunn have really stepped up their game, as has Kevin Edwards.
On defense, Connor Quinn has been his usual steady self, while Mike Kowicki and Tommy Bennett continue to get stronger as the season goes along.
Sean Buckley has been great in net the whole way through and seems to be the guy the rest of the way.
The Spartans would love to begin the playoffs at home, where they enjoy one of the best home ice advantages around but they'll need to pick up points to stay ahead of Ogden.
Dallas Ice Jets (29-13-1, 1st in Midwest Division) @ Texas Brahmas (23-16-1, 2nd in Midwest Division)
Two-game series in North Richland Hills, Texas
The top two teams in the Midwest Division will battle in a little weekend two-gamer, with the Dallas Ice Jets making the short trip to face the Texas Brahmas.
The Ice Jets have dominated the season series between the two, winning all five meetings this season and making it look easy.
The slow start from the Brahmas is completely in the rearview mirror however, as they have turned up the heat when they needed it the most and are have now clinched a playoff spot.
The resurgence has been brought on by offensive depth, led by Peter Bulling, Will Barber, Landyn Howze, Cole Rose and others. You name a forward on the roster right now and they're doing their fair share.
On the backend, Jack Norling and Reilly Moore have been great all year, while unheralded defensemen Dalton Foster and Sam Genung have been just as good but in less offensive roles.
In net, they are in the same boat as many other teams, with three goaltenders, all of whom have the ability but none have grabbed the bull by the horns.
The Brahmas don't really need the points and look like they'll finish in second either way but they'll want to show the Ice Jets that they can hang, especially before the playoffs.
The Ice Jets are just cruising along at 33,000 feet and gaining speed as they go.
The rich got richer at the trade deadline, picking up forward Kyle McLean from Phoenix, while welcoming back guys like Nick Felan and Christian Elsborg in the weeks before.
Paul Taylor's crew is as good as it gets and every single one of the 12 forwards in the lineup each night can put the puck in the net.
The defense is also as solid as they come, with rugged guys like James Barnett and the skill of Max Glashauser. One through six, they all know what to do and make the smart plays.
In net, Michael Baldwin, who is no stranger to the big stage, is as steady as they ocme.
Much like Idaho and El Paso, there's not a whole lot you can't say about the Ice Jets and even though they're playing for nothing, they continue to roll along.
Salt Lake City Moose (20-16-3, 5th in Northwest Division) @ Idaho Jr. Steelheads (19-20-0, 1st in Northwest Division)
Two-game series in McCall, Idaho
The Salt Lake City Moose are in need of points but it won't be easy to get them, as they head to the mountains for two with the Idaho Jr. Steelheads.
Salt Lake's recent hot play has them just one point back of Seattle and gaining ground fast, looking like they'll be the team that nabs the fourth and final playoff spot in the Northwest Division.
If they do, they'll face these same Jr. Steelheads in the opening found, who they've never really been able to keep up with (then again, who has?)
The Moose have been on the rise of late and head coach Jeff Carr has been a big reason for that. They haven't had to rely on Patrick Dwyer to provide any and all offense because guys like Brandon Grognet, Dan Veselovsky and others have finally started to find twine.
Against a team like Idaho, who score a ton of goals, the Moose will need goaltenders Alex Burdekin and Talon Miller to be strong in net.
Any points in Idaho are a plus for the Moose, who are hot on the trail of the Totems.
Idaho, much like Dallas, has nothing to play for, as they locked up the top spot in the division a long time ago. They keep playing solid hockey however and are particularly tough to beat at home.
Forwards Dominik Gabaj and Stefan Brucato are tied for the league lead in scoring with 92 points each, while goaltender Blake Mendenhall leads the league in nearly every goaltending category.
They've added even more pieces to their lineup recently, with Filip Kasaly returning to the team and Jesse Collins and Dallas Crum coming on board.
They're assured of home ice throughout the playoffs, including the Thorne Cup Finals, which they host but don't expect a letdown, not with John Olver at the helm.
Pacific Division One-Gamers
Long Beach Bombers (9-9-0, 6th in Pacific Division) @ Valencia Flyers (22-22-2, 2nd in Pacific Division)
Ontario Avalanche (8-8-0, 5th in Pacific Division) @ San Diego Gulls (2-2-2, 3rd in Pacific Division)
Ontario Avalanche @ Valencia Flyers
Long Beach Bombers @ San Diego Gulls
In four Pacific Division one-gamers, the Long Beach Bombers play at the Valencia Flyers on Friday and the San Diego Gulls on Saturday, while the Ontario Avalanche do it the opposite way.
Long Beach and Ontario are on the outside looking in and can't afford any losses, while Valencia and San Diego have started to play some of their best hockey of the season and each holds a playoff spot.
Long Beach will need Filip Martinec, Mans Nystrand and Nikita Korotkov to carry the offense if they want a couple wins. Valencia will need their new acquisitions to gel and play disciplined hockey if they hope to keep home ice. San Diego will need to get depth from guys like Drew DePalma and Tyler Gmerek, while helping out goaltender Reed Kinsey. Lastly, Ontario will need to score more goals and take advantage of all of their opportunities, as they can't let any chances slip away.
Brent Maranto is the DIrector of Communications for the Western States Hockey League