There's no time for rest after the conclusion of a 26-week regular season, as 16 teams will take the ice this weekend in search of a Thorne Cup Championship. The Divisional Semi-Final round will have a little bit of everything, including an average of just 43 miles separating the teams in the #2/#3 match-ups and a few up and comers looking to knock the top dogs from their thrones.
Below is a preview of each playoff series, all of which are of the best-of-three variety:
#1: El Paso Rhinos hosting #4: Dallas Snipers
Games played at the Sierra Providence Events Center in El Paso, Texas
As hosts of the 2014 Thorne Cup Finals, the El Paso Rhinos are guaranteed a spot in the big dance but that hasn't slowed them at all, as Cory Herman guided his team to a second half record of 24-0-0 to secure not only the top record in the Midwest Division but in the entire league. Opening up the playoffs against the same team they swept to conclude the regular season last weekend, the Rhinos will face-off against the upstart Dallas Snipers, who will be playing with nothing to lose.
The Rhinos come into the playoffs having not lost a home game in over a calendar, a streak of 26 straight games and their only two losses this season come on neutral ice in Las Vegas.
This year's Rhinos team has a little bit of everything, including size, speed, skill, toughness and most importantly come playoff time, the best goaltending duo in the league.
El Paso cruised throughout the regular season and were strong the whole way through but a rash of moves at the roster movement deadline bolstered the lineup even further, as Herman brought in a few more scorers, a top defenseman and another goaltender.
With a roster stacked even more, they went on to outscore their opponents 122-16 over the 12 games they played after bringing in all of the new faces, including 32-2 over the three games against the Snipers last weekend.
The team is led by its top forward line, made up of a trio of brothers from Calgary, in Matthew, Nick and Peter Plesa, who combined for 270 points on the season while completely taking over games at times.
Rounding out the top five in team scoring are Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma, both of whom came over in a trade from the San Diego Gulls along with defenseman Kalvis Ozols and then you have key components like Tom Bartel, Chad Cesarz and Dakota Beaulieu.
The defense is led by a couple of veterans, in shot-blocking machine Chris Wilhite and the offensive-minded Jack Strusz. Although they've received more offense from the backend this season than they have in years past, the Rhinos are still rugged back there, with only one d-man on the roster, Patrick Gleason, listed under 6'1".
Speaking of height, Hungarian netminder Adam Vay, who stands a towering 6'6", one of three players on the team listed at that exact height, went 25-1-0 in his first season in a Rhinos uniform, including five shutouts. Bryce Fink, who's not as big but just as skilled, was acquired at the deadline form Seattle and went a perfect 6-0-0 down the stretch, including two shutouts.
When looking at this team, the only real weakness or Achilles' heel, if you will, for could be their penalty troubles, as the Rhinos were third in the league with 1,305 penalty minutes during the regular season and were short-handed more than anyone.
Now, they didn't run into too much trouble in the regular season because of their aggressive penalty kill, which was tops in the league and even scored 39 goals while down a man, more than double anyone else but mistakes in the playoffs can come back to haunt you and if they go up against a team that gets their power play working, it could spell trouble.
Playing in front of what will be a ruckus home crowd, the Rhinos just need to play their game and not worry about the tough-guy stuff. If they can stay motivated and out of the box, they will be favored against everyone they run up against.
The Snipers roll back into town after getting lambasted last weekend but the scoresheet won't show how well they played early on in the first two games of the series, actually taking a lead into the locker room in game two.
Despite having the most talented rosters in the three-year history of the team, the Snipers won't be able to match the Rhinos skill and quite frankly, not many will but what they do have going for them is the fact that there's very little pressure on them and they can just focus on playing hockey and having fun.
One of the areas where the Snipers do match-up well with the Rhinos is in the physicality department, as Aaron Davis' boys play the game hard and fast and don't back down from anyone.
Although they were blown out last weekend, they were much better against the Rhinos at home early in the season, losing by a combined seven goals over the three games and played well throughout.
Both teams have changed drastically since that early season series but the fact remains that the Snipers have played El Paso better than anyone else in the division and if they can find a way to take advantage of a few more of their chances, they can be right there in the end.
The team is led by veteran forwards Shane Bonds, Aaron Krominga and Justin Becton, who all own a nice blend of skill and grit and the skilled imports Davis brought in this season have all produced as well, including Emil Melin, Alexander Lehnbom, Kostantin Ljubobratets and Alexander Yunanov.
The backend is similar to El Paso's, in the fact that they're big and like to lay the wood, led by veterans Luke Grignano, Trent Williams and Elliott Langford, the latter of which was acquired at the deadline from Tulsa.
The only question mark heading into their first round playoff series comes in net, where Davis has rotated through three guys pretty much the whole season, with none fully earning his trust.
Late in the regular season, it looked as though Swedish netminder Emil Eriksson was the guy but he slipped up a bit down the stretch, while Steffen Muller, a German native who came over from the NA3HL just a few weeks back, had his moments, as did Joshua Soule, a rookie who has come along nicely in his first season of junior hockey.
Whoever he decides to go with, they'll need to get help from their defensive corps in a big way and will need to control their rebounds, as the Rhinos crash the crease hard.
The Snipers aren't a pushover and if the Rhinos underestimate them, they can definitely make them pay but in order to win a series in El Paso against the top team in the league, they'll need to play near flawless hockey and take advantage of every opportunity they get.
A week after being held quiet, Dallas will look to their veterans to step up and lead the way and also need a good goaltending performance from whoever takes the pipes.
These two teams don't like each other very much but expect to see them focus on hockey this weekend, as the officials won't be giving them any leeway with post-whistle melees.
#2: Dallas Ice Jets hosting #3: Texas
Games played at Polar Ice House in Grapevine, Texas
It will be a clash of differentiating styles in Dallas this weekend, as the speed and skill of the Dallas Ice Jets goes up against the size and physicality of Texas in a series that is as even as it gets.
The two nearby rivals, separated by just 15 miles, split their six regular season meetings, with four of the six being decided by just a single goal, including all three times they clashed just two weeks back.
The Dallas Ice Jets didn't set the league on fire in their third season of WSHL play like they did in years one and two but they still put together a solid regular season and will be looking to turn it up in the playoffs.
With a young team, Paul Taylor knew most of the season would be a learning experience but the Ice Jets turned it on down the stretch as they grasped his systems and style of play and added a few key pieces to the roster, enabling them to hold off Texas for the second spot.
Dallas is known for their speedy teams, who play systems very well and are one of the more fundamentally sound squads in the league, with tape-to-tape passes, crisp breakouts and very few mistakes made.
They aren't very big however and can be pushed around by some of the more physical teams in the league, like Texas but teams were often afraid of crossing the line and getting a penalty against them, with the Ice Jets top power play usually making them pay.
Now that their power play, ranked 17th in the league during the regular season, has fallen off a bit, teams have been able to take a few more liberties and not have to worry about going short handed against them quite as much.
With so much talent on the roster, including leading scorer Chris Schutz, as well as veterans Nick Felan, Johnny Henson, Alex Devillier and Yannick Aube, you have to imagine it will all click sooner or later and I wouldn't be surprised to see them pull it together on the power play in the playoffs.
Other forwards that have played well for Taylor this season include Scott Folden, who has playoff experience while with the Boulder Bison, Ondrej Valo, Dmitriy Kuznetsov and Luke Simon.
Again, they aren't going to win a lot of puck battles in the corner but good luck catching this team, as they are constantly swarming and won't give up the puck once they have it.
The defensive corps has very little post-season experience, as only Bryan Siersma, who has been terrific this season, has been in a WSHL playoff game, so guys like Matthew Heim and Spencer Roth will have to step up.
The Ice Jets received a huge boost last week when top goaltender Tyler Hough returned to the crease after missing over a month with an injury and he looked great in a sweep of Wichita, even earning a shutout in one of his starts.
Just in case he's not ready or slips up a bit, Taylor acquired John Groth from New Mexico at the deadline and the big Swede should provide a solid insurance option.
If Dallas can find scoring outside of Schutz' line and convert on a few of their power play chances, they'll be moving on to the next round but if they make mistakes and let Texas dictate play with their physicality, they'll have a hard time escaping.
Texas' season has been an interesting one, as being a feeder to the NAHL team hasn't been all roses. Head coach Jeremy Law struggled mightily to find chemistry with this team early in the year, with all of the roster movement going on but has been able to get things settled over the last few months and get his players on the same page.
His team is really a wild card, as when they're on top of their game, like they were at the Showcase, they can play with anyone but when they're off, they are very beatable.
Although not as rugged as they were in years past, Texas can still lay the body and make their opponents think about cutting through he middle of the ice, as Seth Ensor, Cole Rose and Chris Stovall can be vicious.
The small drop off in physicality has meant they are are a little more skilled than they have been in recent seasons however, with arguably the most talented player in the league, Miguel Caron, leading the charge up front.
Since coming to the team in a trade with Lake Tahoe back in November, Caron has notched 46 points in just 30 games and that's just the tip of the iceberg, as I believe there's a whole other level to his game.
Veterans Landyn Howze and Dalton Foster have both had solid offensive seasons as well, with each also providing strong in their defensive end, while newcomers like Michael Brown, Austin Murray, Viktor Brask, Tobias Sjolund and Sebastien Tremblay will all be needed to chip in against a deep Ice Jets squad.
The defense has been inconsistent most of the way through, especially since trading away Tim Ahlin and Jack Norling, which was needed to acquire Caron, as Jimmy Anderson was left as the lone veteran remaining.
He's been strong and so have both Jesse Foskey and Keith Bendall but they'll need everyone to be on top of their game and skating well to keep up with the Jets.
In net, veteran Oliver Eklund and newcomer Ryan Mulka have been splitting time most of the season, with both showing flashes of brilliance. Eklund is a little more steady but Mulka is a game-changer when he's on.
It's hard to predict which style will win out, as this series is more of a coin flip than any in recent memory and if I had to guess, I imagine it will be decided by three one-goal contests.
#1: Phoenix Knights hosting #4: Boulder Bison
Games played at The Ice Den in Chandler, Arizona
The Phoenix Knights got off to a blazing hot start in their first season under Tyler Ramsey but cooled off a bit down the stretch. They still managed to finish strong however and earn the top seed in the Mountain Division and will open the post-season against the fourth-seeded Boulder Bison, who they swept at home just two weeks ago.
The Knights finished the first half high atop the Mountain Division with a record of 17-2-0 but tailed off a bit starting with a 2-2-0 showing at the Showcase in Las Vegas, following that up with six straight losses to begin 2014.
Like good teams do however, they came on down the stretch and were able to hold off Cheyenne for the top spot in the division, with a handful of key additions chipping in.
Their offense has been a strong suit all season, led most of the way by veteran forward Jordan Cullum and was further bolstered with the deadline additions of Mitch Cobby and Mattias Marten from the rival Arizona Redhawks.
Max Mahood, Robert Smith, Brynton MacNab and Robert Crisci have also been strong from the start up front, while Ryan McNeely has lit the league on fire over the last few weeks, notching 20 points over his last five outings.
The defense, led by captain Kelby Minshull, has also been steady and surpassingly offensive, with Minshull notching 55 points and others like Colin Bresnehan, Nick Kujawa, Brennan Johnsson, Charlie Allen and Tanner Branch also enjoying breakout years.
Troy Anderson got the lion's share of the minutes in net for most of the first half but was traded to Arizona in the deal to acquire Marten and Alex Taylor has been steady despite struggling with the excess playing time early.
Both Luke Stripp and Colton Pankiw, the latter of which was the other piece in the Martin deal, have been solid back-up options but it's Taylor's job to lose.
With the make-up of this team, which isn't based purely around skill, there's no reason the Knights shouldn't end up in the Thorne Cup Finals but inconsistencies have plagued them this season and the Boulder Bison always seem to ramp it up in the playoffs, so they can't afford to play anything other than their "A" game.
There are few teams I have ever seen that have been as ravaged by injuries as the Boulder Bison were this season, as at one point, their top scorer, top goaltender and a handful of other key players were all out for extended periods of time, which combined with an already young roster, really slowed them down.
As the wounds have slowly healed however, the Bison have been growing stronger and managed to clinch another playoff appearance, where they have been able to do damage in the past, including sweeps of the Cheyenne Stampede in each of the last two seasons to open things up.
The Bison have been able to win games during the regular season via scoring by committee, which head coach Paul DePuydt told me would be the case prior to the season, as they didn't have many game changers.
A few recent roster moves, including the acquisitions of Alejandro Ochoa, Victor Lombardi and Will Neff has given them some extra punch but the Bison are still a deep team and DePuydt likes to keep them fresh and roll four lines.
Charles Joly led the team in scoring in his first season in Boulder, notching a point per game over 44 contests, while Chad Lopez, Kevin Behrens and Chris Lupinski also had nice seasons.
Daniel Orsborn has been juggling school and work and has only appeared in nine games, in which he's notched 21 points but he's fully available for playoffs and will be a huge boost for the team.
Greg Sodbinow has enjoyed a breakout year as the only veteran on the defensive unit, notching 26 points on the season while also playing well in an expanded role, while other rookies have played well but provide little offense from the backend.
Colin Champine, who was one of the top goaltenders in the league last season, missed a long time with an injury early this year and struggled a bit once he came back but now that he's fully healthy, expect him to find his groove again.
The Bison still employ a fast, in-your-face style of hockey, where they force mistakes and capitalize on the chances they're given.
They've had problems keeping up with Phoenix, especially two weeks ago when they were swept in the desert but they now have everyone healthy and will be rested for the trip.
For whatever reason, the Bison just know how to compete in the post-season, which includes taking top teams like Idaho all the way to the brink. If they can find that compete level again and get balanced scoring, they can more than keep up with the Knights.
#2: Cheyenne Stampede hosting #3: Colorado Jr. Eagles
Games played at Cheyenne Ice and Events Center in Cheyenne, Wyoming
The Colorado Jr. Eagles have played strong team hockey from the start of their WSHL tenure back in October and behind a handful of key roster moves they made at the deadline, they were able to surge to a third-seed in the division. Despite sweeping their first-round opponent, the second-seeded Cheyenne Stampede last weekend, the road for Colorado won't be easy, as Gary Gill will certainly have his boys ready to go and determined to avoid another early exit from the post-season.
The Stampede will be happy to open up the playoffs in front of their home crowd, as the last two seasons in Boulder didn't treat them well but they are a completely different team under Gill and are even better on home ice, where the locals go wild for their hometown team.
Cheyenne employs a very blue-collar type of hockey game, as they look to outwork their opponent every time they touch the ice and do everything from laying the body, blocking shots and diving to break up plays to get the win.
Making them even stronger this season, is the fact that this team is a lot more skilled than in seasons past, behind guys like leading scorer Alexander Andersson, Branko Oktavec and Maans Gustavsson, three imports that have adapted well to the north American.
The group of forwards is undoubtedly led by a strong core of veterans however, including Russell Armbruster, who has turned a corner in his second year with the team, the super-skilled Jimmie Kotilainen, big-bodied Heath Lantz and even Thayne Trumbull, a Wyoming native that has enjoyed a breakout year in his second season in black and gold.
One key thing the Stampede have been able to do under Gill that they weren't under the other two coaches the team has had, is stay aggressive but out of the box, as they cut their penalty minutes by almost 25% from a season ago.
With only one returner on the backend entering the season, in Tyler Elkins, it looked as though it would be a learning process but the group has come together very well.
Jacob Eisenstat, who spent a season with the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, is known for his offense and has been great with 28 points but big Czech Filip Oravec has been even better with 31 and Ian Teal has come out of nowhere to lead all Cheyenne d-men with 36.
Also playing well are Patrik Kramarik, Ryan Plessinger and Michal Marousek, who all play a little more of a stay-at-home role.
Goaltending was a major issue early in the season for the Stampede but became a strong suit down the stretch, with Swede Rasmus Hansson playing lights-out and Sam Mallory, relegated to a back-up role, also doing well when called upon.
Recently, Mallory, who has playoff experience with the Stampede, has been playing much better however and could be the starter tomorrow night.
Whoever Gill puts in net, expect the Stampede to be fired-up, as they look to bounce back from losses to Colorado last week.
If their veteran core can get things going and get the home crowd in it early, they could be on the good side of a sweep.
The Colorado Jr. Eagles burst onto the scene in their first season of WSHL play and have hung on to a playoff position nearly the whole way through, strengthening their grip behind new additions in recent weeks.
Steve Haddon has done an excellent job of playing the hand he was dealt, sticking to basics with a young roster early in the season but opening it up as players improved and as he was able to pick up more talent and the team has responded very well, moving ahead of Boulder and clinching the third spot.
The travel from Fort Collins to Cheyenne is less than an hour, so his team should have no problem going into a place they went 2-0-1 in during the regular season.
The Jr. Eagles have relied on a complete team concept to win games most of the way, as everyone gets in on the action, including a number of defensemen that have had great offensive years.
Captain Kyle Arenson is second on the team with 41 points on the season and is also very strong in his own end, with some of the best wheels around. Also up there in defensive scoring is WSHL veteran Lance Pennington with 35 and Cory Richardson with 28. The recently acquired Ben Gundry and Kyle Robison have also both shown a flair for offense in their first few games with the team.
Levi Weber is the leader up front with 53 points and is always in the right spot, while Nick Davidson, Jackson Wallis, Tanner Ulland and Luke Galatiuk have also been consistently strong.
The key pick-ups have taken the team to a new level however, as Collin Abitz, the WSHL's most recent third star of the week, Scott Smoot and Mitch Coan have combined for 40 points in 24 games played between the three and gave Cheyenne fits last week.
What's interesting about Colorado is that despite the influx of talent, they continue to play a team game. Normally, teams that have a dominant top line to start the season, tend to lean on them a little bit but with the trio arriving so late in the season, with the systems and style already established, it has almost worked out better for the Jr. Eagles, as they get the best of both worlds.
Tage Rustgi and Quinn Wold split time in net for most of the first half and each was solid but the acquisition of Eric Messer from Tulsa back in January took the goaltending over the top, as he went 8-3-0 in his 11 games with the squad while seeing most of the playing time.
Despite the pick-ups, Colorado's roster is still relatively young and inexperienced, so I'll be curious to see how they react to what should be a crazy playoff atmosphere.
You know the Stampede will be looking to shut down Smoot and Abbitz, so can other forwards step up if their big guns are held scoreless?
Either way, this will be a really fun series to watch between two teams that have formed a rivalry for years to come.
#1: Idaho Jr. Steelheads hosting #4: Missoula Maulers
Games played at Manchester Ice and Events Centre in McCall, Idaho
It's not often that a three-time defending league champion is able to fly under the radar but that's exactly what the Idaho Jr. Steelheads have done in their first season under head coach Kyle Grabowski, despite finishing at the top of their division yet again. Playing against another defensive-minded team, the Steelies welcome in the fourth-seeded Missoula Maulers this weekend, as they begin the hunt for their fourth straight Thorne Cup title.
In a testament to just how good the Jr. Steelheads have been in their short WSHL tenure, their regular season record of 39-5-2 this year was just a "decent" showing for a team that has set the bar sky high.
Still as dominant as ever, the Steelies have been able to keep quiet due to two things: 1. El Paso is blowing people out and lost only twice all season, enabling them to receive most of the attention in the league and 2. Idaho isn't a "loud" team, meaning they aren't super physical, they don't blow teams out and they don't have to tell you about it; they let their play do the talking.
Well their play is still as good as it comes at this level and although they aren't scoring in bunches like they did when a pair of guys named Brucato and Gabaj lit the league on fire, they're still the team to beat.
They still have plenty of veteran leadership and skill, with Dak Dice and Jan Blasko finishing the regular season one and two in team scoring and depth players like Randy Patzner, Zach Walden and Jesper Jensen all playing their roles very well up front.
Newcomers like Victor Carlsson, Kyle TenEyck, Macky Power, Bryan Hodges and others have also chipped in a ton, once again giving Idaho four lines that can all score and play responsibly in their own zone.
Anton Virtanen and Viktor Ivarsson have been steady as the only two returning d-men, while Dmitiris Jones, Ben Hull and Ian Patrican have helped bolster the unit, which isn't as offensive as in years past but still fantastic in their own zone.
Goaltender Sean Healy may be the best they've had in a while, wit his regular season record of 28-3-2 and five shutouts proving that and Danny Kowalski is a steady back-up.
Their special teams are still off the charts, they pounce on any mistakes and they don't give up many shots at all.
Kyle Grabowski has kept the focus on defensive play all season, as he knows his team has the skill to score when they get a chance and what he's created is a team that has been playing lockdown playoff style hockey since November.
A strong second half to the season pulled the Missoula Maulers out of the cellar in the Northwest Division and helped them clinch the fourth playoff spot.
Their reward is a tough trip to Idaho to face a team they went 0-6-0 against but they play a similar style and a couple of breaks here and there could lead to a big surprise for Marcus Baxter and Co.
The biggest question for the Maulers going into the series is can they create enough chances on offense to stay close, as Idaho doesn't give up many and their forwards have had problems opening up space all season.
If they can light a fire under leading scorer Corey Schafer, who has just five points over his last 10 games, and find some depth behind him in guys like Jordan Wheatly, Joey Sundgren, Erich Jaeger and Nikita Sheptytskyy, they'll have a fighting chance.
Their defense has been strong most of the way through, as they always seem to make the smart plays and rarely turn the puck over, with veteran Tyler Zandhuisen being a perfect example of that. Much like Idaho, they don't get a lot of scoring from their backend, so it will come down to a battle of forward play.
Baxter has his choice of three goaltenders this weekend, as Sebastian Gronborg, Michael McDaniel and Cody Janzen have all played well this season, with each posting similar numbers.
I'd expect to see Janzen, who has playoff experience with the team in net, but Baxter can't really go wrong.
If the Maulers can get into a groove, like they did in early January in a sweep of the Phoenix Knights and get an early lead, they have the defense and goaltending to hold on and beat the champs but they can't afford to make any mistakes and need their big guns to step up when they need them the most.
#2: Ogden Mustangs hosting #3: Salt Lake City Moose
Games played at The Ice Sheet in Ogden, Utah
A win over Idaho in their last game of the regular season pushed the Ogden Mustangs one point ahead of their rival Salt Lake City Moose and into second place in the division and the two teams, separated by just 30 miles, will meet to open the playoffs this weekend.
Ogden has enjoyed great success in terms of fanfare since moving from Bakersfield, California but only recently has their play on the ice started to come around, mainly since Jake Laime took over coaching duties.
After getting bounced in the opening round last season by Southern Oregon, Ogden will be looking to end the season of their rival, who has risen to power just like the Mustangs.
The Mustangs are as big, fast and skilled as anyone in the league and when they turn it up like they did against Idaho last week, there are few that can keep up with all of the different looks they can throw out.
Every player but two on their active roster finished the regular season with at least 10 points and 14 finished with more than 20.
Veteran forward Dusty Watt led the way all year and finished with 61 points, while fellow vets Schuyler Seyfert and Sean Haltam weren't far behind.
The newcomers really changed the game however and allowed Laime to tinker with his lineup more, as Simon Teodorsson, Martin Hallin, Jimmy Peplinski, John Mencer, Brody Decker and a few others have made Ogden as deep as they've ever been up front.
The main difference between last year's team and this one however is that they are hungrier than they've ever been and play the full 200 feet of the ice, instead of just waiting around for the pretty play.
The defensive group has a little bit of everything, including size, grit, speed and skill and the entire top six has reached double digits in scoring, led by George Babos, David Clements, Mike Kowicki and Cam Russell.
Tyler Fallica is the unquestioned leader in net, as the Worcester State commit went 19-7-2, with a .926 save percentage in the regular season and can steal a game when needed.
The Mustangs still have a little bit of a problem with penalty trouble but have been much better about it lately and usually take someone off with them when they go.
In series that are this tight, with travel not playing an issue, a rivalry at hand and two evenly matched teams, special teams often is the difference and the Mustangs are much stronger on both the power play and penalty kill than the Moose.
The Moose have been the most surprising team in the WSHL this season, as after two sub-par years, Jeff Carr has put his stamp on the program and made them into a true contender, finally beating teams like Ogden and Idaho and playing well the whole way through.
The Moose are also very deep, with 17 players reaching double digits in scoring during the regular season and have had numerous games in which every goal came from a different source, owning some of the most balanced scoring in the league.
Veterans Pat Dwyer and Cole Corson sit atop the team scoring list and each has been great but much like Ogden, newcomers have been the story, as Dwyer and Corson don't have to do all the work now, with guys like Brett Meyer, Adam Kresl, Tyler Keturi, Jurijs Moiescenko and Cody Rogala all over the 30-point mark.
Again, very similarly to Ogden, the Moose have a defense that can put the puck in the net as well, with David Barnes, Alex Pomerville, Daniel Coley, Viktors Ponatovskis and Tommy Breitfuss all over the 20-point plateau.
Brad Robertson and Ryan Gasparovic have split time in between the pipes most of the way with each playing exceptionally well but I would imagine Robertson is the guy, as his numbers are slightly better.
Either way, you can't say enough about how far both of these teams have come and how hard the ownership groups have worked to get them in the right place, with the right staff and the right players, making it no surprise they've both risen to power.
This series should be fantastic and will symbolize what the WSHL is all about, as two teams just three years into their tenure are doing big things and many will be watching.
#1: Fresno Monsters hosting #4: Long Beach Bombers
Games played at Gateway Ice Center in Fresno, California
The Fresno Monsters cruised atop the Western Division for yet another year but aren't going to settle for regular season success any longer, as behind a veteran core they'll look to put their recent playoff woes behind them. They'll have a tall task this weekend however, as the Long Beach Bombers roll into town with their high-powered offense and suddenly staunch defense and goaltending, which guided them to 13 straight wins down the stretch.
It's the typical match-up pitting a league power against an up and comer and the Monsters will be ready for it on home ice, with head coach Bryce Dale scheming to shut down the Bombers powerful top line of Filip Martinec, Tomas Nemeth and Martin Vachal.
The Monsters got off to their usual hot start this season and never really slowed down, hitting a couple of bumps here and there but never really being in danger of losing the top spot, even with Ontario right behind them.
Dale brought back one of the largest veteran contingents in the league and that will be a good thing for the playoffs, as they've tasted defeat in each of the last two post-seasons.
With all of the veterans, 15 in total, on the Monsters roster, the top two scorers during the regular season were both rookies, in Mike Nolan and Evan Ingram, who each have a little bit of an edge to their game.
Outside of them, it's pretty much all vets, as guys like Austin Browning, Filip Winkler, Justin Plate, Mike Fabie, Carter Dahl and Conner Osborne have led the charge up front, as well as Jordan Fontaine, who I expect to come alive in the playoffs like he did last year.
The backend is stacked, with Gunnar Dircks, Michael Freeman, Dan Fitzgerald, Mark Shroyer and newcomers Anthony Pena and Alex Schwartz, who have both fit in very well.
Dale has a decision to make in goal, as Jerry Kaukinen and Austin Piquette split time pretty much right down the middle with very similar numbers during the regular season.
Either way he decides to go, the guy in net will have a great defense in front of him, which will be working hard to slow the Bombers attack.
Fresno isn't going to fall asleep in the opening round and as the only game in town, the Gateway Ice Center will be packed, so expect them to use their depth to try and wear down the Bombers attack.
Behind a great off-season of recruiting by head coach Chris white, the Bombers were actually expected to be one of the top teams in the Western Division from the start.
Defensive and goaltending woes didn't help the cause early on and they found themselves on the outside looking in until just a few weeks back, when a sweep of the Lake Tahoe Blue all but sealed the fourth spot.
Their incredible turnaround has come due to a number of things, including a surge of great defense and goaltending.
Losing captain Guy LaPorte to injury early in the year hurt the team big time and their defense was too often caught out of place and running around without him and goaltenders were left hung out to dry.
Knowing his offense was more than capable, White made a point of working on defense and systems and it all came around eventually.
The additions of Mikael Lengmo, Jonas Gronlund and Daniel Skoglund have given Long Beach a great mix of skating ability and grit, along with Xavier Boissel-Dombreval, Chris Sudnicki who is as tough as they come and Mikyal Anas, who came out of nowhere to become one of White's most trusted.
White also went through four goaltenders early in the season before landing veteran netminder Talon Miller in a trade with Salt Lake City and also picked up Jakub Krejci out of the Czech Republic.
The duo combined to play lights-out down the stretch and gave White two terrific options in net, who both have a calming influence on their team.
Saving the best for last, the Bombers offense has been unbelievable this season, tearing it up from the start with Filip Martinec and Tomas Nemeth atop the league scoring race the whole way, finishing first and second overall, with 109 and 104 points, respectively.
White picked up power forward Martin Vachal from Lake Tahoe a few weeks back and all he's done is notch 25 points in nine games while riding with the two big dogs.
The Vachal move made the second line even more even better, where guys like Marcus Viitanen, Konstantin Kotkov and Johan Beatty have all been terrific, if not spectacular, in their first season of north American hockey.
It's not a matter of stopping their top six because it won't happen, you can only hope to contain them and get goals at the other end. Oh and you won't want to go short handed against them either, as the Bombers power play numbers this season are some of the best in league history.
Will Fresno's depth help them overcome the fourth seed or will the Bombers continue their roll behind a top-six as good as anyone's?
#2: Ontario Avalanche hosting #3: Valencia Flyers
Games played at Center Ice Arena in Ontario, California
In another two/three series that can go either way, the Valencia Flyers will travel south to take on the Ontario Avalanche. The second-seeded Avalanche have size and experience on their side but the Flyers have a youthful energy and feistiness that kept them in games against everyone they played, so this one will almost certainly require a third game to decide it.
Much like the top-seeded Monsters, the Ontario Avalanche have a bevvy of veterans on their roster and they have led the charge from the start, after narrowly missing the playoffs in year one.
Swiss forward Antoine Maillard has looked unstoppable at times, posting a team-high 74 points on the season, while others like Brett Norman, Zechariah Roberts, Michael Thomas and Alexander Roihjert enjoyed their second season in Ontario as well.
Luke Rendino, who played for the Fresno Monsters last season, finished second on the team in scoring, leading a group of newcomers that also included Lubomir Fetkovic, Calle Hallberg and Nikita Salnikov, who has been great since coming over in a trade with Texas.
The forward group is quick and are constantly moving the puck around, digging in the corners and crashing the crease.
Captain Ben Meadows anchors a solid defensive group that also includes Basil Reynolds, Jackson Giammona, Kevin Luenberger and a couple of new faces. Together they play a blue-collar style, much like head coach Chris Shaw employed during his playing days.
Goaltending faltered early in the season but turned around down the stretch, as Drake Koegel and Chris Skeates picked up their play and the acquisition of Daniel Cepila was huge, as the Czech went 12-2-0 in an Avalanche uniform.
Shaw is a very nifty coach with tiny tips and tricks that you don't notice at first but surprise you when all is said and done and will certainly have some things up his sleeve against an opponent he knows very well, having coached against them in the division for two seasons.
The Valencia Flyers are making their third straight playoff appearance and the first under head coach Josh Berge, who has done a great job in his first year of getting a young team to play fearless hockey.
The Flyers are as intense as they come, as they aren't very big but fly around the ice and are constantly working hard to get the puck and throw it on net.
Coming into the season, just two veterans, forward Austin Ehrlich, who once again led the team in scoring and defenseman Sam Taferner were on the roster but it didn't matter, as the Flyers got the job done with a ton of rookies, a number of which came up through their own youth system.
Berge's team plays a collegiate-like style, in which they aren't very pretty or fancy but they take the puck to the net, pick up speed in the neutral and back-check very hard to help out their defense.
A number of rookie forwards have helped Ehrlich carry the load this season, including Zach Paxman, Jakob Kranabetter, Luc Whyte, Jared Waldman and Wil Barnett, while the acquisitions of Keegan Hull, Aharon Lara and Blake Aguilar have proven to be huge down the stretch.
The defense was bolstered when they picked up Dillon Thomas, who spent parts of the last two seasons with the team and Jordan Grywacheski, who came over in a trade with Wichita. The two big bodies have been nice additions to a feisty defensive corps, which includes Bas Assaf, Chase Thesman and especially Niklas Giers, who led all d-men on the team with 28 points this season.
The biggest acquisition however came in the form of goaltender Mark Becica, who served all of last year as a rarely used back-up, before beginning this season in another league.
Since returning to the team in October, the Valencia local has gone 20-6-1 with five shutouts, while posting some of the best goaltending numbers in the league. The Flyers also acquired a solid back-up in Luke Thompson out of the NA3Hl and are very confident in their goaltending heading into the playoffs.
The Flyers youth hasn't hampered them all season so don't expect it to in the playoffs, as it may actually work to their benefit, as they won't get caught up in the hype like some might think.
If they can use their speed and tenacity to shutdown Ontario's top forwards and make their goaltenders work for their money, they could be moving on to the division finals for the second time in three years.
Brent Maranto is the WSHL Director of Communications
Photo courtesy of Sofie Kitterod