Monday, January 24, 2011

Evan Bloodoff (10) of the Kelowna Rockets looks for a rebound
in front of Tri-City Americans goaltender Drew Owsley on Sunday
in Kennewick, Wash. (Photo by John Allen/Tri-City Americans)
A few notes after a Sunday night in the WHL. . . .
Although there only were four games, it was a night of interesting matchups.
In Cranbrook, B.C., the Red Deer Rebels ran their winning streak to eight games with a 6-4 victory over the host Kootenay Ice. The victory lifted the Rebels six points clear of the second-place Ice in the Central Division and pulled Red Deer to within one point of the Eastern Conference-leading Saskatoon Blades.
Saskatoon does hold three games in hand.
But, at the same time, the schedule is getting close to the stretch drive, although, with some of the races for playoff positioning being so tight, one wonders if the run to the playoffs hasn’t already started.
In the Eastern Conference, Saskatoon, Red Deer Kootenay, the Medicine Hat Tigers and Moose Jaw Warriors can call the printers this morning and order up playoff tickets. They’ll be there.
But there are six teams in the hunt for the remaining three playoff spots (eight of the conference’s 12 teams make it), with only the Calgary Hitmen having been all but eliminated. The Hitmen are 10 points out with 25 to play, but they would have to climb over four teams to get there and, in this era of loser points, that’s near impossible.
The Edmonton Oil Kings, Swift Current Broncos and Prince Albert Raiders hold down the conference’s last three spots, but look out for the Regina Pats who are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games and have crawled to within two points of the eighth-place Raiders.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes pulled into a tie with Regina by beating the host Pats in overtime on Saturday. And it’s those three-point games that are the scourge of teams trying to get back into the hunt.
The Brandon Wheat Kings, although perhaps written off a couple of weeks ago, are making noises, too. They are 3-4-3 in their last 10 and are just three points behind the Raiders. But, with 23 games left, they still have to climb over three teams to get into the spring dance.
By the way, there were only 2,373 fans at the game in Cranbrook. Must be a city full of NFL fans.
In the Western Conference, the Portland Winterhawks, all the distractions over and done with, are showing all the signs that they are getting things back together.
The Christmas tournaments are done. The trade deadline is past. The Top Prospects Game is history. That means the Winterhawks, and everyone else, now is able to concentrate on the task at hand.
Portland did that Sunday, beating the visiting Spokane Chiefs 6-5 in overtime. The Winterhawks are 7-3-0 in their last 10 and have won five straight. That has moved them three points clear of the Chiefs atop the U.S. Division. The Chiefs hold two games in hand.
The Tri-City Americans, who are third in the division, are three points in back of the Chiefs. Spokane has two games in hand on Portland; Tri-City has four.
And, hey, what’s with just 2,649 fans in Portland for Sunday’s matchup with the Chiefs? There were 7,395 there on Saturday for an afternoon affair with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Strange, no?
Meanwhile, let’s not discount two of the WHL’s hottest teams, the Vancouver Giants and Kelowna Rockets, both of whom just completed dreaded three-in-three weekends and won all three.
The Giants have won four straight and eight of 10 and lead the B.C. Division. But they can’t shake the Rockets, who have won four in a row and six of 10 to stay a point off the pace. The Giants visit Kelowna on Saturday and you know the joint will be rocking.
And you might want to keep an eye on Vancouver C Andrej Stastny down the stretch. A Slovakian, he hadn’t done a lot offensively, at least in terms of putting up numbers, since joining the Giants after playing for Slovakia at the World Junior Championship. Still, the sample size was small.
But the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder scored his first three goals and added an assist in a 6-1 victory over the Blazers in Kamloops on Saturday, then added two more goals and another assist in Sunday’s 7-3 victory over the visiting Chilliwack Bruins. He’s big, can skate, and can handle the puck. His weekend can only serve to boost his confidence.
There was a time, not that long ago, when the feeling was that it might not be so bad to finish seventh in the Western Conference. That, of course, would mean a first-round matchup with the No. 2 seed, which would be the B.C. Division pennant winner. However, that was before Vancouver G Mark Segal got on a run, before the Giants did some roster tinkering and before Stastny showed up.
And don’t discount the Rockets, who will grind you to death. They beat Seattle in Kent, Wash., on Friday, won in Spokane on Saturday and dumped the host Americans on Sunday.
Not too shabby!
For now, then, pencil in Portland, Vancouver, Spokane, Tri-City and Kelowna.
The other five teams are within six points of each other.
The Prince George Cougars, hurting without captain Brett Connolly, are searching for their game and are 4-6-0 in their last 10. They are sixth in the conference, three points up on the Chilliwack Bruins, who are 4-5-1 of late.
The Seattle Thunderbirds have been to overtime a league-high 16 times this season and their accumulation of nine loser points just may help get them into the postseason. At present, they are tied with Kamloops, which is fast running out of players thanks to injuries, and are two points ahead of the Everett Silvertips.
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SOME HIGHLIGHTS FROM SUNDAY’S GAMES:
In Portland, F Nino Niederreiter’s second goal of the game, with 36.6 seconds left in overtime, gave the Winter hawks a 6-5 victory over the Spokane Chiefs. . . . Niederreiter, who has 20 goals, also had an assist. . . . F Ryan Johansen also scored twice for the Winterhawks. He had an assist on the winner, too. . . . The Winterhawks have won five in a row. . . . The Chiefs took a 2-0 lead in this one, on goals by D Brenden Kichton, his 11th, and D Jared Cowen, his 12th, before the first period was 15 minutes old. . . . The Winterhawks then scored four in a row, with Johansen and Niederreiter scoring before the period ended and F Sven Bartschi, with his 25th, and F Riley Boychuk, with his 12th, striking 10 seconds apart in the second period. . . . Spokane G James Reid, who stopped 14 of 18 shots, suffered an undisclosed injury on the Boychuk goal and was replaced by Mac Engel, who came on to turn aside 17 of 19 shots. . . . F Levko Koper, with his 24th, got the Chiefs back to within one before the second ended, and Kichton tied it at 3:37 of the third. . . . Johansen, with his 23rd, gave Portland the lead at 10:13 of the third, with Koper equalizing with the game’s lone PP goal, at 14:26. . . . Spokane F Tyler Johnson had three assists. He and Medicine Hat Tigers F Linden Vey are tied atop the WHL points derby, each with 79. . . . Portland G Mac Carruth stopped 42 shots. . . . Interesting that both teams ended the game with a Mac in goal. . . . Attendance was 2,649. . . .
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In Kennewick, Wash., F Zach Franko ran his scoring streak to 11 games as the Kelowna Rockets edged the host Tri-City Americans, 4-3. . . . The Rockets had lost nine straight games in the Toyoto Center. . . . The Americans had won 13 straight at home, the second-longest such streak in franchise history. . . . Franko, a 17-year-old from Winnipeg, had two goals and finished plus-3. He started his points streak on Jan. 1 and has 15 points in those 11 games. . . . The Rockets turned to freshman G Jordan Cooke and, in his ninth WHL start, he turned aside 30 shots in earning his fifth victory. . . . Kelowna has won four straight. . . . The Rockets mustered 15 shots on Tri-City G Drew Owsley. . . . Tri-City held a 16-5 edge in shots in the first and it was 13-4 in the third. . . . The Rockets took a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by F Jessey Astles, his third, at 9:28, and Franko, at 11:47. . . . The Americans tied it with F Carter Ashton (21) and F Justin Feser (16) scoring before period’s end. . . . Kelowna D MacKenzie Johnston got his first WHL goal, at 10:56 of the second, with Franko scoring at 4:11 of the third. . . . Ashton narrowed the margin at 8:24 of the third. . . . Johnston, a 17-year-old from Swift Current, is in his second WHL season. He had one assist in 54 games last season. He scored in his 34th game this season. . . . Attendance was 4,017. . . . The Americans are at home to Portland on Friday and in Spokane on Saturday.
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In Cranbrook, the Red Deer Rebels got three goals from F John Persson and five points from F Andrej Kudrna as they dumped the host Kootenay Ice, 6-4. . . . Kudrna, who has 21 goals, scored twice and added three assists, with F Ryan Nugent-Hopkins earning four helpers -- one on each of Red Deer’s first four goals, each of which came via the PP -- and D Alex Petrovic getting three. . . . F Brett Ferguson, with a goal, was the only other Red Deer player to earn a point. . . . Persson, an 18-year-old Swedish sophomore, has 21 goals after earning 11 points, including seven goals, last season. Yes, this was his first WHL hat trick. . . . The Ice got a goal and an assist from each of D Brayden McNabb and F Cody Eakin, who got his 20th. . . . Red Deer G Darcy Kuemper stopped 36 shots, 10 more than the Ice’s Nathan Lieuwen. . . . Red Deer was 4-for-10 on the PP; the Ice was 0-for-6. . . . Attendance was 2,373. . . .
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In Vancouver, the Giants beat the Chilliwack Bruins 7-3, their third victory over a division foe in as many nights. . . . On Friday, the Giants beat the visiting Prince George Cougars, 3-0, and on Saturday then went into Kamloops and dropped the Blazers, 6-1. . . . Vancouver F Brendan Gallagher scored three times, giving him 32, as the Giants opened up a 7-0 lead early in the third period. . . . Vancouver F Andrej Stastny had two goals and an assist, giving him seven points over his last two games. . . . The Giants were 1-for-9 on the PP; the Bruins were 1-for-4. . . . Attendance was 6,929.
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SUNDAY’S CHECKING-FROM-BEHIND COUNT:
One minor:
Tri-City D Matt MacKenzie

     
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 gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca

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