Friday, 24 March 2017

#BetweenTheBoards: The Road To Memorial Cup 2018
The CHL begins the playoff round as teams fight for a spot in Windsor

60 teams.  3 leagues.  1 goal!  The dream of hundreds of junior hockey players is elevated to the next level this weekend when the CHL Playoffs hit the ice across Canada and the US.  The 60 teams that start the season in the Western Hockey League (WHL), Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) have already started the first round of eliminations.  The regular season wrapped up a week ago and we have said goodbye to the dreams of 12 teams across the league.

Bring on 48 teams now.  Still 3 leagues.  Still 1 major goal....The Memorial Cup.  Last year the London Knights from the OHL hoisted the trophy in Red Deer and will look to repeat as champions, something that has not been done since the 2009/2010 champion Windsor Spitfires.  The OHL also has a slight advantage this season with those same Spitfires serving as Memorial Cup hosts.  Although hosting rights does not also equate to an advantage, right WHL (see last season) or QMJHL (2015)?  Both the past two seasons have seen the host league fail to have either of the two teams competing reach the championship final.  In fact the last host league, and host team, to win the Memorial Cup was the Shawinigan Caataractes in 2012.

The Memorial Cup has often been touted as one of the hardest trophies to win in all competitive sports.  Unlike professional leagues like the NHL or NFL, to be crowned champion you have to not only mastermind your way through a gruelling hockey season but then be on top of your game to win your own league....and only then to do you get to advance for the right to be crowned the CHL champion.

Some of the greatest hockey players at the NHL level failed to ever win the Memorial Cup...some didn't even come close.  To have a few all-star players and future NHL studs on your team is great but does not equate to CHL success.  The Memorial Cup is truly a team win...if you can even get there.

The conference quarter-finals are set to go in the WHL and OHL.  The QMJHL hosts a different playoff format where the 16 playoff teams are seeded #1 to #16 and matched up based on seeding.  They also carry the seed formula through the playoff rounds where the highest remaining seed will battle the lowest remaining and so on until the league championship.

Let's look at the 48 teams still in contention for the Memorial Cup:

Western Hockey League (WHL)

Conference Quarter-finals

Eastern Conference

(E1) Regina Pats (52-12-7-1) vs. (WC2) Calgary Hitmen (30-32-8-2)

The #1 ranked team in the CHL to end the regular season.  The CHL and WHL scoring champion, Sam Steel, who edged out teammate Adam Brooks by 1 point for the title.  This is a high-octane 1-2 punch offence that should give many teams trouble throughout the playoffs.  The team scored the most goals in the WHL this season (353) and allowed the 5th least amount in return (211).  The Pats won the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as Regular Season Champions setting historic records along the way, including most wins (52) and total points (112).  The Hitmen were the final team to reach the playoffs and have given up the most goals against of all playoff teams (282).  This spells trouble!  Worth noting, the Pats have appeared in more Memorial Cup tournaments (15) than any other CHL teams, including 13 final appearances.  They are also the 2019 Memorial Cup hosts!

#TwineTime Prediction:  Regina Pats in 4 games

(E2) Moose Jaw Warriors (42-21-8-1) vs. (E3) Swift Current Broncos (39-23-4-6)

We get a good ole fashion Saskatchewan rivalry series to kick off the WHL playoffs.  Both of these teams know one another quite well and have a long history of being rivals.  Ok so they have not met in the playoffs since 1999 but don't assume these two cities have warm and fuzzy feelings for one another.  Both had a breakout season this year and both were overshadowed by the huge success of fellow Sask team Regina all season.  Moose Jaw will be led by Jayden Halbgewachs, who finished 5th in WHL scoring cracking the 100 mark plateau (101).  Swift Current can counterpunch with their own star player in Tyler Steenbergen, who finished the season with 90 points.  Both also have strong starting goaltenders.  Expect a tough, long series here.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Moose Jaw Warriors in 7 games  

(C1) Medicine Hat Tigers (51-20-1-0) vs. (WC1) Brandon Wheat Kings (39-23-4-6)

The #2 most prolific scoring team in the WHL this season (350 goals) Tigers are set to battle the defending champion Wheat Kings in the opening round.  Last season Brandon walked through the WHL playoffs en route to a championship win and a spot in the Memorial Cup.  It will be a huge uphill battle to repeat last season's performance this year.  Their opening round match-up with Medicine Hat will be tough as the Central Division Champions have high scorers Chad Butcher and Mason Shaw leading the pack.  This could be a quick series.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Medicine Hat Tigers in 4 games

(C2) Lethbridge Hurricanes (44-21-4-3) vs. (C3) Red Deer Rebels (30-29-9-4)

Another all province opening round battle will see a Battle of Alberta tilt between Lethbridge and Red Deer.  The big difference between these teams is one can score and one cannot.  The Hurricanes tallied 280 goals this season while the Rebels struggled to score 239.  Lethbridge will be led by Tyler Wong and his 109 points throughout the season.  Add in the fact Red Deer gave up 258 goals while Lethbridge only surrendered 253 and the odds are stacked in the Hurricanes favour.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Lethbridge Hurricanes in 5 games

Western Conference

(BC1) Prince George Cougars (45-21-3-3) vs. (WC1) Portland Winterhawks (40-28-1-3)

Isn't this a bit different to see on a WHL playoff bracket.  Portland sitting in the final wild card spot.  Prince George as a division champion.  It has been awhile since this has happened.  Both of these teams reached the playoffs last season and both were swept away in 4 straight games.  Neither team will be looking for a similar result this year.  This should be a much closer series than perhaps many are giving it credit for.  The Cougars only finished with 5 more wins on the season and Portland enters the playoffs on a hot streak.  Portland likes to press the net and score goals.  Prince George likes to frustrate opponents with strong defence low scoring games.  The battle will be between the 'Hawks leading scorer Cody Glass (94 points) and Cougars netminder Ty Edmonds (2.48 GAA).

#TwineTime Prediction:  Portland Winterhawks in 6 games

(BC2) Kelowna Rockets (45-22-5-0) vs. (BC3) Kamloops Blazers (42-24-2-4)

An all-B.C. battle that just happens to be a repeat performance from last year when the Rockets and Blazers met in the first round of the playoffs.  The Rockets survived a tough seven-game series last year and fans are hoping for a similar series this year.  Kelowna loves to score and they score often, finding the back of the net 283 times this year (3rd most in the WHL).  Kamloops will be led by the #2 ranked goalie in the "Dub" this year Connor Ingram.  Which gives in this series: offence or defence?

#TwineTime Prediction:  Kelowna Rockets in 7 games 

(US1) Everett Silvertips (44-16-9-3) vs. (WC2) Victoria Royals (37-29-5-1)

Two teams with very little playoff history will meet in the opening round.  Everett will enter the playoffs as the #1 overall seed in the Western Conference while Victoria was the final team to make the playoffs out west.  Neither team have advanced past the second round in their playoff history, with the heartbreak of last year going to Victoria being 0.2 seconds away from reaching the conference championship.  This is a new year though and the Royals will be in tough to replicate last year's playoff performance.  Everett is a strong team, backstopped by the #1 WHL goalie this season Carter Hart.  The 'Tips allowed a CHL low 169 goals this season.  Hart alone can steal 1-2 wins this series, meaning Victoria will have to play perfect to win 4 games.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Everett Silvertips in 5 games

(US2) Seattle Thunderbirds (46-20-4-2) vs. (US3) Tri-City Americans (41-28-3-0)

Last year's WHL finalists, Seattle, will be looking to return to the championship round and go one better this season.  This may be the best shot Seattle has as they will lose a few key players after this season and could struggle to be a contender next year.  Mathew Barzal was a key factor to the team's success last season and will be looking to carry the team on his back this playoff run.  Tri-City will not be a walk over opponent though.  The Americans love high-scoring games and offensive shoot-outs.  Expect a lot of goals in this series and for both teams to try and build momentum, which could be tough.  The playoff experience from a year ago may be the difference here.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Seattle Thunderbirds in 7 games

Ontario Hockey League (OHL)

Conference Quarter-finals

Eastern Conference

(1) Peterborough Petes (42-21-2-3) vs. (8) Niagara IceDogs (23-35-6-4)

The Petes have been one of the bright stories behind the underwhelming Eastern Conference this season.  The OHL is in the middle of a tough spot right now where the Western Conference teams have been far superior to their Eastern counterparts, leading the West in a dog fight for the playoffs and the East being wide-open and up for grabs.  Peterborough has been consistent all season and that may just be all it takes to win the East this year.  The Petes did put together a 10-game winning streak to take over first place overall and held off hard charging Mississauga and Oshawa at the end of the season.  Niagara stumbled into the playoffs finishing two points up on 9th place North Bay.  When only 2 teams don't make the playoffs in your conference, your odds are pretty good for an extended season I suppose.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Peterborough Petes in 5 games

(2) Mississauga Steelheads (34-21-6-7) vs. (7) Ottawa 67's (26-34-7-1)

The other bright spot for the East resides in Mississauga.  The Steelheads could actually be considered the "favourite" to reach the OHL final this year.  They have a +21 on GF/GA ratio and should be a solid team to fend off most Eastern Conference challengers.  Ottawa finished last in the East Division squeaking into the playoffs similar to Niagara above.  They also surrendered 271 goals this season, third most of all OHL playoff teams.  This was the first Central Division championship banner for Mississauga and they are one of the hottest teams in the OHL in 2017 (21-5-2-4).

#TwineTime Prediction:  Mississauga Steelheads in 5 games

(3) Oshawa Generals (40-23-3-2) vs. (6) Sudbury Wolves (27-34-7-0)

The rivalry renewal!  Oshawa and Sudbury used to be consistent playoff foes back in the day but have not met since 1994.  Time to re-open the rivalry and see what happens!  Oshawa has had a great season finishing only 4 points behind Peterborough for top spot.  This is a team that will not light the lamp 5 or 6 times per game but has enough offensive power to score a few goals and rely on a steady goaltender, Jeremy Brodeur, to sail them towards the W.  Sudbury, on the other hand, gives up a lot of goals mostly because they find themselves on the penalty kill too often.  This team has the most PIM this season in the OHL and if they cannot stay out of the box this series will escape them quick.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Oshawa Generals in 6 games

(4) Kingston Frontenacs (33-26-5-4) vs. (5) Hamilton Bulldogs (33-27-4-4)

Welcome to the OHL Hamilton!  This will be the OHL playoff debut for the Hamilton Bulldogs.  What a crazy end to the season for both of these teams.  The two teams were battling back and forth for the final few weeks for the coveted home ice advantage spot.  Kingston won the spot in the final week and here we go!  Kingston scored a league-low 179 times this season.  Hamilton scored 238 goals.  This series will be the prototype 4 vs 5 battle with defence vs offence.  Expect a tough long series.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Hamilton Bulldogs in 7 games

Western Conference

(1) Erie Otters (50-15-2-1) vs. (8) Sarnia Sting (31-30-6-1)

The history-making Otters look to continue their magical season into the playoffs, a place where they have seen more heartbreak than celebration in their history.  The Otters recorded a CHL record fourth-straight 50 win season this year.  They are led by the top two scorers in the OHL this year, Alex DeBrincat and Taylor Raddysh.  They spent much of CHL season at the #1 ranking.  They also only suffered their first regulation home loss on March 4.  Yup, not a misprint folks...March in less than three weeks ago...their FIRST HOME REGULATION LOSS!!  How crazy is that??  But who did they lose to?  The Sarnia Sting!  The hockey gods sure make things fun don't they?!  You have to feel for Sarnia in a way.  If they played in the Eastern Conference they would be a #6 seed.  Instead they are a #8 seed going against the OHL favourite.  They can put up a bit of a fight...for a game or two perhaps.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Erie Otters in 4 games

(2) Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (48-16-3-1) vs. (7) Flint Firebirds (32-28-3-5)

On paper this may look like a mismatch.  The Greyhounds are the #2 seed and a real threat to win the OHL title.  The Firebirds finished 28 points behind them in the West Division.  The Greyhounds scored 287 goals and allowed 208.  The Firebirds only scored 229 but gave up 242.  But, with every series, there could be a slight rub.  Flint gave Sault Ste. Marie all they could handle this entire season.  They met 6 times and split the season series.  Even more interesting, all the road teams won.  If that trend continues, Flint could score the game 7 upset series win.  The Soo will be led by a strong goaltender, Matthew Vilatta, while Flint has a prolific scorer in Ryan Moore.  The Soo will be favoured to advance but this series could be longer and more difficult than they expect.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 6 games

(3) Owen Sound Attack (49-15-2-2) vs. (6) Kitchener Rangers (36-27-3-2)

The perfect dark horse team to watch during the OHL playoffs could be the Owen Sound Attack.  Being in the Western Conference straddled behind history achieving Erie and a strong Sault Ste. Marie could leave Owen Sound flying a bit under the radar...the perfect position for this all-around team.  Owen Sound has the #1 OHL goalie, Michael McNiven, and two of the Top 5 scoreres, Petrus Palmu and Nick Suzuki.  If any team can step up and knock off Erie, this is the team.  Of course they still have to get past a strong Rangers team, led by 100-point scorer Adam Mascherin.  Mascherin and the Rangers offence is going to have come out fighting hard and pressing the net every game though, Owen Sound only surrendered 177 goals this season, a league low.  The Attack also have the #1 power-play, won a franchise-best 49 games and defeated the Rangers in 7 of their 8 meetings.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Owen Sound Attack in 4 games

(4) London Knights (46-15-3-4) vs. (5) Windsor Spitfires (41-19-5-3)

The all-star opening round match up in the OHL playoffs....perhaps even the entire CHL playoffs to be honest.  All eyes will be on these two teams.  We have the defending Memorial Cup champion Knights battling the current Memorial Cup host Spitfires.  The 401 rivalry is going to be fierce and intense if the playoff games are anything like the regular season games.  The teams met 6 times this season, each winning 3...each winning at home.  Advantage London perhaps?  This series will be a true battle between the pipes though.  The Knights are led by Tyler Parsons (23 wins, 2.37 GAA).  The Spitfires counter with Michael DiPietro (30 wins, 2.35 GAA).  This series could come down to which team gets more of those ugly-style, lucky bounce goals when it matters most.  Expect great hockey and a great series here!

#TwineTime Prediction:  London Knights in 7 games

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL)

Round 1

(1) Saint John Sea Dogs (48-14-5-1) vs. (16) Rimouski Oceanic (26-35-6-1)

The Sea Dogs are the cream de la creame of the QMJHL this season.  They finished atop the overall standings with 102 points.  They are led by strong goaltending from Callum Booth and offensive prowess of Matthew Highmore.  Meanwhile Rimouski barely squeaked into the playoffs with 59 points, 3 more than Sherbrooke (only 2 teams in the entire league miss the playoffs here remember).  The Oceanic ended the season with only 2 wins in 10 games.  They are not entering with any momentum.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Saint John Sea Dogs in 4 games

(2) Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (43-18-2-5) vs. (15) Halifax Mooseheads (27-35-3-3)

The defending Q champions have to be considered the best surprise in the league this year.  Ok sure they are defending champions but let's remember they lost most of their championship winning team from a year ago, including leading scorers and goaltending.  Yet here they are, #2 seed in the playoffs and a legit threat to repeating their title.  The defence wins championship mentality could be the secret to the Huskies success.  The team only surrendered 181 goals this season, third best in the league.  Strong defence with some offensive punch will be a deadly combo.  Add in the fact Halifax struggled down the stretch, also lucky to reach the playoffs after only picking up 1 win in their final 10 games.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in 4 games

(3) Shawinigan Cataractes (42-20-4-2) vs. (14) Val-d'Or Foreurs (28-35-3-2)

A second consecutive East Division title for Shawinigan.  Perhaps a second consecutive trip to the QMJHL final as well?  This is a consistently strong team, similar to what they put on the ice last season.  Starting goalie Mikhail Denisov posted a tie for most wins this season with 31 and played the most games, 52.  He finished the season with a 2.45 GAA as well.  He is ready to go for the playoffs I would say.  The Foreurs have the opposite scenario, they give up a lot of goals and fail to score.  In fact they only scored 210 goals this season with a -55 GF/GA ratio, second worst in the league.  

#TwineTime Prediction:  Shawinigan Cataractes in 5 games

(4) Charlottetown Islanders (46-18-4-0) vs. (13) Baie-Comeau Drakkar (26-32-6-4)

Don't let the #4 seed fool you here folks, Charlottetown is much better than their seed.  Because they come from the Atlantic Division, coupled with Saint John, they automatically could finish no better than a #4 seed at the end of the regular season.  If division winners were not granted a guaranteed top three seed, the Islanders would be your #2 seed in the playoffs.  This is an explosive offensive team, scoring a league leading 303 goals this year.  The next closest was Saint John with 287.  Watch out for Filip Chlapik and Pittsburgh Penguins stud Daniel Sprong to take over.  The Drakkar, on the other hand, are just happy to be back in the playoffs.  After missing the playoffs last year, Baie-Comeau return and are hoping to make some noise.  They did split the season series this year so who knows....

#TwineTime Prediction:  Charlottetown Islanders in 5 games

(5) Blainville-Boisbriand Armada (43-19-4-2) vs. (12) Drummondville Voltigeurs (28-34-1-5)

The Armada were the upset team last year and turned that run into a strong season this year.  The team finished 1 point back of Rouyn-Noranda for the West Division title and look to be considered a strong contender for the Q title this season.  This team is led by a dual goalies holding down the pipes, allowing a league-low 171 goals all season.  Watch out for Pierre-Luc Dubois to light the lamp throughout the playoffs as well.  Drummondville, on the other hand, had to overcome adversity late in the season when they were mired in a 10-game losing streak.  Luckily the team was able to rebound and close out a playoff berth.  The Voltigeurs have one of the strongest PK in the league and have a recent win over the Armada.  This series could be closer than many expect.  In #MarchMadenss we always talk about the 12-seed upsetting the 5-seed, why not on the ice?

#TwineTime Prediction:  Drummondville Voltigeurs in 7 games

(6) Acadie-Bathurst Titan (39-23-4-2) vs. (11) Quebec Remparts (31-30-4-3)

Acadie-Bathurst is another strong Atlantic team and perhaps one of the hottest teams in the country since the 2017 calendar flip.  The Titan have skyrocketed up the standings thanks to 20 wins in 2017 alone.  Christophe Boivin is a scoring threat every time he is on the ice but should not be the only player to watch.  The Titan scored 284 goals this season, third best.  The Remparts, on the other hand, should still be considered a team in re-build status.  A playoff spot is great for the young team but expecting to knock off a high-scoring team like the Titan is perhaps too much of an ask.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Acadie-Bathurst Titan in 4 games

(7) Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (39-25-2-2) vs. (10) Gatineau Olympiques (33-31-4-0)

Are you noticing a trend yet in the QMJHL this season?  The Atlantic Division is STACKED with talent!  Sure the Sea Dogs owned much of the media attention across the country but this entire division looks ready to take over the Q playoffs and make this more about an Atlantic Division playoff structure.  And why not?  Cape Breton is another strong team who can score goals, led by 90-point scorer Giovanni Fiore.  However, pump the breaks on the celebration out east my Atlantic friends.  Gatineau has always been one of those franchises no team wants to face in the playoffs, especially in the opening round.  The big story on the Olympiques is QMJHL scoring champion Vitalii Abramov, who tallied up 104 points this season.  Last year he played a huge role in Gatineau reaching Round 2 of the playoffs...and he was only a rookie.  What can he do with a year of play, including playoffs, behind him now?  The Q is always prone to opening round upsets...chalk up another one here?

#TwineTime Prediction:  Gatineau Olympiques in 7 games

(8) Chicoutimi Sagueneens (38-25-3-2) vs. (9) Victoriaville Tigres (35-25-6-2)

Without a doubt the most evenly matched Round 1 pairing in the QMJHL playoffs.  In fact, this match-up could challenge the OHL pairing of London-Windsor for the most intriguing series.  The East Division foes are very equally matched.  Chicoutimi passed Victoriaville for home ice advantage by only 3 points.  Chicoutimi scored 206 goals and allowed 205. Victoriaville scored 230 and allowed 231.  Both of these teams are used to playing close games, in fact I wouldn't underestimate a few OT games this series (maybe some 2OT or 3OT).  In the six games they played this season, Chicoutimi did win 4....but 2 of those games went to a SO.  The big story line may not be about the players on the ice though but rather the lack of production from key players recently.  Sagueneens player German Rubtsov is battling an upper-body injury.  Tigres player Pascal Laberge has not been the same since coming back from a concussion.  It could come down to which of these top prospect players can find their footing first and help their team out in what should be a close series.

#TwineTime Prediction:  Victoriaville Tigres in 7 games

Ok all you hockey puck heads, there is the #TwineTime preview for the opening round of the CHL playoffs across all 3 leagues.  Hopefully you signed up for #CHLPredictor on the CHL website.  As well, check out the CHL website for all the up to date scores and series information across all 3 leagues.

As always, share your thoughts and predictions with me via twitter or in the comment section below.  Finally, if you happen to live in any of these 48 cities hosting playoff games, I HIGHLY recommend you get out and take in a game or two.  CHL action is usually very cost-friendly for families, a good atmosphere for kids but also a fun evening out for adults.  As a former season ticket holder and being raised on good ole fashion WHL action, I can never encourage people enough to support their local CHL team and cheer on the future of the sport!


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