THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
In the 1980 Sci-Fi movie the “Final Countdown” the USS Nimitz super carrier was struck by a storm which sent the ship and its crew back to 1941, one day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The leadership on the Nimitz came to the realization of the time and place they had been sent to and thus faced the dilemma of whether or not they should intervene and stop the attack and thus alter the course of history.
A lot of the crew and fighter pilots (having far superior jets over the Japanese Zeros) felt it was their duty to engage them in combat. Do they or don’t they? Quite the quandary.
WHL teams in the Eastern Conference can’t go back and change the results of this season, but they can write their own history of how their regular season ends.
“Final Countdown” to the Regular Season Begins in the Eastern Division.
X Brandon Wheat Kings—84pts with 9 games left (H-5; A-4)
X Prince Albert Raiders—76pts with 9 games left (H-4; A-5)
X Moose Jaw Warriors—-74pts with 9 games left (H-5; A-4)
Regina Pats—————-67pts with 9 games left (H-5; A-4)
The Eastern Division playoff spots are pretty well set with Brandon, Prince Albert, Moose Jaw having clinched a playoff spot and Regina on the verge of nailing down their spot in the playoffs. Regina currently holds the first wild card and lead Saskatoon by a very comfortable 17 points. The interesting part of the schedule will be the drive to solidify placements in the top 4.
Common sense would concede first place in the East Division to the Brandon Wheat Kings as their remaining games are all against their division opponents and they hold winning records against the other three playoff bound teams. Besides the fact, after seeing the Wheat Kings take care of the Hurricanes, Brandon (unless they have a night off) is the class of the East Division. Quite frankly they do not have many, if any weaknesses. The Wheaties could certainly have a huge influence on the final standings as they have 3 games with Moose Jaw and 2 games with Regina.
The Prince Albert Raiders have an interesting 9 games left because they play Moose Jaw once but not against Regina. Their last meeting with the Warriors in is Moose Jaw where they have lost all 3 games. The Warriors are breathing down their necks and the Raiders inconsistent play (as of late) could see Moose Jaw leap-frog them into second place.
The Moose Jaw Warriors led by the “Hat Trick Phenom” Dryden Hunt (5 Hat Tricks in his last ???? games) will face the powerful Brandon Wheat Kings 3 times in their last 9 games. They also meet up with Regina home and away. Those 5 games should likely determine how and where they finish. Mind you, with Dryden Hunt on a tear, Brayden Point adding to his point totals, and the CHL’s goaltender of the week Zach Sawchenko; the Warriors will not make it easy for Regina to catch them. Moose Jaw leads the season series 4-2 over Regina.
That leaves the Regina Pats trying to play “catch-up” with Moose Jaw and Prince Albert. In order to catch PA the Pats would have to make up 9 points in 10 games which is a tough task, but not impossible. But they are only 7 back of Moose Jaw. The Warriors hold a 4-2 record over Regina. The Pats are led by current WHL scoring leader Adam Brooks 100+ points, Sam Steel and Cole Sanford up front, but their questionable goaltending could be their Achilles heal. Along with their 2 games with Moose Jaw, they will also face Brandon twice and three versus Swift Current.
Predictions are always a “roll the dice” so here goes; Brandon (unless the sky falls) will finish 1st in the Eastern Division, Prince Albert (despite their inconsistent play) having a 6pt cushion and with an easier schedule will hold on to 2nd. The battle for 3rd & 4th will come down to the head to head 2 games between Moose Jaw and Regina along with how each team does against Brandon. I will give the nod to Moose Jaw finishing 3rd based on Hunt & Sawchenko.
The “Final Countdown” to the regular season continues with the Central Division.
X Lethbridge Hurricanes….….84pts with 9 games left (H-3, A-6)
X Red Deer Rebels………………79pts with 9 games left (H-5, A-4)
X Calgary Hitmen………………..76pts with 9 games left (H-5, A-4)
Edmonton Oil Kings………….61pts with 9 games left (H-5, A-4)
The Central Division playoff teams are very well set as far as the 4 teams in the playoffs. Lethbridge, Red Deer, Calgary and Edmonton are all comfortably settled into the playoff picture. Edmonton holds down the second wild card spot and is 10 points ahead of Medicine Hat. Edmonton could mathematically pass Regina into the 1st wild card spot, but with 6 points between them and the fact they don’t play each other at least once makes it tough on the Oil Kings.
The top three, is were things get very interesting. Only 8 points separate Lethbridge from Calgary and the Canes are but 5 points ahead of the Rebels.
As the hosts for the 2016 Memorial Cup, the Rebels loaded up with their sights on a long playoff run. However, the last 9 games of the regular season will go a long way in determining their placement in the top 3 of the Central Division. In those 9 games the Rebels will face Calgary 3 times and Lethbridge twice. The Rebels are 1-3 vs the Hitmen and 0-3-0-1 vs the Hurricanes. Adding Jake DeBrusk (SC), Luke Philp (Ktn) and Adam Helewka (Spk) looked to be good moves for GM/Coach Brent Sutter, but spotty play lately has led to a 4-6-0-0 record over their last 10 games.
The Calgary Hitmen must be salivating over their 3 head-to-head match ups with the Rebels. They have outscored the Rebels 17-8 in their previous meetings and their only loss was in a shootout. The Hitmen have a solid defense corps led by Travis Sanheim, Jake Bean (22 goals) and the “monster” Keegan Kanzig. Up front Jacob Stukel (31 goals) leads a balanced attack. Those 3 games could be a mini war and might set up a series of attrition in the first round.
Just a side note, in 2013 the Saskatoon Blades were the host team for the Memorial Cup. They were swept by Medicine Hat in the first round of the WHL playoffs and thus had to wait on the sidelines for over a month. The Blades went 1-2 in the round robin, then lost 6-1 to London in the tie breaker. Red Deer will be facing a lot of pressure in hoping to avoid a quick exit from the Eastern Conference playoffs.
(Photo Credit: Tyler Mikla)
The surprise team (no longer a surprise) of the Central Division and Eastern Conference is the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Currently sitting in first in the Central and tied with Brandon for the lead in the Eastern Conference.
Unfortunately, a pair of key injuries to their top two centres (Giorgio Estephan & Justin Gutierrez) has forced coach Kisio to juggle lines, get players to change their winger position to centre and this has led (along with inconsistent play) to a 4-4-1-1 record, including a 5 game losing streak, that was recently snapped.
In order to hold on to top spot (where they would like to finish) the Canes will need to win 3 of their 6 road games and all 3 of their home games. (They do have the toughest 9 game schedule mainly due to travel). Of course the other huge factor are the 3 games between Red Deer and Calgary. Getting back Estephan (likely) and Gutierre (very questionable at this point) will also play a roll in the Canes final standings position.
Prediction for the Central, Lethbridge will reap the benefits of the Calgary-Red Deer 3 game stint, and finish first in the Central. Calgary will catch and pass Red Deer for 2nd. As for first overall in the Eastern Conference, I reluctantly give the nod to Brandon who has an easier schedule than Lethbridge. Let’s hope I’m wrong!
As Europe’s number one hit in 1986 title says, “It’s the Final Countdown!” Hang on to your hats Canes fans, lots to happen by the final regular season game in Medicine Hat March 12th.