February 24, 2014
A look outside confirms it is definitely not April 1, yet it's Regina Pats who have sprung up the standings.
The oftentimes star-crossed Pats, who not too long ago contrived to miss the playoffs when they were graced by national player of the year Jordan Eberle, have wrested control of an Eastern Division in the WHL that was certainly ripe for the taking. The Queen City kids are setting up for a nice departure from their recent tragicomic history, with coach Malcolm Cameron having fused a workable lineup built around two drafted forwards, Morgan Klimchuk and Chandler Stephenson, and two ex-Medicine Hat Tigers, overage scorer Boston Leier and goalie Daniel Wapple (10 wins and a 2.55 average since coming across the Alberta-Saskatchewan border).
For lack of a more profound way to put it, some change at the top of the standings is always great to see. With the Sochi Olympics over, here is a look at who is flowing and who is ebbing entering the final week of February.
Hot: London Knights
The Memorial Cup hosts, bolstered by Nikita Zadorov playing like the bona fide No. 1 defenceman he was expected to become, are on their second 13-1 run of the season. The first, back in December, was snapped by having players leave for world junior camps and a loss to the Erie Otters. Coincidentally, London and Erie play Wednesday in a game that might ultimately sort out a lot of the jockeying for the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 playoff seeds in the Western Conference.
London is close to having starting goalie Anthony Stolarz back, which will be the final piece of its playoff roster. Jake Patterson has posted a 3.29 average and .890 save percentage since Stolarz went down with a severe skate cut in January. Other than that, London's getting everything else, with 19-year-old Matt Rupert providing some complementary scoring with six goals during the current seven-win streak. Michael McCarron, the raw power forward whom the Montreal Canadiens drafted in the first round, is also getting work at centre as he becomes more at ease with major junior.
Not: Erie Otters
The offensive tap hasn't flowed as freely for Erie this month. That has come to a head during its three-game losing streak, which included a season-worst 8-2 loss to Sault Ste. Marie on Saturday night. Part of the problem has come on the penalty kill. Erie leads the OHL at 84.7 per cent, but injuries to worker-bee forwards Jake Evans and Kyle Pettit have forced coach Kris Knoblauch to have some of his top-end players take some PK shifts. Erie gave up six goals on 12 opportunities against to North Bay and the Soo during its still-in-progress northern swing.
The Otters are at Sudbuiry for a rescheduled game on Monday.
Canadian NHL team prospects
Darnell Nurse, Sault Ste. Marie (No. 7 by Edmonton Oilers in 2013) — The 'Hounds captain matched a season high with three points (all assists) during that Soo rout of Erie. Nurse, who battled with the same penalty-proneness that's peculiar to maturing 6-foot-4 shutdown D-men, is on a pretty good run of staying out of the box. The big man hasn't been sent off since Feb. 1, and one doubts that's a byproduct of playing nice.
Scott Kosmachuk, Guelph (No. 70 by Winnipeg Jets in '12) — The right wing has 16 points in nine games this month, although the Storm have not seen a lot of stiff competition over this stretch. The 19-year-old's production comes in spurts; five multi-point efforts in February, three goose eggs. The seventh-leading scorer in the OHL is integral to the Storm's playoff hopes. Kosmachuk had a very good series two years ago when the seventh-seeded Storm extended Plymouth in the first round.
Cole Cassels, Oshawa (No. 85 by Vancouver Canucks in '13) — Cassels had three points on Sunday, when the 'Shwa beat Kingston to pare its magic number for wrapping up Eastern Conference regular-season honours to three games. As the Gens' No. 2 centre, the Ohioan has been consistent, scoring at least 10 points in each month and going more than two games without tallying only once all season.
Brady Vail, Windsor (No. 94 by Montreal Canadiens in '12) — Vail and Josh Ho-Sang are probably as vital for the Spitfires as any lefty centre/righty winger pair in the league. The playmaker from Palm City, Fla., is on an eight-game point streak and is eighth in league scoring.
Hot: Rimouski Océanic
The Océanic might need a day or two to recover after sweeping a rare five-game week, outscoring foes 27-7. The noteworthy part is that this current eight-win streak has come with leading scorer Anthony DeLuca mired in an 11-game goal outage. That hasn't set Rimouski back since it's had a varied attack. Third-year wing Michael Joly (nine goals, 16 points in nine February game) is on a roll, while Czech sophomore Patrik Zdrahal is finally getting settled in with a four-game goal streak. Dallas Stars-drafted goalie Philippe Desrosiers has a 0.92 average and .967 save percentage for the month. Those are Carey Price numbers.
Not: Moncton Wildcats
The Wildcats were unable to set a tempo and got run over by Rouyn-Noranda (6-1) and Val-d'Or (11-2) during the final two games of an 0-3 western swing. The absence of Conor Garland, the sophomore right wing who's averaging more than a point per game, certainly hurt. But the high-scoring Huskies and Foreurs had Moncton running around for much of each night, as both mustered at least 50 shots on goal. The lost weekend leaves Moncton, in the short run, in 12th overall. The 'Cats, long-term, are at a crossroads. Ivan Barbashev and Vladimir Tkachev are a price-of-admission-worthy pairing and Alex Dubeau could be back as an overage goalie. They are building blocks any team would love to possess heading into a Memorial Cup year for the Q. The overall depth and team speed, though, has contributed to Moncton having an up-and-down season.
Canadian NHL team prospects
Frédérik Gauthier, Rimouski (No. 21 by Toronto Maple Leafs in '13) — Freddy Faceoff might have been an overdraft for the Leafs, granted, but the 6-4 two-way centre is having a good run during Rimouski's aforementioned win streak. Gauthier's been in the black on faceoffs since coming back from Team Canada (57.9 per cent in February, 54.2 last month) and five points in as many games during his team's perfect week.
Martin Reway, Gatineau (No. 116 by Montreal Canadiens in '13) — Let the pictures tell the story. League-leading Baie-Comeau doesn't tend to give up three goals at even strength in a single game, let alone seven. Yet Reway did all his damage at 5-on-5 when he racked up five points in an Olympiques win over B-C.
With 57 points in 36 games, Reway would be a top-10 scorer if he been able to play a full schedule for the 'Piques. The Slovak was injured right after returning from the world junior.
Charles Hudon, Baie-Comeau (No. 122 by Montreal Canadiens in '12) — Hudon has 28 points (9G-19A) in 16 games for the Drakkar, providing everything it expected when it landed him in the biggest deal during the Christmas trade period. Mentioning he's on a 13-game point streak will probably jinx him.
Hot: Regina Pats
The Pats snapped two streaks last week while beating stiff outside-the-division competition in Victoria and Calgary to run their point streak to eight games. From afar, the job that Cameron, as a former minor pro coach getting everyone pulling on the same rope, evokes what current Ottawa Senators assistant Mark Reeds did in the OHL with the 2010-11 Owen Sound Attack, who won a league title. Regina isn't dripping with name-brand talent outside of Klimchuk, but it does play physically. Defenders Kyle Burroughs and Dmitry Sinitsyn, who are fifth and sixth in team scoring, are also thriving at shoring up the attack.
The streak has given Regina a six-point lead for the Eastern Division title with 10 games to play.
The Portland Winterhawks, it need not be pointed out, have not actually lost a game since Jan. 4, which was before they added Mathew Dumba. That's not hotness, that's just being awesome. The Pats are due to have their moment.
Not: Tri-City Americans
The Eric Comrie-backed Ams, don't forget, were finally supposed to have an uphill battle this season after seven consecutive seasons of posting at least 40 reg-season wins. Now their playoff spot is in peril thanks to a six-game slide. Tri-City might have rated a better fate when Comrie kicked out 39-of-41 shots vs. state rival Everett on Saturday, but pinball goal and some bad breaks sustained the Silvertips and got them into a breakaway relay, where they won.
The Ams hold three games in hand and a one-point lead over Prince George for the final berth. The spot could be determined by which goalie with a Manitoba connection can steal more points, the Jets-drafted Comrie or P.G rookie Ty Edmonds, who's from Winnipeg.
Canadian NHL team prospects
Morgan Klimchuk, Regina (No. 28 by Calgary Flames in '13) — Klimchuk had six goals and nine points over the course of four Pats wins last week. He stepped up with a three-point effort that included a short-handed goal he faced his hometown Calgary Hitmen on Saturday.
Nic Petan, Portland (No. 43 by Winnipeg Jets in '13) — The scoring race between the 18-year-old Petan and Spokane overage Mitch Holmberg could go to the wire. Petan has had 40 points in the 22 games since returning from the world junior championship. He had to work on Sunday to extend his point streak to 16 since Everett trapped all night and even held Portland to a rare four-shot period. Petan set up Columbus Blue Jackets pick Oliver Bjorkstrand for the lone 'Hawks goal. Bjorkstrand also buried the shootout winner in that one.
Jackson Houck, Vancouver (No. 94 by Edmonton Oilers in '13) — Like Klimchuk, Houck delivered on Saturday to help beat the junior team that is part of his NHL organization. Only his two-goal effort on the road to knock off Eastern Conference-leading Edmonton came while the Giants had four regular rearguards sitting out. Houck has had 11 points (including eight assists) in the last four games, putting a 10-game drought in his rearview mirror.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.