Wed Feb 26 01:10pm EST
The jockeying for top spot in the Ontario Hockey League goes, sort of, through the northern outposts.
The Guelph Storm take a one-percentage-point lead in this latest Dynamic Dozen and a five-point lead for top spot in their actual league with them during their annual swing up north. It's not necessarily a make-or-break, but it stands out that the London Knights helped get back into the race after sweeping all three games from a road trip at the end of January, while the Erie Otters had a 1-for-3 roadie last week that could determine the race.
Guelph, the Portland Winterhawks and Kelowna Rockets are separated by two percentage points for the top three spots. No one moved in and no one moved out, but there's a good chance that could change over the next five days.
1. Guelph Storm, OHL (.582 RPI, +2.2 SRS, —) — The big takeaway with Guelph is that it hasn't sustained consecutive regulation losses since the first weekend of October, so no need to make a mountain out of getting doubled up on home ice by Saginaw and Detroit Red Wings goaltending prospect Jake Paterson. The Storm, due to a twice-rescheduled game in Owen Sound, had the rare position of having to play on Sunday and Monday. It conjured up statement first period by scoring three quick goals before holding off the Attack.
Will the Storm hang on? Provided it avoids a total faceplant during its Sudbury-North Bay-Sault Ste. Marie trip, edge over Erie and London should hold up. Guelph's last six games are vs. teams all seventh or lower in its conference.
Now, if anyone can figure out what Red Wings pick Tyler Bertuzzi has "that nobody has labelled a concussion," that would be super.
2. Portland Winterhawks, WHL (.581 RPI, +1.9 SRS, —) — Why are Don Hay and Steve Konowalchuk pivotal figures in the race for first overall in the Dub? Kelowna, holding a three-point lead, plays the Hay-helmed Vancouver Giants four times over its final 10 games. Portland hooks up with Konowalchuk's Seattle Thunderbirds thrice over its final nine. One spoiler win could swing the race.
Portland, of course, has not lost since the trade deadline, with goalie Corbin Boes flying solo in goal over the past fortnight. It had a narrow escape Sunday with a shootout win at Everett, but Portland appears to have clear sailing heading into a weekend where it faces Spokane and, of course, Seattle.
3. Kelowna Rockets, WHL (.580 RPI, +1.8 SRS, —) — Getting into a game that ended up with a combined 14 goals less than a month prior to the playoffs? That is not great. The sober second thought is Kelowna and ninth-place Prince George had played so often in a short span that it induced a relaxed atmosphere. Coming out of that game, it's probably for the best for the Rockets that they go right into a game against desperate and short-staffed Tri-City. Another bonus is that Detroit Red Wings pick Marek Tvrdon is finding a synergy on a line with youngsters Rourke Chartier and Nick Merkley. They could be a source of complementary scoring come springtime.
4. London Knights, OHL (.572 RPI, +1.7 SRS, —) — For anyone wondering — I'm sure this kept you up at night — London has a near-identical record with and without Nikita Zadorov. The Knights are 21-6-0-1 when the mobile, hostile and agile Buffalo Sabres first-rounder has dressed and are 21-6-1-3 without him manning the blueline like a barracuda. Of course, Zadorov was around for a five-game case of the January blahs that hit right after the trade deadline and five players re-intergrating into the OHL grind after playing in the world junior. Since then, London has been "efficient and dogmatic" while stringing together victories.
5. Erie Otters, OHL (.566 RPI, +1.9 SRS, —) — The Otters are beset by a slump, injuries and the healthy-scratching of 56-goal scorer Dane Fox on Monday. At least they are a convenient beckon for other teams that have some leaks to plug before the playoffs. Sudbury goalie Franky Palazzese complimented two of the Otters' stars for doing the dirty work ahead of the playoffs: "You watch (Connor) McDavid and (Connor) Brown, and they were blocking shots and hustling to get back and play defence, and we have to do what they are doing, and that's why they are where they are." Also bear in mind that three years ago, Kris Knoblauch got Kootenay to play lockdown defence during its run to the Western League championship.
6. Victoria Royals, WHL (.553 RPI, +0.9 SRS, +1) — Victoria has a two-game trek up to Prince George to complete a four-week stretch of playing away from home. The Royals are a commendable 9-1 over this stretch, and Dave Lowry pressed the right buttons to push through the tailend of a Prairie road trip by tweaking his top lines. The Steven Hodges-Logan Nelson-Austin Carroll and Brandon Magee-Ben Walker-Axel Blomqvist troikas were each productive.
7. Baie-Comeau Drakkar, QMJHL (.551 RPI, +1.1 SRS, +2) — The Drakkar got the drop on Blainville-Boisbriand early when Éric Veilleux got three forwards out for a 4-on-4 during the matchup for first overall. Montreal Canadiens draftee Jérémy Grégoire scored in that situation, then linemate Maxime St-Cyr tallied 3½ minutes later to commence feeding at the North Shore shark tank that is Centre Henry-Leonard. The 6-1 statement win over the reeling Armada created a five-point separation for B-C.
Grégoire has seven goals in as many games, giving him 31 for the season.
Over the course of the past week, Veilleux became the fourth QMJHL coach to post four consecutive 40-win seasons.
8. Seattle Thunderbirds, WHL (.550 RPI, +0.3 SRS, -2) — The T-Birds' RPI probably flatters their overall performance. Regardless, credit it for finding a way to be 13-3 in one-game games, including an OT win over Prince Albert win on Tuesday. The other takeaway from that game is that first overall pick Mathew Barzal conjured up a big third-period assist as he works toward having an impact in the post-season as a 16-year-old.
Seattle's results can vary wildly — see its 8-8 record in games decided by five or more — but it is sticking around in the Western Conference's top four. Even after a shootout loss to conference cellar occupant Kamloops.
9. Val-d'Or Foreurs, QMJHL (.549 RPI, +1.4 SRS, +1) — One of the more fruitful long-term moves in the Q last season actually came when the Foreurs got older by adding offensive defenceman Randy Gazzola from Halifax while parting with 6-5 Matt Murphy. Guillaume Gélinas and Gazzola are 1-2 in defenceman scoring for a team whose D corps, almost to a man, can join rushes and pressure opponents. It's provided an extra gear for a team that already has 50-goal, 100-point man Anthony Mantha.
Val-d'Or and Blainville-Boisbriand, which are two points apart in the Q's Telus West Division, still have to make one visit to each other's domicile during the final three weeks. With eight of its final nine games against teams in the so-called '.600 club,' coach Mario Durocher's troops will deserve whatever seed it earns.
10. Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, QMJHL (.544 RPI, +1.0 SRS, -2) — Well, that Armada-Drakkar tilt was played up as a potential President's Cup final preview but only one team showed. The Armada have been held to a singleton for three games running and have some warts to heal; witness coach Jean-François Houle speaking in code about "passengers" and leaving overage wing Ryan Tesink home on Tuesday. Yet the Armada, who are also waiting on Edmonton Oilers pick Marc-Olivier Roy to heal up from an injury, are still high up in the standings for a reason.
11. Québec Remparts, QMJHL (.541 RPI, +0.8 SRS, +1) — Bad news for Quebec: Anaheim Ducks-drafted wing Nick Sorensen (whiplash), along with overage Olivier Archambault (sprained knee), are essentially out until the playoffs. The veterans join an injury list that also includes Adam Erne, so holding on sixth in the QMJHL will be a challenge. The roster fluctuations have kept Buffalo Sabres first-rounder Mikhail Grigorenko from having a walk in the park.
12. Spokane Chiefs, WHL (.538 RPI, +0.7 SRS, -1) — Mitch Holmberg, who had first-period hat tricks in consecutive games last weekend, is five goals away from breaking Pat Falloon's club record for goals. Falloon, playing during the tailend of a livelier offensive era, scored 146 goals in 204 games.
Holmberg has his 142 in 305, giving him one more in Chiefs' colours than ageless Ray Whitney, who scored 141 over 214 contests in Spokane. True story: Whitney missed all of two games in three Western League seasons. And he's still playing in the NHL at almost 42 years old.
The not as dynamic but still very distinguished dozen — 13. Gatineau Olympiques, QMJHL (.537, +3); 14. Calgary Hitmen, WHL (.536, —); 15. Drummondville Voltigeurs, QMJHL (.535, +2); 16. Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL (.535, -3); 17. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, OHL (.532, -2); 18. Rimouski Océanic, QMJHL (.530, +1); 19. Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, QMJHL (.523, -1); 20. Windsor Spitfires, OHL (.518, —); 21. Everett Silvertips, WHL (.515, +3); 22. Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL (.514, —); 23. Medicine Hat Tigers, WHL (.514, -2); 24. Oshawa Generals, OHL (.511, +5).
Hot team — Oshawa Generals, up 5 (29th to 24th).
Cold team — Sudbury Wolves, down 4 (28th to 32nd).
Nowhere to go but up — Lethbridge Hurricanes (.425).
An explanation on rankings — Buzzing The Net uses Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) with a recency factor. RPI combines a team's record with the strength of its opponents to produce an overall rating. Our method also gives more weight to recently played games. Shootout wins and losses are classified as ties, for philosophical and practical reasons. Simple Ranking System (SRS), a ranking which combines goal differential and strength of schedule, is used as a complement. All three CHL leagues are considered equivalent in quality.
(All rankings through play on Monday.)
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.