March 11, 2014
Thinking about whether finishing fourth beats third is considered offensive to those hockey gods, yet the scenario is in play in at least one league.
Tampa Bay Lightning first-rounder Slater Koekkoek's season-ending shoulder injury last week made him the fourth seasoned defenceman to disappear from the Windsor Spitfires' ranks since September; soon thereafter, a Saginaw Spirit loss clinched fifth in the OHL's Western Conference for the Spits. What seems more daunting, having Koekkoek-less Windsor in the 4 vs. 5 matchup or facing the Saginaw Spirit, with a wall named Jake Paterson in goal, in the 3 vs. 6 saw-off?
Just saying, as Erie and London go into their final three games one point apart.
Here is a survey of who is flowing and who is faltering entering the sprint to the finish line in all three leagues.
Hot: London Knights
The Knights, whose 9-1-0-0 run gives them the best 'past 10' record in the league, are being hailed as the most offensively potent team Dale and Mark Hunter have iced in London. Reading that, one might immediately flash back to 2006-07 when Patrick Kane put up 145 points during his one-and-done OHL season. Those Knights, with five 35-goal scorers, scored 301 goals in a higher-scoring environment than the current season. The current Londons who've scored 300 with three games to spare are more balanced, with eight 20-goal men and Nikita Zadorov having tallied at the same rate from his blueline spot.
All told, London's dropped only two games in the last six weeks.
Not: Windsor Spitfires
Koekkoek's injury occurred (or recrurred) last Thursday during the second loss of the Spitfires' current four-game slide, but the spiral down had already begun with a 5-0 thumping in the previous outing at the hands of eighth-place Plymouth. Without Koekkoek as well as third-year defenceman Trevor Murphy, though, Windsor's been in a funk that's hard to shake. Losing Koekkoek's ability to initiate the attack has hit Montreal Canadiens prospect Brady Vail the hardest on the stat sheet, as the top-20 scorer is pointless since the end of February. That's not a reflect on him, since the two-way forward is no doubt tasked with being a shutdown guy when the goals are fewer and farther between.
Windsor could have some input into who it faces in Round 1, since it hosts Erie on Thursday for the first time since getting waxed 6-1 last Friday.
Canadian NHL team prospects
Cole Cassels, Oshawa (No. 85 by Vancouver Canucks in 2013) — Cassels is riding a 10-game point streak, extending it with a power-play marker during a loss to Kingston. He missed the Gordie Howe hat trick by one assist.
Cassels, with 71 points over 59 games, has made a huge improvement over last season.
Ryan Rupert, London (No. 157 by Toronto Maple Leafs in '12) — Rupert was the latest Londoner to get to 20 goals, enjoying an eight-point week as the Knights did some stat-padding on the backs of the poor Kitchener Rangers. The sixth-rounder is second among Knights forwards in both assists and plus/minus. He might be a 90-point scorer elsewhere, but Rupert was meant to be a Knight, not a 90-point guy.
Dane Fox, Erie (free-agent signing, Vancouver Canucks) — The Otters re-formed the Fox-Connor McDavid-Connor Brown line, and this happened: four goals in three games.
Evan McEneny, Kingston (free-agent signing, Vancouver Canucks) — McEneny, not normally known as an offensive defenceman, had a 1G-2A, +1 outing when Kingston beat conference leading Oshawa last Friday and shut out the Generals at 5-on-5. He will be crucial to whether the Fronts hold on to their No. 3 seed and win a playoff round for the first time this millennium.
Hot: Rimouski Océanic
True, the Océanic got the nod each of the past two weeks, but all it has done is extend its win streak to 14, which included sweeping league-leading Baie-Comeau in a testy two-game series. The run isn't all puck luck, but many one should fear what happens when the regression kicks in for Rimouski. It twice from two goals down in the third period to win in overtime last week, with overage Sébastien Sylvestre scoring the decider each time.
That can boomerang on a team, but don't overlook that goalie Philippe Desrosiers (2.66 avg., .907 save pct.) does a lot to keep the odds on Rimouski's side.
The defending champion Halifax Mooseheads have also won 10 in a row to make scoreboard-watching almost redundant in the Nova Scotia capital. Their last nine wins have all been by at least three goals, while Jonathan Drouin and Nikolaj Ehlers each nearing 100 points while midseason add Philippe Gadoury is on a goal-per-game pace.
Not: Saint John Sea Dogs
Friends do not lot friends wallow in self-pity for longer than necessary, shoot long twos in basketball, apply to grad school or give up seven goals to the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, the Q's lowest-scoring team. That fourth consecutive loss left Saint John two points out of the final playoff berth with three games to play.
The big picture, albeit one with very broad brushstrokes, is that Saint John had a whack of injuries that left it thin on defence. Recently installed GM Darrell Young also inherited a definite fixer-upper after his predecessors were unable to restock quickly following consecutive President's Cup titles in 2011 and '12. Goalie Sébastien Auger has had a remarkable season, leading the league in save percentage (.916) and saves (1,746), but he only has so many fingers to stick into the leaks.
When Shawinigan won the Brandon Gormley sweepstakes in 2012 and went on to win the Memorial Cup, the Sea Dogs' fallback was supposed to be that they would not face as long of a post-contention reckoning. Instead, the Cataractes might get some playoff experience over Saint John.
Canadian NHL team prospects
Émile Poirier, Gatineau (No. 22 by Calgary Flames in '13) — The Olympiques have battled inconsistency down the stretch, but Poirier remains a top-10 scorer with 43 goals and 84 points. The potential for the 'Piques to put out an all-Canadian team pick line of Poirier with Montreal Canadiens choice Martin Reway and Ottawa Senators pest-in-utero Vincent Dunn has been inhibited by injuries to the latter two.
Zachary Fucale, Halifax (No. 36 by Montreal Canadiens in '13) — No one really knows what the criteria is for winning the Q's Paul Dumont Trophy for personality of the year; it can go to a coach, player or general manager. Fucale's handled the scrutiny of being a Habs pick and Team Canada goalie with aplomb, leading the league with a 2.25 average and six shutouts (tied for first). Why not him to win it, even though Detroit Red Wings pick Anthony Mantha has 56 goals?
François Brassard, Quebec (No. 161 by Ottawa Senators in '12) — Despite being without star winger Adam Erne, among others, for significant stretches (Erne is back skating), the Remparts have won 6-of-10 to stay high up in the standings. That owes greatly to their 19-year-old goalie, who had the third-heaviest workload in the league (1,534 shots) and put up a 2.93/.909 line with five shutouts.
Hot: Prince Albert Raiders
A team that boasts likely high first-rounder Leon Draisaitl and Winnipeg Jets defence prospect Josh Morrissey should be decent. The Raiders have been inconsistent all season, but a four-game win streak has it in position to cadge seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Draisaitl outproduced two of his contemporaries at the head of the NHL draft crop, Kootenay's Sam Reinhart and Calgary's Jake Virtanen, during recent Raiders wins.
The Raiders, Red Deer Rebels and Brandon Wheat Kings are tied for the final two Eastern berths, but P.A. has a game in hand and a less daunting schedule.
Not: Brandon Wheat Kings
Speaking of which, the Wheaties have gone colder than the Prairies during this interminable winter, with a four-game skid putting it on the bubble. Leading scorer Jayce Hawryluk will miss the last three games due to a suspension pertaining to a charging major/game misconduct, putting more of a damper on Brandon's final-week outlook.
Hawryluk and fellow 17-year-old John Quenneville (tied for second in team scoring) have furnished Brandon with some beacons of hope. In the short run, it has three winnable games to finish off with Tuesday's tilt vs. playing-for-pride Saskatoon and a home-and-home with rival Regina.
Canadian NHL team prospects
Josh Morrissey, Prince Albert (No. 13 by Winnipeg Jets in '13) — As Morrissey goes, so goes P.A.; the offensive defenceman has five points (3G-2A, +4) during the Raiders' win streak.
Curtis Lazar, Edmonton (No. 17 by Ottawa Senators in '13) — Lazar needs one more for a 40-goal season after a 4G-2A, +4 week over three games for the Oil Kings. It hasn't all come in a context of team success since the Oil Kings have played .500 hockey for the past quintile of their season.
Nic Petan, Portland (No. 43 by Winnipeg Jets in '13) — Petan is on a six-game goal drought, which puts repeating as scoring champion all but out of reach with Spokane's Mitch Holmberg, an overage who didn't miss a month for the world junior, enjoying a five-point cushion. Petan will still finish with the most points of any CHL player in the past two seasons.
Ryan Olsen, Kelowna (No. 160 by Winnipeg Jets in '12) — Olsen, the Rockets' third-leading scorer, ended a seven-game goal drought by sniping one early during a 7-0 win over Tri-City. That might be a harbinger for the Jets signing getting hot as the playoffs approach.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.