Monday, October 31, 2016

Western Hockey League: B.C. Division Review

As WHL teams approach the regular season quarter pole, have there been any surprises? Any trends?
All teams have more than 50 games to play on the regular season schedule. Therefore, it is far too early to speak in absolutes for any of the 22 clubs. But the early going has revealed what many prognosticators suggested the BC Division might provide.

Here’s a team by team peak at the week that was.
Cougars on the prowl
The Cougars are off to a fast start and actually lead the entire WHL with 28 points through Oct. 31, which is probably the biggest league-wide surprise so far this season.

During the past decade, this organization just couldn’t seem to get out of its own way. Inconsistency seemed to be its most consistent attribute. And now, the veteran group assembled by general manager Todd Harkins and staff, being guided by rookie head coach Richard Matvichuk, has gone 13-2-2 through 17 games and has been ranked among the CHL’s top 10 nationwide all season long. The roster is robust, a veteran-laden group that appears poised to pounce on a divisional crown, a title the organization has never won. That’s 22 years…and counting.
With three wins and a overtime loss in four games last week, the Cats were able to extend their lead in the B.C. Division. They currently possess the top penalty-killing unit in the ‘Dub and its power play is ranked seventh. With six NHL drafted players, there is plenty of skill to utilize on special teams.
Brad Morrison (NYR-2015) leads the Cats in scoring (7-13; 20). Jesse Gabrielle (BOS-2015), who had a prolonged stay at Bruins camp, has played in only 11 WHL games this season but is already producing at more than one point per game pace with six goals and eight assists.
The Cougars have not faced a divisional rival since Oct. 8, and will not see one until Nov. 5 when Kamloops comes calling. While the Cats are 8-0-1 on the road so far, it is imperative they establish the CN Centre in Prince George as a difficult place for opponents to play. If the Cougars are going to rule the roost in the B.C. Division, doubleheaders in the province’s Northern capital must become a daunting proposition for opponents.

High flying Rockets
Kelowna appears to have emerged from an early season slumber that produced a 3-7 start. With six straight victories, the Rockets have climbed into the mix in the division and a semblance of calm has begun to surface in the Okanagan Valley’s largest city.
In each of it last three games on home ice, the Rockets have chased the opposing starting goaltender. It’s a list that includes Carter Hart (PHI), 20-year-old Rylan Parenteau (FA) and Griffen Outhouse (FA). Heady stuff!
After defeating Victoria at home in a testy tilt last week, Kelowna made the nine-hour trek to Oregon for a double dip that yielded 5-3 and 3-2 wins over the Portland Winterhawks. The Rockets are now and is 5-0 against U.S. Division teams. Kelowna is 9-7 to date, but has been outscored by opponents by a 51-46 count through 16 games.
The defensive corps in Kelowna provides rookie head coach Jason Smith with tremendous versatility, despite an unfortunate head injury to unsung 19-year-old Gordie Ballhorn after a drive-by, flying elbow by the Royals’ Jack Walker last week.

The forward group has become much more assertive of late. The top six is interchangeable, providing a couple of solid power play units. Forward Dillon Dube (CGY-2016) has yet to play this season, but upon his return, the Rockets look to be in a position to ice a very effective top nine. Indeed, depth is a strong suit.
Road weary Royals
The defending Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy winners are off to an inconsistent start so far at 8-7-2, but this is an experienced group that should round into form soon.
The past week included a road trip through the Okanagan Valley where the Royals beat Kamloops (2-1) and lost to Kelowna (6-4). Overtime losses to the Tri City Americans (5-4) and Everett Silvertips (2-1) meant the Royals limped home after a rather unproductive four-games-in-five-nights road trip. However, with only one win, they did manage four points in the standings. Perhaps loser points are a blessing?
Matt Phillips (CGY-2016) and Dante Hannoun are a pair of diminutive forwards who continue to display “worth the price of admission” offensive flair. Their puck moving efficiency tight quarters in the attacking zone will constantly test opponents. Whether it’s the speedy Jack Walker (TOR-2016) or Tyler Soy (ANA-2016) joining them, they provide the Royals with high octane offensive push.
The Royals can look forward to some home-cooking this week, as they host a couple of central division teams, Red Deer and Lethbridge.

Blazers dominant on home ice
The Blazers played three times this past week, all against divisional rivals, but collected only one victory.
Victoria began its four-game road trip with a narrow 2-1 victory in Kamloops, the Blazers only loss at home to date, where they have outscored the opposition 33-13. With a 6-1 record at the Sandman Centre, the Blazers have the best winning percentage in the league (.857) on home ice.
Kamloops also split a home-and-home weekend set with the Vancouver Giants, ending October at .500 on the season with an 8-8 record. Next up for Kamloops is a trip to Kelowna to face its closest regional rival, the high flying Rockets. The teams have split their previous two games, both winning on home ice during the opening weekend of the current campaign.
The Blazers are getting the kind of production required from a 20-year-old as Collin Shirley leads the team in scoring with six goals and nine assists in 16 games. Nick Chyzowski, 19, is on breakout pace with 14 points. With veteran Connor Ingram (TB-2016) between the pipes, the Blazers will always have a legit chance to win.
Giants no early season pushovers
After dropping four straight games to start the season, Vancouver has bounced back to post a 7-10 record through October. Indeed, the Giants have proven so far to be anything but a pushover.
Change has been the operative word, both on and off the ice. As the organization gets more and more used to its new digs at the Langley Events Centre, it is also getting used to seeing captain Tyler Benson (EDM-2016) in the lineup. Through 12 games, Benson has collected 13 points.

After a couple of seasons with a revolving door in the goal crease, the Giants appear to have found a goaltender that can handle the WHL rigors. Ryan Kubic, who appeared in 50 games last season, has pretty much been the guy again this season, appearing in 15 of Vancouver’s 17 games.

The split this past week with the Blazers may not sit well with the Giants, coming on the heels of a 5-4 loss to the Tri City Americans. But the team has to be focusing on positives at this point, while resting for a few days this week. The Giants entertain Kelowna and Lethbridge on the weekend.

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