The opening weekend of 2013 was a good one for a handful of teams around the Western States Hockey League, as many took a big step toward a great second half of the season. Many more will have a chance to do the same this weekend, which is one of the WSHL’s biggest of the season, with 26 games, featuring 20 of the 22 member clubs.
Below is a preview of each weekend series/game:
Valencia Flyers (16-11-2, 2nd in Pacific Division) @ Bay Area Seals (12-15-1, 6th in Pacific Division)
Three-game series, played Friday and Sunday in Daly City and Saturday in Redwood City, California
The hottest team in the league will look to keep their streak alive, when the Bay Area Seals play host to the Valencia Flyers for three games.
The Seals have been on fire since making a rash of roster moves right around the Showcase and have jumped up into the playoff race by winning seven straight and 9 of their last 10.
Offense has been the primary beneficiary of the recent acquisitions, led by Slovakian imports Kristian Kucera and Filip Ondracek, while goaltender Filip Orcik has literally been flawless since coming aboard, going 6-0-0 with dazzling goals against and save percentage numbers.
A new-look roster full of talent never hurts but the biggest transformation for the Seals has been their team discipline, which they grossly lacked early in the season.
They’ve stopped taking the bad penalties that got them into trouble and have been able to play physically without stepping over the line. That isn’t to say they’re a team that is going to be pushed around, especially with hulking defenseman Ladislav Hruska patrolling the blueline but they’re a much smarter team overall.
They’re coming off of a three-game sweep of the Ontario Avalanche, who are a very tough team in their own right but they’ll face an even bigger challenge this weekend, when the 2nd place Valencia Flyers roll into town.
The Flyers have been up-and-down for most of the season but when on top of their game, they are a team to be reckoned with.
They had a rough showing at the Showcase but with a depleted lineup last weekend, they were still able to take two of three in Medford from the Southern Oregon Spartans.
They’ll come into the bay area fully healthy and looking to do what they did to the Seals back in late October; sweep three games from their new division rival.
The Flyers top line of Austin Ehrlich, Hunter Jensen and Preston Nowak has been lighting it up since they were put together a couple of months ago and few teams have had an answer for them.
If you focus on the top line too much, guys like Eddie Keshishian, who was second in the entire league in points last season and rookie forward Kevin Antipov can make you pay.
Three wins for the Seals would really put the league on notice and strike fear into the rest of the Pacific Division but the Flyers aren’t going to go down without a fight and have more than enough firepower to stick around.
This should be a great series in northern California, one many other coaches will be watching closely.
Salt Lake City Moose (7-13-1, 5th in Northwest Division) @ Fresno Monsters (20-5-0, 1st in Pacific Division
Three-game series in Fresno, California
After losing their first regular season series in over a calendar year, the Fresno Monsters will surely be chomping at the bit to get back at it when they play host to the Salt Lake City Moose this weekend.
Bryce Dale’s crew still sit comfortably atop the Pacific Division but with a few teams heating up below them and Fresno hitting a few bumps of late, they’ll definitely need to pick-up some points against the struggling Moose.
In their defense, they played well against a very tough schedule in Las Vegas but regardless of opponent, a record of 2-2-0 will never be accepted in Fresno.
There’s little doubt they are still one of the league’s elite, led by forward Nick McKee and defenseman Cory Sikich, who will try and help their team put together a solid second half of the season.
They have the offense to score with anyone, have played much more discipline hockey this season and goaltending has gone from a weakness to a strength as the season has gone along.
They are also tough to play at home, which doesn’t bode well for the Moose, who will get their first-ever look at the Monsters.
Salt Lake City has improved, following a tough first season in the league but they still sit outside of the playoff picture and need to get on a roll if they want to challenge for a spot in the Northwest Division.
They are led in scoring by forward Patrick Dwyer but he only has 16 points, the lowest total for a team-leader in the league.
Goaltending has been reliable but their defense gives up a ton of chances and it usually leads to goals.
They have started to play a more physical style, which can definitely work against a skilled Fresno team but skating with the Monsters will be a task.
The Monsters will look to respond after two tough losses to Long Beach and Salt Lake will be looking for points, as they try to catch Seattle in the playoff race.
Texas Brahmas (15-15-2, 2nd in Midwest Division) @ Wichita Jr. Thunder (6-21-1, 5th in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Wichita, Kansas
The Wichita Jr. Thunder will have to get going in the new year and it won’t be easy this weekend, as they play host to the Texas Brahmas for three games.
The Brahmas are another team that has really found their stride after starting the year slow and with everyone getting in on the action, can play with just about anyone.
After sporting a perfect record in Las Vegas, they took two of three from Tulsa last weekend and looked good in doing so.
Forward Peter Bulling has really picked up the offense as of late and now leads the team with 40 points, while captain Will Barber isn’t far behind with 38.
You had the feeling all season that they had the talent to win hockey games and now that they seem to have things figured out, they’re doing just that and climbing the standings in the process.
This weekend, they’ll be looking to amass more points when they make their first-ever trip to Wichita to take on the Jr. Thunder.
The Thunder struggled mightily in Las Vegas, going 0-3-1 and combined with a recent surge from Tulsa, they are now one point out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the Midwest Division.
They have had the top line scoring all season, from Filip Martinec and Andrii Istominov but again, depth has been a real problem.
Rob Weingartner has worked hard to implement his system and get his team going but every time it looks like they’ve hit a groove, they run into a hot team or struggle to find the net.
They were beat-up pretty good by the Brahmas in early December and will be looking to avenge that this weekend and pick up a few points to take back their playoff spot.
New Mexico Renegades (9-15-1, 6th in Mountain Division) @ Dallas Snipers (10-14-3, 3rd in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Plano, Texas
The overhauled New Mexico Renegades will begin a new chapter in team history this weekend, when they open 2013 with a trip to Dallas for three against the Snipers.
After being relieved of his coaching duties by the Southern Oregon Spartans just after the Showcase, it didn’t take Mike Stanaway long to land on his feet, as just days later he was named the head coach of the New Mexico Renegades. With former co-head coaches John McCreary and Cliff Cook now assistants, Stanaway was pivotal in pulling off a trade with his former employer to bring-in seven of his top players from the Spartans.
Those players include Tim Talty, who led the entire NORPAC in scoring last season, his running-mate Nick Stirmel and top defenseman Nick DeSimone, to name a few.
The seven new faces should instantly give the Renegades a shot in the arm and hopefully a big one, as they’ve struggled to find consistency throughout most of the season.
If Stanaway can get his players to play disciplined hockey and stay out of the box, the Renegades can be a force, especially if goaltender Tyler George can find his way.
The Snipers are a much tougher team this season thanks to first-year head coach Travis Clayton and have shown the ability to beat some very good hockey teams, including a win over Ogden at the Showcase.
Their offense has fizzled out as of late but expect Shane Bonds, Aaron Krominga, Michael Kohler and JJ Pitchley to really pick it up down the stretch.
They are pretty much guaranteed a playoff spot but would like to go on a hot streak and knock off some teams above them in the standings along the way.
Dallas Ice Jets (26-2-0, 1st in Midwest Division) @ Boulder Bison (15-7-2, 2nd in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Superior, Colorado
There won’t be a lack of speed in Colorado over the weekend, the Boulder Bison play host to the Dallas Ice Jets for three inter-division games.
The Ice Jets, who are perfect within the Midwest Division this season, continued their tear last weekend, when they easily took both games from the nearby Snipers.
They are locked into first place and look even better than they did last season, when they made it all the way to the Thorne Cup Finals.
They have a bevvy of forwards near the top in league scoring and Paul Taylor has made roster moves throughout the year to bolster his team further.
Their one-two goaltending punch of Michael Baldwin and Brody Sharp is unrivaled anywhere in the league and they face few shots because the defense in front of them is so stout.
To put it simply, there’s not a whole lot you can’t say about this team, who are now using a loss at the Showcase to Idaho as motivation for the rest of the way.
They’ll make the long trip to Colorado for three against a very good hockey team and one of the few teams that can match their speed, the Boulder Bison.
The Bison had a decent showing at the Showcase, going 2-2-0 but I’m sure head coach Paul DePuydt felt they could have done better.
They are led in scoring by veteran forward Ryan Gauthier, who can score from anywhere on the ice and has only gotten better since the return of linemate Taylor Porrier.
The Bison are much younger than we’ve seen from them in seasons past but that may not be a bad thing heading into the stretch run.
Goaltending has carried the team at times this season, with both Dax Deadrick and Colin Champine showing the ability to steal a game, much like Baldwin and Sharp of Dallas.
Boulder is trying to stay ahead of Cheyenne and catch El Paso for the top spot in the process and a couple of wins over one of the top teams in the league could go a long way in getting them there.
Arizona Redhawks (8-18-5, 5th in Mountain Division) @ Phoenix Knights (10-14-4, 4th in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Chandler, Arizona
The two Arizona teams are set to battle it out over the weekend and both are in desperate need of points, as the Phoenix Knights play host to the Arizona Redhawks.
The Knights are coming off of a great effort at the Showcase, where they were down a few players and still found ways to pull out two wins, including an overtime victory over San Diego, in a game in which they looked down and out of early.
New head coach Eric Murrieta has tried to change the culture in Phoenix, which hasn’t been the same since the Polar Bears organization died out.
He has a talented roster which includes forwards Nick Pappas, Kyle McLean and Tommy Kaddatz but like so many teams in the league, defense has been an issue.
They need to get on a roll and beating their rival a few times would be a great way to start it.
Arizona put together a nice Showcase and the offense is really starting to pick it up, led by Swedish-import Mattias Marten.
Rob Powell’s group has had to fight through some injuries throughout the season and are finally back to full health and are just a few points out of a playoff spot.
Goaltender Colton Pankiw has come in and taken over the top spot in net and it has really calmed the team down around him.
Much like the Knights, they’ll have a tough road to the playoffs but both of these teams have enough talent to get it done.
Regardless of standing, these teams always get up for each other and this series will be a physical one, as they don’t like each other very much at all.
El Paso Rhinos (20-14-1, 1st in Mountain Division) @ Cheyenne Stampede (14-6-1, 3rd in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Cheyenne, Wyoming
If you want to see a battle, then look no further than the Mountain Division clash between the El Paso Rhinos and Cheyenne Stampede.
Both teams are fast, physical and looking for points and have only met once, which should make for an interesting feeling out period.
El Paso is currently atop the division and only getting stronger, as Cory Herman continues his reign with the Rhinos
They had a strong showing at the Showcase but struggled against Fresno and will be looking to start 2013 off with a couple of big wins.
They are once again led in scoring by captain Mikey Rivera but seem to have a little more depth than they did last season, thanks to newcomers like Tommy Malkmus and Tyler Brady.
They are that big, physical team that you expect to see from the Rhinos but they do a good job of not getting dirty and getting into penalty trouble.
Defense is their absolute strength, with the top pairing of Matej Steigauf and Jan Dam leading the way and veteran Chris Wilhite also willing to do anything for the team.
Goaltending has also come along, behind the solid play of Austin Brihn and Terry Hughes.
In all, they are a team with very few weaknesses who will try to run their opponent into the ground.
Cheyenne is no slouch however and have turned into a Thorne Cup contender under Marty Quarters.
They have the size to play physical but the speed and skill to keep up with teams like Idaho.
They went a respectable 2-2-0 at the Showcase but played very well in their two losses to Idaho and Dallas.
They have a lot of guys that can put the puck in the net but the most impressive at the Showcase was forward Russell Armbruster, who for whatever reason, only has 12 points on the season.
After watching him play, it was amazing to me that he wasn’t amongst the league leaders, as he was all over the place and has a heck of a shot.
Their depth is what they rely on and they have plenty of it, including on the back end, where Dario Trupina and Trevor Zakrajsek have been solid all season.
Last but certainly not least, goaltender Daniel Cepila has proved he is not a fluke in his rookie season, sporting pristine numbers and looking real good under Las Vegas’ lights.
Cheyenne will have their crowd rowdy and ready and El Paso will try to quiet them early in what should be an awesome series to watch.
Ogden Mustangs (16-13-5, 2nd in Northwest Division) @ Idaho Jr. Steelheads (26-1-0, 1st in Northwest Division)
Two-game series in McCall, Idaho
The Ogden Mustangs began 2013 with a bang but will have a tall task his weekend, when they head to Idaho for two with the Jr. Steelheads.
The Mustangs followed up a sub-par Showcase with two dominant victories over Salt Lake City last weekend and looked very good in the process.
Forwards Christian Kraus and Zach O’Mara had big weekends and continue to make the players around them better, leading to a good amount of depth.
McCall is never an easy place to play but Ogden took the Steelies to the edge a couple of times back in and at one point, led 4-0 over the Jr. Steelheads before allowing six straight goals in a loss.
The confidence that came from playing well in McCall before and a couple of wins under their belt to start the new year, should bode well for Jake Laime and company.
Idaho is the top team in the league for a reason however and despite facing a tough schedule, they once again went undefeated in Las Vegas.
Stefan Brucato and Dominik Gabaj continue to amaze on the top line and nobody has had an answer for them yet, or anything even close to it.
Defensively, they were without Jake Webber in Vegas but guys like Cole Larson really stepped up in his absence to help carry the load.
Goaltender Blake Mendenhall also played well in Sin City and even scored a goal; when you’re as good as the Jr. Steelheads are, everything just seems to go your way.
Idaho is in total control of the division and are once again the favorites to win the Thorne Cup.
Ogden will have to play a near perfect series to beat them and hope to get a couple of breaks in the process but they’ve proved they can hang with them previously and will certainly bring the intensity.
Seattle Totems (9-16-7, 4th in Northwest Division) @ Southern Oregon Spartans (14-12-0, 3rd in Northwest Division)
Two-game series in Medford, Oregon
If you want to see a rivalry game, then tune in to FastHockey.com this weekend and try to watch one of the battles between Seattle and Southern Oregon.
Neither team has done as well as they would have hoped in their first season in the WSHL but both will be looking to get going down the stretch and head into the playoffs hot.
Southern Oregon began the second half of the season last weekend with a new head coach and seven new faces in their lineup and played well against Valencia, despite losing two of three.
Eligah Bordak led the offensive charge for them and along with brothers Avik and Joe, will be relied on heavily to pick up the offensive slack that is now gone with Tim Talty, Robby Gervino and others heading to New Mexico.
Goaltender Sean Buckley has been strong all year in net, especially against Seattle, who he has beat five out of the six times he’s faced.
The Spartans seemed to play a much more disciplined style under Joe Grimaldi in their three games against Valencia and were in each game until the very end because of it.
They are also very tough to beat at home, having only lost four games this season and one all of last season.
Seattle struggled throughout the opening half of the season and finished the Showcase with a record of 0-3-1, something that probably sat with head coach Mike Murphy through the break.
They have the talent, with forward Petr Novak and defenseman Connor Haney leading the way but they have to give goaltender Bryce Fink some help.
The Totems will have to really do poorly to miss the playoffs but with series left against Ogden and Idaho down the stretch, they know they’ll have to steal a couple as well.
It’s Southern Oregon and Seattle, what more could you want?
Long Beach Bombers (13-15-1, 5th in Pacific Division) @ San Diego Gulls (16-12-1, 3rd in Pacific Division)
Single game played in Escondido, California
The Long Beach Bombers started 2013 on the right foot, as they took two of three from the Fresno Monsters and will look to keep the mojo flowing as they head to San Diego for a single game against the rival Gulls.
The Bombers first-ever series victory over Fresno has gone a long way in putting a rough first half behind them and if they can play the way they did in that series, they’ll be right back into the playoff hunt.
Forwards Nikita Kortokov and Mans Nystrand have been forces all season, as has defenseman Stephen White.
In net, they are solid with Jiri Sykora and backup Brian Parsons, who stole a game from the Monsters with over 50 saves.
Chris White has his team fired up and ready to go and they’ll look to take down their rivals to keep the push going.
San Diego went 2-1-1 at the Showcase but head coach Craig Carlyle was not happy with the way his team finished, losing in overtime to Phoenix in a game that they led 3-0 at one point.
Their top line has carried the team all season and has the perfect blend of size, speed and skill, with Zen Hamil providing the grit, Justin Lazalde the blazing speed and Tyler Giovannetti setting both of them up with his great passing skills.
What made them lethal at some points in the first half was their depth, which they got when Eric Baldwin, Drew DePalma, Niko Loesch and others started to heat up.
They’ve only gotten better with the recent return of veteran forward Aaron Peterson, who can take over a game by himself, while also taking some pressure off the top line.
Interestingly enough, it seems that Reed Kinsey has taken over the top spot in goal from Brian Walters but regardless of who is in net, both have proven they can steal a game for the Gulls.
They’ll have their hands full with Long Beach’s offense and it should make for a shootout down south.
All of the action can be seen live at fasthockey.com so don’t miss the best time of the year, the stretch run!
Story by Brent Maranto does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Western States Hockey League