10/04/2013 9:36 AM -
It's already October, as we cruise into the third week of Western States Hockey League action and five more teams get the chance to start their season on a high-note, including the first-year Colorado Jr. Eagles. Once again, 14 teams compete in seven weekend series, with all of the action available on www.FastHockey.com
Below is a preview of each weekend series/game:
El Paso Rhinos (0-0-0, T-4th in Midwest Division) @ Dallas Snipers (3-2-0, 1st in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Plano, Texas
The El Paso Rhinos are back in the Midwest Division again and open up by making the long trek into Dallas to face the Snipers, who currently sit atop the division.
Under first-year head coach Aaron Davis, the Snipers have shown a lot more offensive upside than they have in previous seasons, as they swept the Wichita Jr. Thunder with ease in week one and lost both games to the Texas Brahmas last weekend, despite doing pretty well for themselves.
Davis has put together an offensive group with a good mixture of veterans like Shane Bonds, Aaron Krominga and Justin Becton and has surrounded them with skilled imports, like Alex Lehnbom and Emil Melin and they haven't had much problem putting the puck in the net.
Defensively, they have shown some holes, struggling against an aggressive Brahmas team last weekend and giving up far too many shots on goal but that group also has a handful of veterans and should be able to figure things out and help-out their three new goaltenders.
If they can keep things going, the Snipers look like they will be a contender in the division all season but they will have to be on top of their game this weekend on home ice, as the Rhinos play a similar style to that of the Brahmas.
One of the top junior hockey franchises in the United States, the El Paso Rhinos have been downright dominant since entering the league in 2006.
Cory Herman continually puts together highly skilled, yet very physical teams that can put you through the glass and dangle between your feet, providing a rare mixture that has led to a lot of success.
Even though they jump back into the Midwest Division this season and have to contend with the likes of the Dallas Ice Jets, the Rhinos are still considered the top dog in the division, which they won back in 2011.
The Rhinos return a solid group of forwards, led by Chad Cesarz and David Nelson and even picked-up newcomer Dakota Beaulieu from the New Mexico Renegades, who can do a little bit of everything.
The backend is even more stacked with veterans, led by Chris Wilhite, Brandon Edson, Jack Strusz and Nick Wright.
They'll feature three new goaltenders but Herman wasn't happy with any of the six netminders he went through last season, so it shouldn't be much of a problem.
The Rhinos will try to come out early and dictate play, controlling the game the way they want to play it through their size and speed and the Snipers will have to be careful to not step over the line in return and get into penalty trouble, as El Paso continually has one of the best power plays in the league, as well.
For the first time in team history, it looks like the Snipers have enough skill to hang with the El Paso's of the league, it's just a matter of putting a full 60 minutes together and I think Davis will have his boys ready to do that, in what should be a great "measuring stick" weekend of hockey.
Texas Brahmas (2-0-0, T-2nd in Midwest Division) @ Salt Lake City Moose (3-1-0, T-2nd in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in West Valley City, Utah
Coming off of their impressive two-game sweep over the Dallas Snipers, the Texas Brahmas head for cooler weather, as they travel to Utah for three with the Salt Lake City Moose
The Brahmas have been talked up a lot this off-season, especially with the talent they have coming in from the NAHL team that plays out of the same arena, and they did not disappoint against their nearby rival in week one.
The Brahmas tallied over 90 shots and notched 15 goals over the two wins at home over the Snipers and it wasn't just one or two stars carrying the load but instead, a number of players chipping in, both new and old.
They still have that same style they've always displayed under head coach Jeremy Law, as they like to lay the body and do it often but they've now combined that physicality with a bit more skill, much like the El Paso Rhinos, and looked very good in their opening weekend.
10 different players scored at least a goal over the two wins, led by newcomer Michael Brown's three and they also got production from veteran defenseman Dalton Foster, a guy that's not known for his offense, who put up five points in the two games.
They have a solid group of captains and a coach that stresses discipline, so I don't expect it but for the first time in a while, they'll likely be "favorites" going into weekend series and they're not used to that, so it will be interesting to see if they have a slip-up here or there.
The Salt Lake City Moose are coming off an impressive weekend sweep of their own, in which they outscored the New Mexico Renegades by a combined 32-0.
Once a pushover, behind some hard work and recruiting, Jeff Carr has turned the Moose into a tough team to play against, running four lines all game and playing an aggressive style that they now can utilize, thanks to some newfound depth.
The Moose aren't going to dazzle anyone with skill but they also don't mind playing the body and have a group that works very hard to get the job done, having tasted defeat far too many times last season.
Forward Cole Corson was the Hockey Wolf #1 Star of the Week, after putting up 10 points over the three Moose victories and currently leads the league with 13 points through four games played.
Other guys like Jurijs Moiseicenko, Brett Meyer and Martin Tolkner have provided that aforementioned depth, which makes it so the Moose can now throw a number of different looks at the opposition throughout a game.
On the backend, veteran Alex Pomerville already has a league-high nine assists, while David Barnes, usually noted for his hard-nosed style, has seven points already.
In net, veteran Talon Miller and newcomers Ryan Gasparovic and Eliah Knecht have looked comfortable, not having to face as many shots as Moose goaltenders are used to. Somewhere Alex Burdekin is asking, "why couldn't they have made it this easy on me?"
The Moose know they're in for a tough one this weekend but if they can continue to make the smart plays, win races to loose pucks, and crash the net, they'll have a chance against a very good hockey team.
Fresno Monsters (3-0-0, 1st in Pacific Division) @ Lake Tahoe Blue (2-4-0, T-2nd in Pacific Division)
Three-game series in South Lake Tahoe, California
It took just one weekend for the Fresno Monsters to re-gain their usual spot atop the Pacific Division but the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season, the Lake Tahoe Blue (formerly the Bay Area Seals), will be looking to change that this weekend.
In a re-match of the Pacific Division Championship from last season, a series that needed overtime in a decisive third game to resolve it, the Fresno Monsters are fittingly the first team to make the trip up north and help christen South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena against the host Blue.
As they usually do, the Monsters got off to a hot start last weekend, sweeping a new-look Long Beach Bombers squad on the road.
All three contests were close but the Monsters showed an ability to score timely goals and turn the tide at the right moments, en route to the three victories, which are even bigger in-division.
Forward Mike Nolan earned the Hockey Wolf Third Star of the Week for his play in the series, picking up four goals and three assists to lead the Monsters, while veteran Austin Browning added six points, including a huge short-handed marker to put the game away on Sunday.
With a group of veterans consisting of Gunnar Dircks, Michael Freeman, Dan Fitzgerald and Mark Shroyer, the Monsters were solid in front of a pair of new goaltenders and made it relatively easy on them in the three wins.
I don't think they're going to be as dominant as they once were but this Fresno team is built to last, as they are a hardworking group and don't rely quite as much on skill to win games. Bryce Dale has always done a good job of preparing his team for big games and should have them ready to go this weekend in a series that will be fun to watch.
The Lake Tahoe Blue haven't gotten off to the start they would have liked but in their defense, their schedule has been tough. Skating short-benched, the Blue began the season by playing their first six on the road, three in Ontario against the physical Avalanche and three against the skilled Dallas Ice Jets. Now they return home to take on a Monsters team that wants revenge and follow that up by welcoming in the San Diego Gulls and Long Beach Bombers.
With all the talk about the top forwards they brought in over the summer, veteran Nick Anderson has been their most lethal so far and don't get me wrong, Miguel Caron and Sebastian Forslund have been good.
The powerful winger has collected a team-high 11 points while playing in all situations and has also rounded out a physical edge to his game.
Their leading scorer from last season, Josh Mikes, has recently returned to the team and should provide a big boost and if Martin Vachal can get going, things will start to turn for them.
On the backend, Kyle Blondin and Mattia Bortolotto have been solid, despite being forced to play a ton of minutes and with Olivier Gervais out for the foreseeable future with an injury, Troy Turpin will continue to see most of the work in net.
There's no doubt the Blue are struggling but a home weekend against Fresno provides a great opportunity for a turning point early in the season and taking down a team that has quickly become their rival would be huge for them moving forward.
Idaho Jr. Steelheads (3-0-0, T-2nd in Northwest Division) @ Southern Oregon Spartans (0-0-0, 6th in Northwest Division)
Three-game series in Medford, Oregon
The Idaho Jr. Steelheads' quest for a fourth consecutive Thorne Cup Title got off to a great start last weekend when they swept the Seattle Totems and they'll look to keep it going as they take to the road for three against the Southern Oregon Spartans.
Playing their first-ever games without John Olver at the helm, Idaho looked just as good with Kyle Grabowski calling the shots, as they dominated Seattle in three big weekend victories, two of which were shutouts by goaltender Sean Healy.
They showed the depth everyone is used to seeing out of them and although the league doesn't have the resources to take the stat such, if it did, Idaho's would have been consistent with a game played between Canada and China in NHL 14.
Returning forwards Kirk Van Arkel and August Von Ungern-Sternberg, who recently committed to Brown University, would have been fine on their own but Dak Dice and Jan Blasko have returned from the NAHL to take Idaho's offense over the top.
Their defensive corps is a little more unproven, with just Anton Virtanen and Viktor Ivarsson returning but newcomers like Ian Patrician looked more than comfortable in the system and Healy seems to be just another in a long line of great Jr. Steelheads goaltenders.
It's a small sample size but if this team has a weakness, I can't seem to find it.
The Southern Oregon Spartans are going to look vastly different this season with Jeremy Bachusz now at the helm, as he's a no-nonsense guy who is looking to change the culture of an organization that has struggled with discipline.
The Michigan native has put together a roster full of players from his home state and will be preaching a hardworking style without stepping over the line.
Regardless of the names on the roster, which consists of just two returners, the Spartans will always have the benefit of playing in the Medford Madhouse, which will be jumping with Idaho in town.
I have a feeling that their new style of play will have them playing a lot more five-on-five hockey and if Bachusz' ACHA coaching record is any indication, he knows how to get the most out of his players and compete on a nightly basis.
It won't be easy, especially opening up against a juggernaut but if the Spartans can stay close and use their home ice advantage, they can pick up a couple of big wins to get going.
Boulder Bison (1-2-0, 2nd in Mountain Division) vs. Colorado Jr. Eagles (0-0-0, T-3rd in Mountain Division)
Home-and-home series played Friday in Superior and Saturday in Fort Collins, Colorado
The Colorado Jr. Eagles are set to make their WSHL debut and appropriately, they do so with a home-and-home series against the nearby, soon-to-be rival Boulder Bison.
Both teams have already gotten off to a tough start this season and I'm not even talking about on the ice, as the floods that have ravaged the state have taken their toll on both teams. They're slowly but surely getting things in order however and a weekend series against one another will be huge to get things going in the right direction
The Jr. Eagles call Fort Collins home, which has a longstanding rivalry with the city of Boulder, where the Bison just so happen to play, separated by just 45 miles, they should have no problem conjuring up some bad blood.
The Jr. Eagles are coached by former Colorado Eagles (ECHL) forward Steve Haddon, who has done an impressive job of putting together a team made up of a number of local kids and a good mix of junior hockey veterans.
It's never an easy road for a first year franchise but in talking with Haddon, I got the sense that he is really excited to get going and build the Jr. Eagles into a program where local players can go when their youth careers conclude and continue to play the game they love.
Win or lose, the Jr. Eagles are chomping at the bit to get going and Haddon knows a good opening weekend, especially against Boulder, will go a long way to getting off to a good start, which he believes is pivotal in the Mountain Division.
The Boulder Bison opened up at home last weekend and were only able to manage two out of a possible six points from the Phoenix Knights.
With a roster full of new faces, the Bison let a big period in each of the first two games down them, as the Knights won 6-2 and 4-2 to open the series.
Bouncing back nicely however, DePuydt had his team ready on Sunday, as they got out to an early lead and never let it go, winning 4-2 and salvaging a game from the series.
I didn't get a chance to talk to him after the series but I'm sure DePuydt feels that his team needs to help out their goaltender a little better, as veteran Colin Champine was hung out to dry a couple of times. They figured things out on Sunday and Brandon Yinger stepped up to stop 36 of 38 in the win.
Up front, Chris Lupinksi had a solid opening weekend and looks like he can be a solid point producer for the Bison and veteran Seth Ensor was his usual hard-hitting self but also displayed a little more offensive upside.
There are a lot of young forwards on the roster and I imagine they'll start chipping in more as the season goes along, as there is plenty of talent to go around.
The Bison's speed is what creates problems and they need to use it to dictate play and show a first-year team how it's done. If they can start limiting shots and up the tempo, they'll make life tough on their newest rival this weekend.
Home-and-home series played Friday in Valencia and Saturday in Lakewood, California
The Long Beach Bombers will be looking to rebound after a rough weekend against the Fresno Monsters, as they play one of their usual home-and-home series with the rival Valencia Flyers.
Despite having an influx of talent on the roster this season, the Bombers' journey back to the post-season didn't get off to a great start last weekend, as the Fresno Monsters took all three games from them in their own building.
Although they gave up more shots than head coach Chris White would have liked to see, the Bombers just didn't get many good bounces, as they were able to stay close in each game but weren't on the right end of momentum changing plays and goals.
They took a 3-2 lead into the third period of the opener, before allowing two goals and losing 4-3, took a lead just 1:24 into game two but allowed Fresno to roar back with four straight goals en route to a 5-2 loss and finished it out on Sunday by losing 5-3, allowing a short-handed marker that put them down by two, just when it looked as though they were going to tie the game on the power
It was just one of those weekends you just have to put behind you and that's what the Bombers will look to do against a team they've played well against historically.
Filip Martinec and Tomas Nemeth, two-thirds of the Bombers top line, notched seven and six points, respectively, last weekend and should be near the top in team scoring all season but they'll need some help if they want to move up in the Pacific Division and the Bombers will also need to make things easier on goaltender Daniel Cepila.
The Valencia Flyers are starting fresh yet again; with first-year head coach Josh Berge coming in to take the reins after Jocelyn Langlois departed after leading the team to the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
The Flyers will look infinitely different this season, as Berge has made his mark by going young but with plenty of talent to go around.
Only two players return to the team, including forward Austin Ehrlich, who returns for his third season and should be one of the top offensive players in the entire league, while defenseman Sam Taferner is the lone returning blue liner.
Berge, who coached previously in the USHL, has used his contacts to bring in a number of players with pervious junior experience but it will be interesting to see what kind of team they have when they take the ice on Friday night.
Divisional points are always at a premium but even more so for the Flyers, who play one of the hardest non-division schedules I've seen, which includes trips to El Paso and Idaho and home series with the Texas Brahmas and Missoula Maulers. They'll be looking to get off to a good start and beat-up on their oldest rival.
Home-and-home series played Friday in Escondido and Saturday in Ontario, California
In the other home-and-home series taking place this weekend in sunny Southern California, the Ontario Avalanche and San Diego Gulls are set to do battle.
The Avs' got off to a solid start two weekends ago when they welcomed in the Lake Tahoe Blue, as their veteran heavy lineup looked solid, yet unspectacular, in taking two of three games in the series.
Unspectacular isn't necessarily a negative term when it comes to Chris Shaw's team, as they aren't going to amaze people with their skill but work very hard and allow him to roll all four lines, as they wear opponents down over time.
They have scoring options on all four lines, are solid defensively and their goaltending will come around, after a shaky showing two weeks ago.
The Avalanche team looked a bit tougher than they were last season and even a tad hungrier, as they now know what it takes to make the playoffs, after their late season surge fell short last season.
A good start is usually more important and already sitting at 2-1-0, they would love to make it 4-1-0, with all of their wins coming over divisional opponents.
Look for guys like Antoine Maillard and Brett Norman to take a few more chances at the offensive end, as their defense has settled in and looked solid in front of goaltender Chris Skeates, who mans the pipes with Mitchell Privett out with an injury.
The Gulls, now in their third season under Craig Carlyle, always look eerily similar. They are made up of speed, grit and a ton of heart and although they aren't usually as skilled as the Idaho's of the league, they compete with everyone they play against.
They'll be a little green this season but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as Carlyle has put together a group he believes will work harder than anyone and fight for a playoff spot.
His group of forwards will feature plenty of new faces but the returners he does have coming back are solid, led by Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma, each of whom will look to work off of huge second halves last season.
Luke Cage and Will Parker lead a defensive corps that should be pretty mobile and 6'7" Swede Felix Kronwall won't look out of place, despite his size.
With Reed Kinsey and Brian Walters gone, their biggest question mark is in net, where the unproven Colin Mann seems to be the guy.
The Gulls will certainly experience some growing pains but Carlyle is very good at molding his players, taking them from depth guys to the go-to. If they can buy into the systems and play his style, they'll be tough to beat yet again, young or not
The Avalanche and Gulls were the bottom two teams in the league in terms of penalty minutes last season, so expect a lot of five-on-five hockey.