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Weekend Preview

01/24/2014 10:48 AM -

 

It’s no coincidence that every year around this time, the level of play across the Western States Hockey League rises significantly, as teams really begin to gear up for the stretch run. If hard-hitting, playoff-like hockey is your thing, you’re in for a treat this weekend, as six of the nine match-ups on the docket are of the divisional variety. The other three clashes should be plenty entertaining as well, as they also hold huge playoff implications.

Below is a preview of each weekend series/game:

El Paso Rhinos (23-2-0, 1st in Midwest Division) @ Dallas Ice Jets (19-5-2, 2nd in Midwest Division)

Three-game series in Grapevine, Texas

The top two teams in the Midwest Division are set to meet for the first time this season, as the Dallas Ice Jets, just starting to hit their peak, play host to the rugged El Paso Rhinos, who didn’t drop a game until the Showcase in mid-December.

After going on to lose two of their four contests in Sin City, the Rhinos stormed out of the gate in 2014, as they went into Phoenix a couple of weeks back and swept the Mountain Division leading Knights over three tight games.

The Rhinos have been getting it done all season behind their incredible depth at every position, with a rugged yet skilled group of forwards, hardworking and versatile defensive group and three goaltenders that would all likely be starters somewhere else.

Cory Herman’s group of veteran forwards has been great, including sniper Chad Cesarz, the powerful David Nelson and all-everything Dakota Beaulieu, who came over in a trade from the New Mexico Renegades but the real reason the team has surged has been the newcomers, led by the Plesa brothers.

The trio plays together on Cory Herman’s top line and has been nearly unstoppable all season, as Matthew, Peter and Nick have combined for 105 points while playing in all situations.

Another key addition was Tom Bartel, who came over from the NA3HL along with Trey Hughes, who has since moved on. Bartel makes up for a lack of size with a keen sense for the game and is always creating scoring chances when he’s on the ice.

The backend is as blue collar as they come, led by veteran Chris Wilhite, who has always been a shot-blocking machine but has really rounded out his offensive game this season, along with another veteran, Jack Strusz.

Adam Vay, the towering Hungarian, has been the go-to guy in between the pipes for Herman all season and has put up sparkling numbers but the recently acquired Olivier Gervais has played well in his four games with the team and has given the Rhinos a great one-two punch in net.

El Paso has always been a hardworking team that also has the skill to compete at a very high level but often struggles to tone it back and stay out of the box, which can be a problem against a team like Dallas.

The road trip into the Dallas metroplex is not a short one but the Rhinos ride in style and have always been solid away from home.

Unlike El Paso, who has been on fire from the start, it took the Dallas Ice Jets a little bit of time to get going in their third season in the league.

Maybe it’s because expectations were set too high after their first two seasons of terrific play but a lot of people wondered if Paul Taylor would be able to right the ship after a slower than normal start and with a young roster attempting to learn his style of play.

It may have taken them a little while to get into the swing of things, especially with a light early season schedule but the Ice Jets have now won eight straight and nine of their last ten, to soar all the way up to second in the division, behind only the aforementioned Rhinos.

Known for his deep, speedy and skilled teams, this year’s version is no different for Taylor, as his team can fly, he can throw any line over the boards and they play great systems hockey, very rarely making mistakes or running around.

Rookie forward Chris Schutz has been the team’s wire-to-wire scoring leader and has been unstoppable on some nights, showing why he’s pegged for Tier II hockey next season.

Also playing well are his linemates, rookie import Ondrej Valo and former Boulder Bison, Scott Folden, who each add something to different to the top line.

The Ice Jets recent surge has come due to a few more players starting to chip in, including Yannick Aube and Johnny Henson, two of only three veterans on the roster, as well as guys like Luke Simon and Sergey Kuznetsov.

It may have taken them a little while to learn what Taylor wants from his players and the strategies he enacts but now that they have a grasp of it, the Ice Jets are staring to take off, especially on special teams, where they’ve made a killing over the last two years.

Bryan Siersma is the lone veteran on the backend but the alternate captain has done a great job of helping younger guys like Matthew Heim and Spencer Roth find their way.

Without Michael Baldwin to turn to this season, the Ice Jets haven’t been as solid in between the pipes but Tyler Hough has really come on as of late, winning his last five outings and sporting some of the best numbers in the league.

Earlier in the season, a meeting between these two likely would have been a landslide in favor of El Paso but with the Ice Jets starting to click and playing some of their best hockey of the season, this series should be very exciting to watch, as two different styles of hockey meet in “Big D.”

Colorado Jr. Eagles (16-10-2, 3rd in Mountain Division) @ Phoenix Knights (18-8-2, T-1st in Mountain Division)

Three-game series in Chandler, Arizona

The Phoenix Knights were able to put together a remarkable first half of the season under first-year head coach Tyler Ramsey but have yet to win a game in 2014. After having last weekend off to re-group after getting swept by El Paso, they’ll play host to the Colorado Jr. Eagles, who are suddenly nipping at their heels in the Mountain Division race.

The Knights soared to the top of the division after winning 16 of their first 18 games of the season but have now won just once over their last 10 games, which has allowed other teams in the division to gain ground on them, including the Cheyenne Stampede, who have moved into a tie for first place.

The Knights had to hit a rough patch sooner or later, as they were red-hot to start the season and their schedule since early December has been tough, to say the least. Losing a few gams at the midway point of the season is really not that bad a thing for them, unless the streak continues on much longer, as they’re learning they are beatable and need to bring their “A” game every night to compete in this league.

They also have had their fair share of injuries, including in goal, as Troy Anderson went down for a couple of weeks and Alex Taylor struggled in his stead, while playing more than his usual allotment of minutes.

With the skill they have on the roster, it’s only a matter of time until this team breaks out again and when it happens, expect their veterans to be lighting the way.

That list includes leading scorer Jordan Cullum, who has been one of the best players in the WSHL over his two seasons in the league.

Also playing very well this season, his third in the league, is captain Kelby Minshull, who plays a shutdown role on Ramsey’s blue line.

Other veterans like Colin Bresnehan, Robert Crisci, Nick Kujawa, Tanner Branch and Charlie Allen will have to elevate their play and pick up those around them, as frustration has begun to set in.

They’ll also have a new face in the lineup when they take the ice on Friday night, as Mitch Cobby, who was acquired from the nearby Arizona Redhawks last week, should jump right in on their top line, bringing his 66 points along with him and provide an immediate boost.

If the Knights can get back to playing their style of hockey and dictating the game, they’ll be right back in the drivers seat in the division.

Without a lot of pressure on them, the Colorado Jr. Eagles have been playing great team-oriented hockey in year one of WSHL play, as nobody expects much out of an expansion franchise but they’ve just continued to go about their business and surprise everyone.

Former CHLers Steve Haddon and Morgan Cey have done a terrific job of getting their boys ready to play, no matter who they are facing and although the team lacks any true star, they are consistently finding ways to get the job done.

The Jr. Eagles have won five of six games in 2014 and have moved all the way up to third place in the division and are looking to continue their rise.

The story for Colorado has been the offense they’ve received from the backend, as it’s been among the league’s best, led by captain Kyle Arenson and his 28 points.

Cory Richardson and Lance Pennington are both also above the 20-point mark, while Logan Libal has started to heat-up, as well.

Levi Weber has been the club’s most consistent forward threat and currently leads the team with 32 points on the season but outside of him, it seems a different forward steps up each night to help out.

The list includes Tanner Ulland, Luke Galatiuk, Jackson Wallis, Tyrel Charlton and more, as Haddon likes to roll four lines and give everyone a chance to get in on the action. When he notices a couple of players are warming up, he gives them more ice time and therefore more opportunities to score.

Tage Rustgi and Quinn Wold have been splitting time in net from the start of the season and neither has separated from the other, which isn’t a bad thing, as they’ve both been playing very steady hockey.

Some coaches don’t like having the 1A and 1B situation in net but Haddon puts whoever he feels gives his team the best chance to win on the ice.

Going into Phoenix to take on a Knights team that will be chomping at the bit to get going and get back on the winning track, the Jr. Eagles will be looking to come out hard early and further complicate things for the division leader.

Cheyenne Stampede (18-12-2, T-1st in Mountain Division) @ Arizona Redhawks (10-18-3, 5th in Mountain Division)

Three-game series in Peoria, Arizona

As the Knights have begun to sputter, the Cheyenne Stampede have only been gaining steam, beating some of the top teams in the Mountain Division and climbing from fourth place, all the way up to a tie for first. With their next nine games on the road, the Stampede rumble into the desert this weekend for three games against the Arizona Redhawks, before doing it again next weekend against the Knights.

A team that was once top-heavy in the scoring department, the Stampede have been quite the opposite in their first season under head coach Gary Gill, as everyone chips in and their statistics prove it, as nine players are already over the 20 point mark this season, including three over 40.

Captain Russell Armbruster, who I believe was one of the more effective players in the league last year, has rounded out his offensive game in year two with the team and leads Cheyenne with 49 points and 112 penalty minutes, a fantasy hockey player’s dream.

Other veterans that have elevated their play during the Stampede’s current steak of five straight wins, include third-year forward Heath Lantz, who put up 13 points in three wins over Wichita last week to earn the WSHL’s First Star of the Week and Swedish forward Jimmie Kotilainen, who has points in five straight games.

Other imports like Alex Andersson and Branko Oktavec have both been great as well, as the Stampede have really started to show their depth in recent weeks.

An inexperienced blue line, anchored by former Idaho Jr. Steelhead Jacob Eisenstat has really come along, as well, as guys like Ian Teal, Filip Oravec, Tyler Elkins and Patrik Kramarik have a nice blend of skill, size and physicality on a very versatile backend.

Goaltending was an issue early in the season but just like a few other problems, it too has improved tremendously, as Rasmus Hansson has taken the starter’s minutes and won six of his last seven starts, while Sam Mallory, now in more of a backup role, has won five of six.

Momentum is a huge factor in the second half of the season and the Stampede have only been gaining confidence with big wins in recent weeks, all of it stemming from a couple of wins over the rival Boulder Bison, who they struggled against over the last two years.

Now with the monkey off their back and playing some of the best hockey we’ve seen out of them, the Stampede look like a real contender for the Mountain Division crown and have the Knights in their sights.

They can’t get ahead of themselves this weekend however, as the Redhawks have a great offense and will be more than ready for the Stampede’s physical style.

The Arizona Redhawks are currently on the outside looking in on the playoff picture but with their next nine games at home, all against teams ahead of them in the division, they have a golden opportunity to start their move up.

They are coming off of a tough weekend series out in California, where they lost the first two games of a three game set to the Ontario Avalanche in overtime, before getting shelled 13-2 in the finale on Sunday.

That series is a microcosm of the way the season has gone for Arizona, as on some nights, they have the ability to beat teams like Phoenix and Boulder but on others, they come out flat and lose games to New Mexico.

Rob Powell is always able to put together a solid forward group and this season has been no different, as at one point, before trading away Mitch Cobby, they had three of the top five scorers in the league.

With Cobby gone, Oscar Hagborg Olsson and Mattias Marten looked just fine last weekend, with David Hornak, who came over in the deal from the Knights, jumping right in with them to create a line full of imports.

Although the top line has carried them to a few victories this season, the Redhawks are at their best when they find secondary scoring, through guys like Anton Melin, Chance Taylor and others. Powell knows that is his team is to make it to the post-season, that other guys must start stepping up to put the puck in the net, especially when teams key in on his top guys.

When the Redhawks are able to pull it all together and find that secondary scoring, they’re a very hard team to slow, as their top line is still lethal.

Defensively they’ve been hampered by some injuries but have gotten stronger as of late, especially with the re-acquisition of Travis Cornwell, who was a leader on the backend for the team last season.

In net, Colton Pankiw hasn’t had his best season but has been left out to dry far too often. He’s still more than capable of stealing a game, as is backup David Deadman, who came over from the Knights earlier in the season.

Playing against a very aggressive team, the Redhawks need to find a way to take advantage of all of their opportunities, including on the power play, where they have been one of the league’s best over the last three years.

These are the kind of games teams take it to another level for, as wins against division rivals that are ahead of you are exactly what the doctor ordered for a team looking to move up the standings.  

Tulsa Jr. Oilers (6-23-0, 5th in Midwest Division) @ Ogden Mustangs (21-8-2, 2nd in Northwest Division)

Three-game series in Ogden, Utah

The Ogden Mustangs have looked very strong so far in 2014, as head coach Jake Laime continues to preach a high compete level to his team and it’s been showing. Playing against one of the few teams that are currently out of the playoff hunt, the Mustangs welcome in the Tulsa Jr. Oilers for three games over the weekend.

Playing their next nine games at home, the Mustangs will be looking to pad their lead in second place in the Northwest Division, as it will be tough to catch Idaho for the top spot but they’re trying to hold off the rival Salt Lake City Moose, who are on their tail.

The Mustangs are just as skilled as they were last season but the difference between the 2012-2013 team and this one, is depth, as 11 players, including three defenseman, currently have 20 points or more on the season.

They also compete a lot harder than they ever have, as Laime was determined after a letdown last season to not allow his team to rely on talent alone and they haven’t.

The Mustangs are big, they’re fast, they’re much more physical than they have been and they are playing much smarter hockey now, not just trying to dangle their way through or rely on one or two players to carry the load.

Sure, veterans like Dusty Watt, Schuyler Seyfert and Sean Haltam are up there in the scoring department yet again but newcomers like Jimmy Peplinski, Simon Theodorsson, Jon Mencer and others have combined to give the Stangs 12 forwards who can put the puck in the net and also play responsibly in their own end.

The team has been strong defensively as well, led by veteran David Clements and his cannon of a shot, while George Babos, Cam Russell and a handful of other newcomers have adapted nicely to Laime’s coaching and style of play.

The defense received a huge boost recently, as Laime went out and acquired skilled d-man Mike Kowicki from the Southern Oregon Spartans. The Michigan native, something the Mustangs already have plenty of, isn’t very big but has been excellent over his couple of seasons in Medford. He’s a great skater, sees the ice well and can quarterback a power play, something Ogden has been working on improving.

In net, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than Tyler Fallica, who has been a wall in his second season with the team, going 12-5-1 with great goals against and save percentage numbers yet again. Behind him, both Niall Quinn and Connor Webb have played well in limited duty.

It’s a very simple formula now in Ogden, as in year three, they finally have all the pieces to make a real run at the Thorne Cup. If they can come ready to play every night and not take shifts off, especially against teams like Idaho, they have the skill and the veteran leadership to beat anyone, as they showed with some great play in Las Vegas.

This series against Tulsa is one that in years past may have been a “trap” but not the way they’re playing right now and not the way Laime prepares his team.

After taking over for Zac Desjardins just about a month ago, Marty Magers has been working hard to instill a fight in the Tulsa Jr. Oilers, as their second year in the league hasn’t been full of positives.

With eight straight losses, their playoff hopes have grown even bleaker but they’re still playing hard and actually had one of their better series of the year last weekend in Colorado.

Still with a young roster, the Jr. Oilers are looking for anything positive to build upon and move forward into year three.

Their offense hasn’t been as solid as it was late last season, when a couple of key additions pushed them over the top but Devan Beck is a threat to score every time he touches the ice, while Derek Smith and Matt Winkle are starting to get going, as well.

They haven’t been great defensively, as they continue to give up a lot of shots on goal but have started to figure it out and did well for themselves in Colorado, with a veteran group led by Elliott Langford starting to gel a bit.

Eric Messer, who has been great in net for the Jr. Oilers season, was recently traded away and Tulsa is now left with Adam Salisbury, who has been solid in limited minutes behind Messer and Teke Murphy, who was recently acquired from the Dallas Ice Jets.

Going on the road is never an easy thing to do, especially for a team looking to break out of a slump but the Jr. Oilers can now relax and just play hockey, as they’re just looking for any positives to take with them down the stretch.

If they can stick around and take advantage of their opportunities, they can steal a game but they’ll have to be near flawless to do so.

Lake Tahoe Blue (17-15-2, 4th in Western Division) @ Seattle Totems (10-16-3, 5th in Northwest Division)

Three-game series in Mountlake Terrace, Washington

Two teams that have done a great job of battling, despite regularly playing with a short bench, are set to meet for three games in the great Northwest this weekend, as the Lake Tahoe Blue and Seattle Totems clash, with each fighting for their playoff lives.

The Totems return home after fighting hard but getting swept in Fresno last weekend, in a series in which they dressed only 12 skaters per game, due to injuries and other roster issues.

This isn’t an anomaly for them however, as Mike Murphy has struggled the whole season to get enough bodies on the ice and it’s a huge reason they’re outside of the playoff picture, as the players they do dress have been outstanding.

Veteran forward Frank Flight has had a breakout campaign and currently leads the team in scoring with 40 points. Assistant Coach Kris Wilson told me it’s been all about his confidence and the fact that he learned he could use his size to get to the net and he’s made it look easy, at times.

Flight has been playing on Murphy’s top line along with Swede Eric Danna, who has 25 points on the season and skilled Russian Nikolay Mamadzhanov, who is second behind Flight with 36.

Other forwards like Sergey Kuznetsov, Lucas Walsh and Piers LaFrance have all been solid but the Totems are visibly tired late in games, as they just don’t have enough depth to hang with some of the top teams for a full 60 minutes.

They’ve been steady defensively, as they have a little more help on the backend, with veteran Brett Losey leading the way with his physical style of play and newcomer Robin Bjoernstad providing some offense.

The team’s absolute strength still lies in net however, as Bryce Fink, the team’s rock over the last three seasons, has been fantastic while consistently facing over 50 shots per game.

Although he’s shown signs of wear, he continues to give his team a chance to win every time he’s in net. Backups Eli Alyakin and Cody Stein have both been solid as well in their first season in Totems green, finally giving Murphy the ability to give Fink a night off.

Just four points out of a playoff spot, don’t’ count the Totems out yet, as they are still working hard, battling to every whistle and have the skill to compete with anyone. If they can get healthy, pick up a couple more players and make a run, they can easily nab the fourth spot.

Playing at home, it has to start this weekend against a tough team and one they can finally match-up against in roster numbers.

The Lake Tahoe Blue currently find themselves in a playoff spot but with teams getting hot around them and an up-and-down season continuing, they know they must find some consistency to their game.

The Blue’s forward group has been described by other coaches in the league as one of the most skilled in the league, as their top six can rival anyone.

Veterans Martin Vachal and Nick Anderson have been studs from the outset and have been helped by high-level imports like Edgars Homjakovs, Sebastian Forslund and Branislav Kost.

The problem, just like Seattle, is depth, as the Blue simply don’t’ have any, as they too have struggled through injuries and filling up the final few roster spots.

Just like they did last year however, the Blue they have been active in the waiver wire recently, bringing in Taylor McConnell and Robert Donovan from Southern Oregon and also acquiring the rights to MJ Melanson and Sebastian Romeo, the two high-end forwards that led the Spartans into the Thorne Cup Finals last year.

Picking up four forwards can bode huge for Lake Tahoe going forward, especially with a defense that has strengthened in recent weeks, as Kyle Blondin, Mattia Bortolotto, Mark DeVaughn, Tim Ahlin and Jack Norling have been rock solid.

In net, Troy Turpin has been the steadiest of their goaltenders this season but Jakub Novotony, who they recently went out and signed, has given them a great one-two punch.

Looking to hold onto their playoff spot and with close to a full roster now, the Blue will head north and see what their new-look team can do this weekend.

Missoula Maulers (12-15-3, 4th in Northwest Division) @ Valencia Flyers (17-10-3, 3rd in Western Division)

Three-game series in Valencia, California

A sudden offensive surge has helped catapult the Missoula Maulers from the Northwest Division cellar, all the way up into a playoff position. Looking to keep the momentum going and further distance themselves from the two teams below them, the Maulers make the long trip west to Southern California for three games against the Valencia Flyers, a team that has been wearing their opposition down all season and they’re only getting stronger.

It may have taken the Maulers a while to get going but now that they’ve been able to get on a roll and get everything working, it’s no wonder they were one of the AWHL’s best over the last few years.

Head Coach Marcus Baxter has emphasized defense all season and the Maulers have been solid in that category from the start, with veteran Tyler Zandhusien leading the way and it’s only gotten better with the acquisitions of Joey Sundgren and John Andersson.

The reason they were able to win seven straight games and pick up a big win in Salt Lake City last weekend is due to their offense, which is great when it’s flipped on but struggles with consistency.

Cory Schafer has been their go-to guy from the start and leads the team with 35 points on the season, while Erich Jaeger and Anders Nord aren’t far behind him. Jordan Wheatly, another recent pick-up, has also made his presence felt in just a few games with the team.

The Maulers still aren’t going to wow you with skill or consistently score six goals per game but they are a complete team that are coached well and don’t make many mistakes or find themselves short handed too often.

Making a trip to warmer weather, they can’t get behind the eight ball early because they struggle to come from behind. If they can play with a lead and use their tight defense and three solid goaltenders, they can pick up some more points and grip the fourth spot even firmer.

One thing is for sure however, the Valencia Flyers aren’t going to make it easy on them, as Josh Berge’s team is as tenacious as they come and have only gotten better over the last few weeks.

Now up to third place in the Western Division, the Flyers have been doing it all season on depth, their skating ability and a will to win that is hard to rival.

Berge has his boys ready to play every time they touch the ice and they don’t stop moving until the final buzzer.

Third-year forward Austin Ehrlich once again leads the team in the scoring department, with 47 points in 30 games this season but the next 12 in team scoring are all newcomers, including Luc Whyte, Jared Waldman and Jason Hart, who all came up through the Flyers youth system.

Zach Paxman and Jakob Kranabetter are two more rookies that are playing much better than anyone could have expected, as they’ve both blossomed into offensive threats and are only going to get better.

Niklas Giers is a big defenseman that has already notched 21 points on the season, while Chase Thesman, Bas Assaf, Dillon Thomas and Sam Taferner round out a steady defensive corps.

Management hasn’t sat back and been content however, as they’ve built around their young team recently, bringing in Blake Aguilar and Aharon Lara, who both spent time in the NAHL this season and defenseman Travis Wilson and goaltender Luke Thompson out of the NA3HL.

Mark Becica has been solid in between the pipes since returning to the team just after the start of the season and now with Thompson joining him, Berge has two solid options moving forward.

The Flyers don’t make many mistakes, they are rarely short handed and they are a terror to deal with, as they’re always moving their feet.

Playing on home ice against a team that might be a little travel weary, expect them to come out hard and fast and look to get the jump on the Maulers.

Idaho Jr. Steelheads (30-3-0, 1st in Northwest Division) @ Salt Lake City Moose (19-10-2, 3rd in Northwest Division)

Two-game series in West Valley City, Utah

The two-games between the Salt Lake City Moose and Idaho Jr. Steelheads in Utah’s capital this weekend will be the definition of  “measuring stick” games. The most improved team in the league, the Moose have really made a name for themselves this season and should be on the rise for years to come but the Idaho Jr. Steelheads are the three-time defending champions for a reason and look all the part again.

The Moose, currently occupying the third spot in the division, have been fantastic over the last calendar year, which is just about the time that Jeff Carr took the helm.

Carr’s style of coaching requires all 18 players to play together, move their feet and swarm in all three zones to get the job done and his team has done just that this season.

Playing on an Olympic ice surface, the Moose have really predicated their game on speed this season, as they can play physical but aren’t as interested in mashing it out as they have been. They instead move the puck up ice, get it on net and fight for rebounds, as they aren’t always looking for the pretty goal.

The team is led up front by veterans Cole Corson and Pat Dwyer, who used to be the Moose’s only threats but now have a large cast around them, including rookies Adam Kresl, Brett Meyer, Tyler Keturi and others.

16 Moose skaters have already reached double digits in scoring and five of them are defenseman, showcasing exactly the way this team has been built.

Both goaltenders are also nearing double digits in wins this season, as Brad Robertson and Ryan Gasparovic have split time almost evenly and each has been sensational.

Carr’s team simply knows how to play smart hockey, as they get in hard on the forecheck, look to force turnovers and feed off any chances they’re given.

They have the advantage of the big ice surface and with points in seven of their last eight games, you can guarantee they’ll be a confident bunch looking to beat the Jr. Steelheads for the first time in team history.

Idaho has been quieter than in years past, as with El Paso’s start and the way teams like Fresno and Phoenix have been playing, they’ve been able to fly under the radar.

That doesn’t mean they’ve been anything less than spectacular however, as they currently lead the league with a record of 30-3-0 and look well on their way to a fourth straight Thorne Cup Title if they can keep it up.

First year head coach Kyle Grabowksi has stepped in seamlessly after John Olver left for a job in the ECHL and has his team looking just like they did over Olver’s four seasons at the helm.

Idaho has size, they are fast, they move in unison, they don’t make mistakes and they make you pay for any of yours. They are 18 forwards, six defenseman and two goaltenders deep and have one of the best home ice advantage in hockey.

They are going on the road this weekend and Salt Lake City has played them tough in the past but Grabowski has a handful of veteran leaders to rely on, including forwards Dak Dice and Jan Blasko, his two leading scorers on the season.

If you want to talk about depth, Idaho has 19 players in double digits in scoring, one of the few teams in the league with more than Salt Lake City.

They too have a tough defensive corps, even though they have just two veterans on the backend, as it’s rare if they give up more than 20 shots in a game.

If you’re able to get through their forwards in the neutral zone and past their stout defense, you have to then get it by Sean Healy in net, and few have been able to do it this season. The Washington native is 22-2-0, with a 1.65 goals against average and .928 save percentage. His back up, Danny Kowalski, has been great when giving him days off, as well.

Putting it simply; Idaho is the definition of a machine, as they do everything above average and have no real weaknesses.

Salt Lake City will be hungry and wanting to see how they match-up against the leagues best but they better not stop moving for a second because the Jr. Steelheads will make you pay every time.

San Diego Gulls (8-25-2, 6th in Western Division) @ Ontario Avalanche (22-8-3, 2nd in Western Division)

Single game played Friday in Ontario, California

Another team on the rise, the Ontario Avalanche have really started to put the pieces together over the last month or-so and solidify their playoff position. In just a single game on Friday night, the Avalanche welcome in the local rival San Diego Gulls, who will be looking to play spoiler, with their playoff hopes all but done.

Expectations were high when the season started for the Avs, as a roster chock full of veterans and good ones, at that, had them looking like favorites in the Western Division.

Ontario got off to a slow start however and looked liked they’d have to fight to make the post-season, until things turned around in November and the team got hot in a hurry.

The Avalanche have now earned points in 19 of their last 21 games, including a perfect record of 4-0-0 at the showcase and have risen all the way to second place in the division.

The reason for the turnaround comes from a newfound chemistry, as the Avs looked out of sorts early in the season but are now clicking on all cylinders, as passes are finding tape again, there support each other in the defensive zone and a trio of goaltenders has risen to power.

Swiss forward Antoine Maillard leads the team in points yet again but this season, he’s already reach the 50 point plateau and looks destined for much more.

Other veterans have been great too, as despite losing Joe Cangelosi to the professional ranks, guys like Brett Norman, Luke Rendino, Zechariah Roberts and Michael Thomas have been great.

Although they don’t receive a ton of offense form the backend, Ben Meadows is the shutdown leader of the defense, with fellow vets Drew Crilly, Jackson Giammona and Kevin Luenberger all playing well, too.

Daniel Cepila and Drake Koegel, both former Long Beach Bombers, have joined Chris Skeates to form a three-headed monster in net and put a slow start behind them.

The Avalanche are a lot like Idaho in the fact that they don’t make many mistakes or end up in the box often, as Chris Shaw preaches discipline.

They’re not going to beat themselves and in a tight division like the Western, that bodes huge, especially come playoff time.

Playing a home contest against a team they should be able to wear down, Ontario needs to control the game with their puck possession and not give the Gulls a chance to fly.

The San Diego Gulls got off to a slow start as well but with their most inexperienced roster in years, they haven’t been able to recover.

Having lost their last six in a row and with top players like Kalvis Ozols out with injuries, the Gulls now look to play spoiler and build toward next year.

They haven’t had a ton of trouble putting the puck in the net, as veterans Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma have been two of the best forwards in the league from the start, while rookie Michael Leone looks like a game-changer should he stick around next year but they haven’ t been great defensively and goaltending has been a bit of a carousel.

The scoring drops off considerably after the top forward line and Carlyle has tried everything, including moving one of his few veteran d-men, Will Parker, up to forward, where he’s thrived but other moves haven’t panned out as well.

The backend has also been dinged up and looking for answers as Luke Cage is one of the few shutdown guys they have on the roster and the rookies have looked well, like rookies.

In net, Brody Cavataio has been a bright spot as a rookie but still has some growing to do, while Erik Eidissen, brought over from Sweden, has only recently started to look comfortable playing in North America and the same can be said for Filip Lukac

It seems a slow start with a young team has proven to be too much to overcome but the Gulls aren’t a bad hockey team and probably wouldn’t be last in any of the other three divisions.

They played the Ice Jets very tight last weekend and always seem to get up for Ontario, so look for them to come out firing, as Carlyle begins to get a feel for who really wants to be around come fall.

Texas (15-12-2, 3rd in Midwest Division) @ Dallas Snipers (12-15-2, 4th in Midwest Division)

Single game played Saturday in Plano, Texas

If things were to stay the way they are right now, the four Texas teams will occupy the four playoff spots in the Midwest Division this season, which would make for an interesting divisional play down. With nobody getting ahead of themselves however, the Dallas Snipers play host to Texas on Saturday night, in a rivalry that has become one of the most fierce in the league in just a couple of seasons.

Texas followed up a strong showing at the Showcase with a sweep of the San Diego Gulls to get 2014 started and once were once again able to do so behind their newfound chemistry.

The NAHL team that plays out of the same building has been a great coup to get players to come to North Richland Hills but has been tough on team chemistry, as players have been moving up and down all season.

With things finally settling down over the last month or so, Texas has looked comfortable playing together and finally doing what head coach Jeremy Law thought they would be able to from the start.

Veteran leaders like Landyn Howze, Dalton Foster, Cole Rose and others have been great from the start, while newcomers like the super skilled Miguel Caron, Michael Brown and Nikita Salnikov have added a new dimension to the team.

The skill of the newcomers, combined with Texas’ old school style of hard-nosed hockey, has created an attack that’s tough to beat, as they can play physical but can also out skill their opponent.

Since trading Tim Ahlin and Jack Norling to Lake Tahoe earlier in the season, Texas hasn’t been nearly as offensive from the backend but guys like Cody Letsinger have really picked up their level of play and began to help out their goaltenders, who have been overworked at times.

Those goaltenders, veteran Oliver Eklund and newcomer Ryan Mulka have pretty much split time, with each showing flashes of brilliance, while Domenic Contrino, acquired from Ogden a few months ago, hasn’t seen much time but is a capable reserve.

Just now finding a groove, Texas needs to focus on playing hockey and not the rough stuff with the Snipers, as it’s obvious these two teams don’t like each other very much. With the two teams ahead of them in the division playing one another this weekend, a win means they’d gain ground on someone and that never hurts.

The Dallas Snipers are a hard team to figure out.

In their third season in the league and first under Aaron Davis, they came out of the gate flying while playing a softer schedule but have slowed down as the competition has ramped up.

They’re still one of the most improved teams in the league and are only going to get better but they must find some consistency to their game.

They have a terrific offense, as veteran Shane Bonds no longer has to carry the full load and has a good core around him, including skilled imports Emil Melin and Alexander Lehnbom and veterans like Aaron Krominga and Justin Becton. The recent acquisition of Konstantin Ljubobratets gives the team another true sniper to go along with Bonds, as well.

The Snipers have plenty of aggression, always play the body, are constantly swarming and are ne of the hardest working teams in the league once they get going.

Defensively they are better than ever, as they don’t give up tons of chances anymore and are much more steady, with veterans Luke Grignano and Trent Williams leading the way, both of whom have upped their offensive game while remaining the type of guys you don’t want to be near in front of the net.

Emil Eriksson and Joshua Soule were splitting time at the start of the season in net but Alex Bebriss-Fedotovs has received most of the minutes since returning to the team.

All of the pieces to the puzzle are there, the Snipers just need to execute their game plan and stay disciplined, which they’ve been working on.

If they can continue to cut back on penalties and not get out of hand, they are a very tough opponent to play against and play a style that is very conducive to playoff hockey, which they look well on their way to.