EAST MEETS WEST IN CHAMPIONSHIP SHOWDOWN, CONSOLATION SEMIFINALS UNDERWAY
BOSTON, MA—The WHL Championship series is afoot and four surviving teams in the consolation bracket continue to battle for draft position and a cool, crisp c-note. As ten owners can now attest, the world of head-to-head playoffs is riddled with pitfalls. Among them, blood-boiling cold spells, sudden injuries and illnesses, and inexplicable production from chumps on the other team. Most of the match-ups were competitive heading into this past weekend's consolation quarterfinals, but two teams in particular really stole the show: Ty Ladd's Canadiens de Montreal and Joe Dahms' Altoona Angry Beavers.
C'est Magnifique: Canadiens goalies played out of their minds last week, racking up a staggering 349 saves--easily tops among all playoff teams and nearly 200 more stops than any other consolation club. Breaking down those 349 snags, pad stacks and waffle board stops, Semyon Varlamov chipped in a respectable 105, while Finnish netminder Karri Ramo, widely considered an afterthought in a mid-season trade, contributed a league-high 133 saves last week. All in all, Canadiens goalies stopped over 93% of shots faced throughout the quarterfinals. Considering such a dominant performance in the crease, it's easy to overlook a noteworthy offensive performance from Tomas Tatar, who scored twice as many fantasy points as any of his fellow Canadien skaters last week, with the lone exception of deadline acquisition Craig Smith, who notched a respectable 9.2 fantasy points in four games. Montreal now takes on the West Palm Beach Rangers in the consolation semifinals.
Beaver Fever: After a tumultuous season regular season for Altoona, Dahmsie's Beavers have been a model of consistency in the month of March. Altoona posted between 122-129 points in each of the last four weeks, and their 154 shots on goal in the quarterfinals were second second only to a team that is now playing for the title. It might not sound surprising to point out that Jeff Skinner (15) and Brent Seabrook (11) played significant roles in reaching such a lofty total, but how about Ryan Garbutt and Dmitry Kulikov stepping up with a combined 25 shots last week? Before March began, the Beavers hadn't cracked 100 shots on goal in a week since mid December. And then--fully consumed by Beaver Fever, Altoona easily cleared 100 in all four weeks of March, including 140+ in each of the first three. However his season ends, Joe Dahms has the heart of a warrior.
Pirates Stun Yukon: Timely offensive outbursts from Jordan Eberle and Ryan McDonaugh helped first-year GM Bill Fyler and the Porter Pirates upset Lokomotiv Yukon by less than two points. Prior to this humbling defeat, Darryl Scharr had led his Yukon pack to 1st place finishes in 2012 and 2013. In other consolation action, Ryan Callahan and the Mount Vernon Blades were unable to keep their Round 1 mojo alive against Henrik Lundqvist and Bob Guarascio's West Palm Beach Rangers. With 10 teams now eliminated (and using Most Improved standing since January 1st as a tiebreaker for teams that were knocked out simultaneously), draft order is starting to take shape for Tayutic (5th), Lokomotiv (6th), Brooklyn (7th), Mount Vernon (8th), New Jersey (9th), Moscow (10th), Wolfsburg (11th), Beantown (12th), Saginaw (13th), and the Beernuts (14th). The top four and bottom four picks are still being determined on the ice, and of the four remaining consolation teams, only Altoona, Porter, and Montreal still possess their first rounders.
Battle for Bronze: Following their respective semifinal losses to California and Sparta, the Stuttgart Scorpions and Portland Pints are locking horns for third place. Continued heroics from Gustav Nyquist (11 goals in 9 games) and late-round splashes from depth skaters Matt Martin and Alexei Emelin weren't enough to help Stuttgart reach the summit of Mt. Kwijibo. Josh Deitell's crew, who upset heavily favored Sainaw in the quarterfinals, carried an impressive lead into last Thursday's games, but would eventually run out of rocks for his sling. Meanwhile, Colin Smith and the Portland Pints fought tooth and nail against Sparta Praha in the second consecutive playoff meeting between the two commissioners. Between games on last Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, Portland managed to recoup 17 points, but ultimately fell just short, also losing by 17 points sans H.I. advantage. The 3rd place goalie match-up pitting Kari Lehtonen and Sergei Bobrovsky against Jonathan Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury figures to be far more competitive than the goalie duel in the Final. Other key players to keep an eye on in this series include Nathan MacKinnon for Stuttgart, who will see increased ice time down the stretch in real life with Matt Duchene on the shelf, and Mikael Backlund for the Pints, who has more shots on goal over than past 15 days than all other Portland skaters not named Crosby.
And now for the Main Event! Stamkos vs. Price, Subban vs. Byfuglien, Landeskog and E-Kane vs. Hartnell and Ladd. All signs are pointing to these next two weeks being an absolutely brutal affair. Brutal, in the sense that potential exists for a prolonged Creed-Balboa slugfest, or, just as conceivable, one team could explode out of the gate and never relent. Oh yes, pucks will be snared, bones shattered, twine tickled (eww), maybe we'll see a streaker or two. Whatever happens, it should help tide you over under the Stanley Cup playoffs kick off.
Clear Edge in Cali Crease: The average WHL team has accrued roughly 365 points from goalies this season. California entered the Championship Final with 539, or 173 points above the league average. Sparta, meanwhile, woke up on Monday with just 267 points from its tenders, or, 98 points below league average. Conclusions will differ, but any unbiased conversation about the "best goalie in the world today" is going to involve California workhorse, Carey Price. His peripheral numbers don't sparkle as much as those belonging to Saginaw's Tuukka Rask, for example, but consider this: Price's real life team has scored nearly 40 fewer goals than Boston has for Rask, and Carey has just two less wins. The Kwijibos boast a truly elite goaltender--one that leads all WHL goalies in points over the last two weeks, plus another guy named Jaroslav Halak, as if Goliath needed lifts in his shoes. At the other end of the sheet, Cory Schnieder simultaneously remains the future of Spartan goaltending, yet stuck in the shadow of Hall of Fame shoe-in, Martin Brodeur. The reality is that Prague hasn't had a bonafide starting goalie for an entire season since Ryan Miller in 2011. Schneider and Craig Anderson have been solid at times this year, vanilla at others, and a fortuitous late-season boost from Thomas Griess likely won't be enough to keep up with the Joneses.
Meat and Potatoes: So, California has the definitive advantage in net, while the Spartans carry an edge on offense after pumping out a league-high 18 goals and 173 shots on goal in the quarterfinals. Still, this is the magical land of playoffs where randomness abounds and the margin between an outpouring of offense and a porous defense is razor thin. Like countless cup contenders before them, where these two powerhouse teams exhibit similar qualities is in the trenches. When it comes to throwing hits, blocking shots, winning face-offs and generating offense from the blue line, California and Sparta are cut from the same cloth. Praha technically has doled out more hits and blocks this year, but the difference thus far in the postseason has been marginal. Both teams throw their weight around and aren't afraid to make the sacrifice play, giving further reason to believe that this series will be an all-out war of attrition.