BEANTOWN BOUNCED, KWIJIBOS EYEING REPEAT, SEMIFINALS/CONSOL QUARTERFINALS UNDERWAY
BOSTON, MA—After a wild and tense opening round, the 2015 WHL semifinals and consolation quarterfinals are off and running. Last week saw the #1 seed suffer a first-round upset for the second time in the WHL's three playoff seasons. The inaugural WHL playoff bracket debuted in 2012 and then resumed in 2014 following a hiatus brought about by the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign. While this is just the first pair of back-to-back playoffs in league history, several rivalries are already alive and well.
Make it two straight years that the Beantown Ball Busters have met, and lost, to Sparta Praha in the quarterfinals. After last season's defeat as the lower seed, Nathan Asdourian's crew built themselves the largest home ice advantage in WHL history (22.9 points), but still fell short of their goal after mustering just two goals in 51 skater games. Beantown remains very much in the mix for the total points prize, although, second-seeded Portland has been steadily chipping away at the Ball Busters once insurmountable lead over the last month and change.
Portland and Sparta's semifinal showdown marks the third consecutive postseason meeting between the two commissioners. The benevolent dictators previously duked it out in the 2012 quarterfinals, and again in the 2014 semis. Both match ups were decided by less than 20 points, so it stands to reason that we're in for another war of attrition.
Rich Abbondante's Tayutic Team Rasta bowed out to Portland last week despite racking up the most assists among all playoff teams. Sixth-seeded Stuttgart actually outscored Altoona by two fantasy points, but lost out due to the Beaver's home ice advantage. A curious series of events unfolded last week involving Brian Elliott and the Northern CHEEFS. Two nights after Elliott posted a 25-save shutout, GM Kyle Hamel rolled the dice by benching Elliott in favor of Petr Mrazek. Elliott allowed just one goal in a solid 6.5 point start to Mrazek's 0.5. Two nights later during a pivotal Saturday night slate, Elliott returned to the Northern lineup, only to surrender four goals on 12 shots.
Two of the WHL's Original Six clubs--the Saginaw Spirit and Brooklyn Cyclones--met in the first round of the consolation playoffs. Saginaw was able to sneak through with 10 points to spare, but will need to elevate their game against a well-rested Boston Beernuts team. The Wolfsburg Vipers, meanwhile, now take aim at knocking off the Porter Pirates after dispatching the Mount Vernon Blades last week. This is the third lackluster finish in a row for Chet Merola and the Blades after placing 3rd and 5th, respectively, in 2011 and 2012. After a week's reprieve to heal some bumps and bruises, Porter, Boston, Montreal, West Palm, NJ, and Moscow have rejoined the consolation fray.
The defending champion California Kwijibos are looking to become the third team in league history to win back-to-back titles. Lokomotiv Yukon (now the Northern CHEEFS) most recently accomplished that feat in 2012 and 2013. Sparta Praha--vying for its fourth league championship in eight years--also repeated in 2010 and 2011. The Pints and Altoona Angry Beavers are in the hunt for their first championship victories.
Game on, and good luck!