Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

From the Dub: March Madness

College basketball isn't the only sport where things get crazy in March. This month also marks the final push to the playoffs in the Western Hockey League, where the regular season ended with a bang last night. In a tight race with the Portland Winterhawks for the U.S. Division title, the Everett Silvertips emerged victorious. Perennial favorite the Kelowna Rockets are the B.C. Division Champions. The Moose Jaw Warrirors are the East Division Champions and the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Medicine Hat Tigers are the Central Division Champions. It all sets the stage for an epic post-season, which begins March 22 with a Western Conference match-up between the Rockets and the Tri-City Americans. 

Tip of the hat: They may be the opponent to my hometown Portland Winterhawks, but the Everett Silvertips deserved the U.S. Division title, fair and square. They finished the season with 245 goals, a new single season franchise record. They also had eight goals or more in a game, five times. Florida Panthers prospect Patrick Bajkov's 100 points ledt he Silvertips this season. He is the first Silvertips player to reach 100 points in franchise history and he also scored two hat tricks this season. 2018 draft-eligible forward Conor Dewar led the Silvertips this season with 38 goals, the youngest player in the team's history to reach that milestone. Seven Silvertips players had 20 or more goals this season: Connor Dewar, Matt Fonteyne (35), Garret Pilon (34), Patrick Bajkov (33), Riley Sutter (25), Bryce Kindopp (24) and Sean Richards (20). At the helm this season was Head Coach Dennis Williams, who let the team to 47 wins in the regular season, the most by a first-year coach in Silvertips history. 

Rocket power: The Kelowna Rockets closed out the regular season with an 8-1 win over the Vancouver Giants. Calgary Flames prospect Dillon Dube scored his 100th career WHL goal in the win. On the other end of the spectrum, forward Dallon Wilton, playing in his second career WHL game, had two hits, two shots and 11 minutes of ice time. They finished at third place in the Western Conference, wtih a record of 43-22-5-2 and 93 points. On Thursday, they will face off against the Tri-City Americans, home to Detroit Red Wings top prospect Michael Rasmussen and Carolina Hurricanes first rounder Jake Bean. 

Consistently inconsistent: This has been the story of the Portland Winterhawks' season. After just missing the U.S. Division title, they finished second in the Division and the Western Conference. On Friday, Winnipeg Jets prospect Skyler McKenzie notched his 100th career WHL goal. But the night belonged to Las Vegas Golden Knights prospect Cody Glass, who had a career night with a hat trick, five points and his 100th point of the season in an 8-3 win over the Seattle Thunderbirds. Cody played in his 200th career game on Saturday, but unfortunately the Winterhawks fell to the Seattle Thunderbirds in a 5-1 loss on the road.  They capped off the weekend with a 5-4 shootout loss to the Spokane Chiefs. The final game of the season was also a playoff preview: the Hawks will face off against the Chiefs this weekend in the first round of the playoffs. 

Battle ready: East Division Champions the Moose Jaw Warriors ended the season with a record of 52-15-2-3 and 109 points, but their season ended with a shootout loss. Jayden Halbegewachs has been ridiculous all season, so it's no surprise that he ended the season with 70 goals, 59 assists and 129 points. It all earned him the WHL's scoring title. 20-year-old Halbegewachs is the first Warrior to lead the league in scoring since Troy Brouwer did it 2005-2006 with 102 points. The Warriors also earned the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy, awarded each year to the team with the best regular season record.

Animal instincts: Central Division Champions the Medicine Hat Tigers ended the season with a 3-2 loss to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. The Tigers finished the season with a record of 36-28-8-0 and 109 points. They will face off against the Brandon Wheat Kings this Friday. Speaking of the Wheaties, former Winterhawk overager Evan Weinger won the Kings' team award for Unsung Hero. Earlier this month, Evan signed a contract with the AHL's San Jose Barracudas. He was a fan favorite in Portland, but if he'd stayed here the story would be very different. 

That was fast: It's also that time of year when hirings and firings make the news, primarily on teams that didn't make the playoffs. The first to go this year is Saskatoon Blades head coach Dean Brockman, who was relieved of duties effective immediately on March 18. In a statement, GM Colin Priestner summed it up: "We have been in a playoff position two years in a row coming down the stretch and just haven't been able to take that next step, which ultiamtely led us to this decision." The Blades aren't the only ones who are done for the season. Also missing playoffs are the Kootenay Ice, Calgary Hitmen, Edmonton Oil Kings, Kamloops Blazers and Prince George Cougars. 

The big picture: The Everett Silvertips and the Kelowa Rockets are the star attractions in the Western Conference and I also like what I see in the Victoria Royals. In the Eastern Conference, the conversation has naturally turned to the Regina Pats. As the host of the 2018 Memorial Cup, they get an automatic berth in the tournament no matter what. But they are also third in the East Division and the Eastern Conference, so they could pick up a few titles along the way. Looking back on this season as a whole, I can honestly say that anything can happen in the 2018 WHL Playoffs. 

FYI: I recently joined Last Word on Hockey, where I will be covering the entire Canadian Hockey League. No pressure, but you can check out my first articles for a glimpse into all three member leagues. You'll find them under the "One Week to Go" headlines. New articles are coming this week. 

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com

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