With the playoffs looming, it’s a bad time for any team to have to deal with a key injury. And over the past week, there has been some injury news that could have an impact on playoff seeding down the stretch.
In the big game of the week, the Eastern Conference leading Lethbridge Hurricanes took on the West’s best, Kelowna, in a contest that lived up to its billing. The Rockets handed Lethbridge what was their third loss in a row, 2-1, but the Hurricanes may have lost more than just the game.
In the first period, winger Giorgio Estephan crashed hard into the end boards and was in visible pain. He was helped off the ice and will be out with a lower-body injury for three to six weeks. Estephan’s 63 points was second on the team and 11th in the league. He will be missed as the Hurricane’s try to hold onto the top seed in the East.
Lethbridge ended its losing streak by beating Moose Jaw on Friday, but then followed that up with a head-scratching 2-0 shutout loss to the nine-win Kootenay Ice on Saturday. Losing three out of four has drawn Brandon to within two points of the Hurricanes, and Red Deer is only three back.
In Kelowna, goalie Jackson Whistle had been set to return, but then went back on the injured list and the club has called up rookie Brodan Salmond. In Whistle’s place, Michael Herringer made his 14th straight start on Friday night in Kelowna. It didn’t go well. The Rockets got beat 6-3 by Spokane.
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But that loss has been the exception in Herringer’s starts of late. For the most part he has been great and—with 31 saves—was the main reason Kelowna was able to beat Lethbridge earlier in the week. He rebounded from the bad game against the Chiefs and beat the Calgary Hitmen Saturday in a shootout as well. If Whistle can’t go, they will need Herringer the rest of the way and he will have to shoulder the bulk of the load in the Rocket’s net.
Kelowna’s loss on Friday to Spokane was worse than just the 6-3 score indicated. Nick Merkley went out with an injury after colliding with a Chiefs player. There is no word yet as to the extent of the injury but he was not in the lineup on Saturday when Kelowna played Calgary.
The Arizona Coyotes prospect is third in scoring for Kelowna and a key player. Certainly head coach Brad Ralph hopes he can get his winger back in the fold soon.
Wheat Kings peaking
The Brandon Wheat Kings have quietly played their way to within two points of the Eastern Conference’s top spot. It seems silly to insinuate that the pre-season favorites are quietly in contention, but Brandon has been flying under the radar. They haven’t been bad, but we all thought they would dominate from the start. While they haven’t done that, they look like a team that has found its stride.
And their timing couldn’t be better.
The Wheaties are still an offensive power and Nolan Patrick has turned in a spectacular season to lead the Wheat Kings in scoring. At the trade deadline, the general feeling was that Brandon was trying to make a splashy move for a title run. They didn’t end up doing that, but may not have needed to as they continue to play like a contender.
Perhaps the best news for Brandon is how well goalie Jordan Papirny has been playing. Since Jan. 3, he is 9-3 with a 1.78 GAA and a .934 save percentage. Couple that kind of play with their offence and the Wheat Kings still make a strong case as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Jeff Marek hosts Sportsnet’s CHL podcast, a one-stop shop for news, analysis, opinion and interviews covering the WHL, OHL and QMJHL.
Race to get in
The top of the conferences get all the attention, but there is some drama at the bottom of the standings as teams fight to make the playoffs.
In the East, the Edmonton Oil Kings have the last playoff spot by nine points, but watch out for the Swift Current Broncos. The Broncos have been hot of late—winning seven of their past 10—and have beaten some of the conference’s big hitters along the way. They were big sellers at the deadline, but players they got back, like Lane Pederson and goalie Taz Burman, have been key to their late-season resurgence.
In the West, the Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks are trying to hold off the suddenly surging Tri City Americans for the last spot. Kamloops and Portland are tied with 54 points, but the Americans, who have been getting good ‘tending from Evan Sarthou of late, are only sitting three points behind.
Player of the Week
Nolan Patrick, C, Brandon Wheat Kings
Patrick has been a big reason for Brandon’s success. In three games this past week he potted five goals to help his team to a three-game win streak. The centre from Manitoba has 24 markers on the year and his 62 points is a career high.