The Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference is completely up for grabs. There are five teams that could make a claim to being the best in the East right now, which should make for an exciting second half of the season.
Currently Prince Albert is on top, although earlier last week it was the Lethbridge Hurricanes. The pre-season favourite Brandon Wheat Kings are in the fifth spot right now, but, don’t worry, they are only two points from the Raiders in first.
The Wheat Kings got Tim McGauley back from injury a week and a half ago—he has eight points in his seven games, and Brandon hasn’t been beaten in regulation in four straight. But they aren’t the only team that’s hot in the East. Calgary has won eight of its past 10 while Lethbridge has won seven. In fact all of the top five clubs have been playing well of late as nobody seems on the verge of relenting.
Five teams, separated by two points.
Even the sixth-place Moose Jaw Warriors have the top spot in sight. They struggled on their western swing but rebounded this past week for three straight wins and are only four points from first in the conference. The five teams on top are among the highest scoring in the WHL and seven of the league’s 10 top individual scorers are from the Eastern Conference.
Ultimately, the conference may be decided by which team does best at the trade deadline. With the Memorial Cup headed their way, you can bet the third place Red Deer Rebels will make a move and Kelly McCrimmon surely is working the phones in Brandon. This many teams in contention might make for some high prices for players on the block.
However it ends up shaking out, we are in for a fun and wild ride in the Eastern Conference.
Jeff Marek hosts Sportsnet’s weekly CHL podcast, a one-stop shop for news, analysis, opinion and interviews covering the WHL, OHL and QMJHL. Sam Cosentino, the CHL's top analyst/insider, joins Marek each week to discuss the latest from around the league, as do newsmakers from across the CHL. Couple that with NHLers remembering their days in junior hockey and regular updates on the latest risers and fallers for the NHL Draft, and there’s really nowhere else fans need to go.
Here’s the rest of this week’s WHL musings:
Cougars clawing their way back
There were some high expectations for the Prince George Cougars before the season began. They got off to an up and down start but have slowly, and somewhat quietly, worked their way into third place in the West and are breathing down the necks of second place Victoria.
Prince George has won seven of its past eight with only a shoot out loss keeping them from being perfect in that stretch.
The big question mark surrounding the Cougars coming into the season was whether or not they could keep the puck out of their own net. They brought in 20-year-old goalie Mack Shields to hopefully stabilize things, but he’s now gone and the guy they had all along is playing lights out.
Third-year netminder Ty Edmonds has been spectacular. He’s posted a sub-two GAA (1.98) and, amongst goalies who have made at least 15 starts, his .938 save percentage is tops in the WHL.
Prince George's big off-season acquisition was picking up Boston Bruins prospect Jesse Gabrielle from the Regina Pats. He’s been as advertised and leads the Cougars in scoring with 16 goals and 26 points.
Gabrielle also plays with an edge, which you could also say about the Cougars in general. They are far and away the league leader in penalty minutes with 511, suggesting you might be in for a rough night when facing Prince George.
Kubic a Giant among men
Without a doubt it’s been a rough start to the season for the Vancouver Giants. They had to suffer through an early injury to Tyler Benson, a near total roster change over and what's felt feels like 25 guys playing in goal.
But this past week was better and the biggest star in Vancouver has been rookie goalie Ryan Kubic. With an injury to the veteran Daniel Wapple, Kubic has been given the net and went out and won three straight. They were his first career wins and all three were shut outs.
When the Giants faced off with Everett on Saturday, the Manitoba native had gone nearly 200 minutes without allowing a goal, all for a team among the bottom of the pack in goals allowed this year.
His streak ended 9:57 into the first period in Everett when he was finally beaten by the Silvertips’ Matt Fonteyne. Kubic ended up with a 207-minute stretch of shut out hockey and gave the Giants something to be excited about. Once the streak ended, he gave up four more goals on his next 23 shots over parts of two games, but... it was a helluva run.
Vancouver is still in last place, but only six points out of the last playoff spot with two-thirds of the season to go—can they get it going?
Go east, young men
With this year’s World Junior Championship less than a month away, 10 WHL players have been invited to Toronto to take part in Canada’s evaluation camp. Moose Jaw’s Brayden Point and Victoria’s Joe Hicketts are back for their second go around. The camp roster also features former NHL first-round picks Travis Sanheim of the Calgary Hitmen, Mathew Barzal of the Seattle Thunderbirds and Nick Merkley from the Kelowna Rockets.
It all gets started Dec. 10h at the MasterCard Centre in Etobickoe, Ont.
Player of the Week
Tyler Benson, LW, Vancouver Giants
After missing the first 10 games of the season, Vancouver's captain is starting to round back into form. He potted two markers to go with six assists this week and the projected first-rounder pick is now up to 19 points in his 20 games played.
NHL Draft Watch
Brogan O’Brien, LW, Prince George Cougars
A hometown boy, O’Brien has been a nice surprise during his rookie campaign. He’s found the net nine times and has 20 points so far and is a big reason that Prince George is off to a good start to the year.