As the WHL season continues down the second half stretch we are finally starting to see some separation in the Eastern Conference.
Just a month ago the top five teams were only separated by five points but now the Lethbridge Hurricanes have sped out to a six-point lead over division rival Red Deer and 10 points now separate the Hurricanes from fifth-place Calgary.
Is it time to start talking about Lethbridge as a favourite to hoist the Ed Chynoweth Cup this spring?
They’ve gone from just being a ‘nice’ story to being the top team in the WHL with 66 points. Head coach Brent Kisio has his team flying and they enter the week on a seven-game win streak. They have a balanced attack led by Brayden Burke and Giorgio Estephan who are two of six point-per-game scorers on the roster.
Overall they are the top scoring team in the league and with Stuart Skinner and Jayden Sittler manning the pipes they are seventh in goals allowed. Offence and defence – that has been the winning combination for the Hurricanes.
Can they sustain it?
Looking at their underlying numbers they are a solid possession team with an estimated Fenwick-close of 50.38 per cent, per prospect-stats.com. Their PDO is the highest in the league at 103.81 which might suggest that they regress a little bit and their possession numbers are lower than their two closest rivals in Red Deer and Brandon.
This suggests that they probably won’t run away with the Eastern Conference, but the Lethbridge Hurricanes are far from just a nice story. They have the players, systems and coaching to be a serious threat in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Silvertips flying high
Outside of Lethbridge, the Everett Silvertips are the hottest team in the league. They’ve only lost two overtime decisions in their last nine and a win on Monday afternoon against Saskatoon can open a seven-point lead over Seattle in the U.S. Division.
The Silvertips’ success continues to baffle. They have strong possession numbers, a league second-best 54.26 per cent estimated Fenwick-close, according to prospect-stats, but they can’t score – at least not consistently. Remi Laurencelle is having a career year for Everett with 47 points but the scoring drops off after that. As a team they are only averaging 2.83 goals per game, the worst amongst teams in a playoff position.
Everett is winning with a stingy defence and all-world goaltending by 17-year-old Carter Hart. The Silvertips know they are not the most skilled team but head coach Kevin Constantine has his guys playing a disciplined system. To beat them, you have to have patience, manage the puck well and find a way to get a puck past Hart. That’s easier said than done as Hart leads the WHL with a 1.93 goals-against average.
They still play Seattle six more times this year but so far have had their rival’s number, winning three of the first four. If the Thunderbirds are going to catch the Silvertips they’re going to have to find a way to score, something they’ve only done five times in four head-to-head games.
The Wheaties revenge
After the Red Deer Rebels stocked up at the trade deadline they went out and put a 10-0 hurting on the Brandon Wheat Kings. It was a shocking result against a Brandon team – one that was missing some key players at the time – that was tapped as the pre-season league favorite.
Those results looked like a shot across the bow from the Memorial Cup-bound Rebels but things have a funny way of evening out.
Friday night the two teams met again and this time the Wheat Kings were ready. Playing with a full roster, Brandon shut out Red Deer 4-0 behind four different goal scorers to exact some revenge. The Wheat Kings were in charge from the start and poured it on by flinging 47 shots at the Red Deer net.
A week after being declared the trade deadline winners the Rebels stubbed their toes over the weekend. After losing to Brandon they went on to drop a 2-1 decision to the 14-win Swift Current Broncos. While they made the splashy moves, the race to the top in the East is far from over.
Player of the week
Ty Ronning, Vancouver Giants: Ronning ended the week with a four-game scoring streak that saw him pot five goals while adding three assists. After an injury-riddled campaign last season, Ronning has come back strong. He’s scored 26 goals to help the Giants get back into the playoff race in the Western Conference.