As the WHL regular season winds down, it seems like each week there is more impactful injury news.
The Kelowna Rockets have been playing without the services of Arizona Coyotes first-rounder Nick Merkley since he suffered a lower-body injury against the Spokane Chiefs on Feb. 5. The extent of his injury wasn’t known until early last week when the team announced his season was done due to a torn ACL.
That will certainly be a blow to the defending WHL champs who are also playing without starting goaltender Jackson Whistle. After a 90-point season last year, Merkley had 48 points through 43 games this season.
Kelowna is in a dogfight to keep the top spot in the Western Conference with the Victoria Royals who have jumped ahead of the Rockets by one point in the standings. The good news for Kelowna is that they come into this week with two games in hand on the Royals and a roster that still has some quality offensive players. Guys like Tyson Baillie, Dillon Dube and Rourke Chartier will have to step up to help propel Kelowna forward.
Victoria catching Kelowna further points out the parity in the WHL this season. After three or four years where there were two dominant teams — most notably the Portland Winterhawks and Edmonton Oil Kings who met in the finals three straight seasons — this year the league feels wide open.
Each conference boasts three or four teams that have a real shot at making a run and winning the title, which could make for a much more entertaining post-season than we’ve seen over the past few years.
Jeff Marek hosts Sportsnet’s weekly CHL podcast, a one-stop shop for news, analysis, opinion and interviews covering the WHL, OHL and QMJHL.
Hunt finally stopped…sort of
Dryden Hunt’s run of four hat tricks in five games was stopped last Friday during Moose Jaw’s 4-3 overtime win at Prince Albert. Hunt was held to an assist in the game — normally not newsworthy, unless you just ripped off 13 goals in five games.
He also dropped to second in league scoring for a night after an incredible two-goal and four-assist game by Regina’s Adam Brooks on Friday. That pushed him ahead of Hunt by a point but the Moose Jaw star got back on top thanks to a goal on Saturday and then, astonishingly, another hat trick on Sunday against Swift Current.
That gives Hunt 49 tallies on the season and 18 for the month of February. So if you’re keeping score, that’s five hat tricks in eight games for the B.C. native. Looking at the WHL record book there is no entry for most hat tricks in a month, or in the shortest game span so it’s hard to say how historic this stretch is. Former Brandon Wheat King Ray Ferraro has the record for most hat tricks in a single season with 15 in 1983-84. Hunt has six on the year now so Ferraro’s record seems safe with only 11 games left.
Obviously, Hunt is the player of the month. Will he be the player of the year?
Cooperalls make a comeback
The WHL has been celebrating its 50th anniversary all season with a number of events in each city. The Kamloops Blazers are taking a night to celebrate a unique WHL fashion statement from the past. For one night, the Blazers are bringing back Cooperalls.
Cooper Canada made the full-length pants in the 1970s and WHL teams donned them throughout the 1980s. Kamloops will be wearing CCM Propac pants to recognize the fashion statement during their game on March 4 against Kelowna.
Depending on how you felt about the look — also donned by the Philadelphia Flyers briefly in the ‘80s — the game on the fourth will either be a warm nostalgic look to the past or a horrible reminder of bad ‘80s fashion.
Throwback game in Swift Current
Friday’s game between the visiting Saskatoon Blades and the Swift Current Broncos wasn’t an official 50th anniversary event, but the 12-6 Saskatoon victory felt like a throwback. The WHL went through a wide open, high scoring era throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, and a game with 18 goals felt like we had gone back in time.
The fame featured 14 different players lighting the lamp and six power-play goals. The Blades jumped out to a 10-1 lead after two periods before the Broncos fought back to score five of their own in the third period. Saskatoon’s Ryan Graham set the tone when he scored his first of two only 16 seconds into the first period. The two teams also combined for 80 shots on goal.
If only they were wearing Cooperalls.
U.S. Division gets even tighter
The U.S. Division is heading toward a dramatic finish. Carter Hart and the Everett Silvertips had their lead shrunk to three points before beating Seattle on Saturday and Spokane on Sunday. They are back to a seven-point lead over the second-place Thunderbirds and may be headed to a second straight title.
The rest of the division is a jumble of teams. Seattle’s hold on second place is a measly two points over the Portland Winterhawks. Spokane is only one point back of Portland, and the Tri City Americans’ second-half surge has them five points behind Spokane but only four points behind Kamloops for the last wild card slot in the West.
Every team in the U.S. is over .500 and if Tri City can sneak in, all five teams will make the post-season.
Player of the week
Adam Brooks, C, Regina Pats
Brooks trails Hunt by two points in the scoring race and actually spent Friday night and Saturday ahead of the Moose Jaw forward. He picked up a hat trick of his own on Wednesday against Prince Albert and followed that up with a six-point night on Friday against Kootenay. That gave him five goals and eight assists on the week, and he has 97 points on the season.