CHL Notebook: 8 games that will define the final week

Windsor-Spitfires-goalie-Michael-DiPietro.-(Adrian-Wyld/CP)

Michael DiPietro has been traded from Windsor to Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

The closest that junior hockey gets to anarchism is during the final days of the regular season.

The easy way out, when comparing the Canadian Hockey League against the billion-dollar behemoth that is the great American college sports-industrial complex, is to conclude that junior puck doesn’t have the potential for surprise, no Wichita State or Florida Gulf Coast popping up for a run through the post-season. It’s true that the playoffs usually break according to the chalk. But the prologue rewards those who get invested in a team making a late push for playoff position.

A lot of the final grades are locked in; for instance, Blainville-Boisbriand’s Alex Barre-Boulet has a 12-point lead for the QMJHL scoring title. All four OHL division races are wrapped up and all four in the WHL could be sealed as early as Wednesday. But there is a lot in play as far as who will play who next week.

Tuesday – Prince Albert at Moose Jaw (WHL)

Someone is clinching something in this likely East Division playoff preview; either the Warriors will wrap up first overall or the surging Raiders will secure a playoff berth. The Warriors, whose Jayden Halbgewachs (SJS) has taken over the national scoring lead, are getting every opponent’s best game of late, including when they were upended by Prince Albert last Friday. On the other side of the coin, Prince Albert is taking on the look of being a tough out in the playoffs.

Wednesday – Rimouski at Blainville-Boisbriand (QMJHL)

A division-leaders duel offers Blainville-Boisbriand and Drake Batherson (OTT) a chance to silence skeptics after they were waxed 7-1 by the Victoriaville Tigres last Sunday. Rimouski is the Quebec league’s stingiest team, so this should be a good simulation of what the playoffs will be like. The Oceanic and likely CHL rookie of the year Alexis Lafreniere could also clinch their division and a top-three playoff seed.

Speaking of Victoriaville, the Tigres and Vitalii Abramov (CBJ) host the Gatineau Olympiques on Wednesday night, with the distinct possibility that Abramov could face his former team in the 11-versus-6 first-round series. Perhaps Gatineau even wants that – well, how else does one explain the Olympiques losing three overtime decisions at home within the last two weeks?

Thursday/Friday – Owen Sound at Windsor; Sarnia at London (OHL)

Remember about 14 months ago, when rumours had Michael DiPietro (VAN) bound for the Owen Sound Attack at the 2016 trade deadline? Now DiPietro will have some influence over who gets home-ice advantage in a first-round series between the London Knights and Owen Sound. The Spitfires are the wild card in the deck, what with having defeated Sault Ste. Marie while losing to also-rans Erie and Sudbury in the last two weeks.

Early-season goaltending struggles put the Attack in a hole, but Olivier Lafreniere has firmed up the position. London, during a regenerating season, owns a two-point gap over Owen Sound with three games left. Friday’s game is the next-to-last for both the Sting and Knights and they can’t meet in the playoffs until the third round, so there is incentive to let the big-time players – Evan Bouchard, et al., – cut loose.

Friday – Swift Current at Regina (WHL)

By Friday, the Broncos and MasterCard Memorial Cup-host Pats should be locked in as first-round opponents. The front end of a home-and-home is a chance to plant seeds of doubt and gain an upper hand, real or imagined. The other storyline is the health of Broncos’ No. 1 centre Glenn Gawdin, who didn’t play last weekend.

Picture a lifelong Broncos fan holding a dream grudge against Regina. Small-market Swift Current has its best shot at glory in a quarter-century, but standing in its way is relatively big-city Regina, which has broken the Broncos’ hearts in the recent past.

Saturday – Acadie-Bathurst at Halifax (QMJHL)

Holy segue: another small-market team whose last title was back in the ’90s pitted against a provincial-capital powerhouse who could be a Memorial Cup host. The Maritimes Division title and a two-seed swing in the President’s Cup playoffs could be up for grabs in Halifax on Saturday afternoon.

Acadie-Bathurst, relying on money goaltending from Evan Fitzpatrick (STL), is two points ahead of the Halifax Mooseheads with three games left. The Mooseheads begin the week at home against lesser lights Moncton and Saint John, while the Titan have a home-and-away set against the highly competitive Charlottetown Islanders.

Sunday – North Bay at Ottawa; Saginaw at Windsor (OHL)

What’s better than a tortoise derby? The 6-7-8 seeds on either side of the OHL are a moving target and five of the teams all play simultaneously in the early time slot on Sunday.

For North Bay and Saginaw, any finish higher than eighth amounts to a building block toward contention in a season or two. The Battalion, who have a great boost in the second half from late birthday 18-year-old Matthew Struthers, need to wrest points from a three-game East Division road trip to hold off Mississauga and Ottawa.

Windsor, Guelph and Saginaw are all tightly bunched for the last three slots in the West.

Frost warning

Morgan Frost (PHI) has a shot at helping the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds erase one of the 2004-05 London Knights’s records. Frost comes into the Soo’s final three games with a plus/minus of +68, two shy of the +70 that Knights defenceman Danny Syvret posted 13 years ago when London rampaged through the OHL in manner much like the ’Hounds have this winter. Sault Ste. Marie finishes with a three-game homestand, so there should be a chance for Frost to pick up those final pluses.

Making a great ado about a late 20th-century counting stat might seem wrongheaded, so it might help to add in some context. In terms of the percentages, Frost, the 19-year-old centre, has posted his plus-68 on a ’Hounds team that has a goal differential of 109, once power-play goals and shootout winners are factored out of the equation. Taking nothing away from Syvret, but the standard that he set came when London was a wrecking crew with a much larger margin, a 137-goal differential, during that last season before the two-line pass was abolished and stricter standards for penalty calls were adopted.

Meanwhile, there is no wrong answer with whether Frost or his two counterparts in the OHL’s 100-point club, Barrie Colts (né Windsor Spitfires) overage centre Aaron Luchuk (OTT) and Sarnia Sting centre Jordan Kyrou (STL), deserves the Red Tilson Trophy as the league’s most outstanding player. Frost has the best-player-on-the-best-team argument, while Kyrou has the highest points per game and a world junior championship gold medal (extrinsic to the OHL, but media voters do take it into consideration) and Luchuk has helped Barrie go from last overall to first in its division. What really jumps out when comparing the three, though, is that Frost has been more prolific at 5-on-5, scoring only 20 of his 107 points on power plays, while Luchuk (34 out of 110) and Kyrou (41 of 106) have done more of their damage with the extra skater(s).

Canadian NHL Team Prospect of the Week: Jordy Stallard, G, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)

Prince Albert is practically playoff-bound thanks in considerable part to Stallard (No. 127 overall to the Winnipeg Jets in 2016) contributing five goals and 13 points during the nine-win streak the Raiders have fashioned to overtake Saskatoon for the last WHL Eastern Conference wild card. (And to think people wondered why Prince Albert added at the trade deadline.) Stallard delivered with three points last Friday when the Raiders savoured the schadenfreude of denying league-leading Moose Jaw its 50th win – if only temporarily – and had another three-spot when they avoided an emotional flatline to defeat Calgary.

In the process, Stallard got to the 200 WHL points milestone, no mean feat for someone who lost a lot of his age-19 season to a torn labrum.

New name to know: Billy Constantinou, D, Niagara IceDogs (OHL)

A keen offensive mind who is a right-handed shot and wears the number of a Pittsburgh Penguins legend describes former IceDog Josh Ho-Sang, now of the New York Islanders. Constantinou, sufficiently audacious to wear the No. 68 of Jaromir Jagr, also fits the description. It’s been a learning year for Constantinou, who is still two weeks shy of turning 17, but the Scarborough, Ont., native has exhibited some playmaking and puck control that isn’t reflected by the modest rookie-year statline of 11 points (three goals, eight assists) across 42 games. While 16-year-old defencemen can sometimes vanish in the final weeks when the points chase picks up, Constantinou has remained a constant in the IceDogs’ lineup.

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