Only four of the CHL’s 60 teams surpassed the century mark in points this season. Two of them reside in the same division: Swift Current and Moose Jaw. As for the other two, both lead their respective leagues, with Blainville-Boisbriand emerging as the No. 1 seed in the QMJHL and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds topping the OHL after an historic pace.
Of the 24 CHL playoff series to get underway beginning Thursday, here’s a few that should grab your attention.
1. Regina vs Swift Current: These two teams met in the second round of the 2017 playoffs, and the Broncos gave the Pats all they could handle in a physical series, with the Pats eventually prevailing in Game 7. That series took its toll and ultimately might have spelled the beginning of the end for the Pats as they ran out of gas against Seattle.
These two teams ended the 2017-18 regular season with a home and home, with each team earning a 3-2 overtime decision with a grand total of 189 penalty minutes across both tilts. The Pats are anxious to prove they’re a worthy Memorial Cup host, while the Broncos went all in acquiring several players throughout the season to increase their depth. It’s a shame we will lose one of these teams in Round 1.
2. Gatineau vs Victoriaville: The Olympiques traded last year’s MVP Vitalii Abramov to the Tigres in November, then went on to pick up points in 14 of their next 15 games. It took a little while for the Tigres to come together after Abramov’s acquisition, the exit of Pascal Laberge and the addition of goalie Etienne Montpetit in separate deals. But since Feb. 2, Victoriaville has won 17 of 19 games and enter the playoffs as the CHL’s hottest team.
This series will be chippy as the Olympiques play a hard and in-your-face style and they know what aggravates Abramov. Meantime, Louis Robitaille’s Tigres have emerged as a dark horse. Anaheim prospect Maxime Comtois has risen to rock-star status after winning gold at the WJC in January. He was kept off the score sheet just twice in 25 games after the world juniors and had multi-point efforts in 17 of the 23 games in which he produced.
3. London vs Owen Sound: The Knights recognized early that they were not the class of the Western Conference and dealt away several high-end players to acquire assets and get younger. London still found a way to challenge for home ice, though just fell short. Meanwhile the Attack, after making a run to the Western Conference final a year ago, are poised to make another deep run and are finally able to ice the full lineup that eluded them all season.
The interest in this series lies in two high-end draft eligible defencemen. In a rarity, the Knights leading scorer is blueliner and surefire first-rounder Evan Bouchard, who put up 87 points in the regular season. Sean Durzi returned to the Attack lineup before the end of the season and had 49 points in 40 games. Had he been healthy all year, he would have challenged Bouchard for the league lead. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that both teams are fast: see Alex Formenton and Liam Foudy for London, and Nick Suzuki and Aidan Dudas for Owen Sound.
4. Prince Albert vs Moose Jaw: The Raiders have been engaged in playoff hockey for the past month, at one point reeling off nine-straight wins to overcome an eight-point deficit and capture the final playoff spot in the Eastern conference. The season series between these two was owned early by the Warriors who took the first four meetings, but Prince Albert won six of a possible eight points in the final four games.
Erase the last two games of the season against already-eliminated Saskatoon, and you could argue the Raiders go into the post-season as the hottest team in the WHL. Moose Jaw has been atop the WHL standings for most of the season and there will be some pressure as the Warriors mortgaged a good piece of the future to add Kale Clague at the deadline.
5. Charlottetown vs Quebec: There aren’t many sexy first-round match-ups in the QMJHL as a result of a 1-vs-16 format, but this series does have intrigue, as both teams used excellent first halves to build up currency towards ensuring playoff berths. On Dec. 1, the Remparts were tied for the league lead with 38 points, while the Islanders were sitting in the final home ice playoff spot, trailing the league leaders by just just seven points.
Both teams finished the year strong with Quebec earning points in nine of its final 10 games, and the Islanders picking up points in seven of their final 10. The goalie match-up between Samuel Antoine (27-20, 2.67, .918) and Matthew Welsh (31-22, 2.76, .907) is as tight as any series across the CHL. Finally, the two teams met just twice this season, with a split between them. One meeting required overtime, while the other required a shootout to determine the winner.
6. Tri-City vs Kelowna: The Rockets have an aura around them like few CHL teams do, where opponents fight the franchise’s past successes as much as the current team’s strength. Tri-City is seemingly never out of the fight and is one of the most underrated franchises across the CHL. This series is fascinating in that both teams are healthy heading into the Thursday night opener, which is a luxury they haven’t been afforded most of the season. Both teams also have question marks in goal. This is a must-watch series for all of the NHL talent on display, too, as there are 10 NHL prospects and three first-round picks combined.
7. Mississauga vs Barrie: This isn’t a typical 2-vs-7 series as the Steelheads won four of the six regular season meetings between the two clubs and outscored the Colts 27-21. The two teams are evenly matched in special teams, with a slight edge to Mississauga on the power play. On paper, the Steelheads strike fear with the likes of first-rounders Michael McLeod and Owen Tippett along with the top goal-scoring defenceman in the league in the past 20 years in Nicolas Hague.
The Colts boast one of the best trios in all the CHL with league-leading scorer Aaron Luchuk, projected top-three pick Andrei Svechnikov and Minnesota Wild prospect and sniper Dmitri Sokolov. What makes this series even more interesting is the fact the the Colts’ best player, Svechnikov, is suspended for the first four games of the series, as is Mississauga’s Mathieu Foget. Foget is a top-liner and one of the most fruitful acquisitions from the trade deadline. In any event, this should be a high-scoring and entertaining affair.