WHL Blog: Playoff positioning shaking out

Mathew Barzal (Marissa Baecker/Getty)

With every WHL team left with less than 20 games on the schedule, we are officially in the stretch run. Last week, we looked at some potentially impactful injuries effecting some of the contenders. This weekend, the league saw another injury that could end up having the most impact of them all. Saturday night, Red Deer goalie Rylan Toth left the second period of the Rebels 5-2 loss to the Tri City Americans.

After the game the speculation was that he suffered a high ankle sprain and could miss some significant time.

The Rebels know that they have a ticket to the MasterCard Memorial Cup as the host team, but they had visions of hoisting both WHL and Memorial Cup trophies this spring. How long Toth is out and how the Rebels respond will decide how realistic those visions are.

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At the trade deadline, the Rebels were hot to land a goaltender. They couldn’t make it happen and opted for beefing up the offence instead. Toth has been good for Red Deer with a 26-15-0-1 record and a .912 save percentage, so it seemed it wouldn’t matter. He’s been the workhorse for the Rebels who will now turn to back up Trevor Martin. The 19-year-old from Ardrossan, Alta., is in his second season with Red Deer and has appeared in 23 games. Expect that number to rise drastically.

With the regular season in the final turn, here’s how the division races are shaping up:

Eastern Conference
East Division

The Brandon Wheat Kings are on top and have a four-point advantage on Prince George. They also have the Conference lead in their sights and have been playing better hockey of late. Jordan Papirny has been solid in net and Nolan Patrick is having a spectacular season. Will he be the top WHL prospect for the 2017 NHL Draft? If the playoffs started today, Brandon would take on the Regina Pats in the first round.

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Prince Albert has its playoff spot locked in and could still make a run at Brandon‚ whom they trail by six. Moose Jaw has won three in a row and looks like a lock in the third spot, which would set up an interesting first-round series with Prince Albert. The Raiders would be the favorites in that match-up, but having to contain Brayden Point and the rest of the young Warriors has to make them a tad nervous.

Central Division

The Lethbridge Hurricanes continue to be the class of the division and have so far survived the loss of Giorgio Estephan, who continues to nurse a lower-body injury suffered a week ago. They’ve won three of four and have an eight-point lead on Red Deer in the division. Like Brandon, they are shooting for the top seed in the conference and they lead the Wheat Kings by seven points.

As mentioned, the Rebels may have an injury situation to deal with as well as the Calgary Hitmen who are only six points back. The Hitmen picked up a big win over the Rebels Friday night behind a hat trick from Carsen Twarynski. With Toth out for the Rebels, can the Hitmen move up into second place?

If the playoffs started today, Lethbridge would take on the Edmonton Oil Kings while Red Deer and Calgary would meet in an entertaining opening round series.

Western Conference
B.C. Division

For the majority of the season, the Kelowna Rockets have ruled the B.C. Division. The defending champs are still in first but have been getting a major push from Victoria. The Royals had their 11-game win streak snapped on Sunday, but have been the hottest team in the league.

That streak has them just four points behind Kelowna for the division and conference lead. The Rockets are trying to maintain their lead without the services of starting goalie Jackson Whistle and star Nick Merkley, who has been out for the past week.

The Prince George Cougars dropped two home games to the Rockets over the weekend, but have the third spot in the division pretty much sewn up. They’ve stumbled a bit of late, winning just three of their past 10, but will be a tough out in the playoffs for anyone.

If it all got going today the Rockets would play the Portland Winterhawks while Victoria would have to deal with Jesse Gabrielle and the physical Prince George Cougars.

U.S. Division

This may be the most intriguing division of them all. The Everett Silvertips have been riding Carter Hart for the top spot since the holidays and have a five-point lead over Seattle. The Thunderbirds have struggled in head-to-head match-ups with Everett going 1-5, which is the difference in the standings. Everett hosts Seattle this coming Saturday in what could be a pivotal game in the division race.

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Hart continues to put up really impressive numbers for Everett. (Marissa Baecker/Getty)

After Seattle, things get really interesting. The young Spokane Chiefs have been playing well and are within four of Seattle, just ahead of the up-and-down Winterhawks. Portland has struggled with consistency, looking great one night and dropping a head scratcher the next.

At the bottom of the division nobody wants to play the Tri City Americans right now. They beat Red Deer over the weekend and have woken from the dead. After struggling early in the season, goalie Evan Sarthou has found the form that made him a top draft prospect and is a big reason for their late resurgence. They are four points out of a playoff spot but have won six of 10 games.

Player of the Week
Mathew Barzal, C, Seattle Thunderbirds
The New York Islanders first-rounder came into the week on a season-long three-game pointless streak. He rebounded in a big way with a four-goal, 10-point week to help Seattle win three of four. His week was highlighted by his first career hat trick Tuesday in a 6-0 win over Kelowna. He followed that up with a three-assist night in a win over Portland and then set up the game-winning goal as Seattle snapped Victoria’s 11-game win streak on Sunday.

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