The regular season is beginning to wind down in the Western Hockey League. With only three weeks left in the regular season, the playoff picture is beginning to take shape.
While not all 16 seeds have been set, five clubs have already printed their tickets for the postseason. At the moment, the Everett Silvertips and Portland Winterhawks have clinched playoff births in the U.S. Division, and, to no ones surprise, the Prince Albert Raiders have clinched the East Division. The Raiders will most likely be awarded the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy for being regular season champs.
The other two teams that are guaranteed to be playing into the spring are the Vancouver Giants and the Saskatoon Blades.
Saskatoon Finally Comes Back to the Dance
The Blades, despite the talent of top prospect Kirby Dach, were battling for second in the East Division with the Moose Jaw Warriors early on in the season. With neither team anywhere near Prince Albert, both teams were well aware that there was only going to be one more spot with home-ice advantage available. The Blades, though, have really taken charge in the last couple of months. Through the first two-and-a-half months of the season, the Blades were only 16-9-3. Since December 1, they have been on an incredible run of 22-5-5, and have been 9-1-2 in the month of February. After a shootout win over the Kootenay ICE on Saturday, Saskatoon clinched their first playoff spot since 2013. Had it not been for the Rebels, the Blades could have been in the running for a division crown.
The Best Offence is a Good Defence…That Can Create Offence
The Blades have one of the deepest lineups in terms of overall production. Saskatoon has five players with 50+ points. Only Moose Jaw and Prince Albert have the same amount of depth scoring.
Speaking of Dach, the predicted first-round pick in this year’s NHL Draft is not even the top-scorer in Saskatoon, and that is a good thing. Dach certainly started the season hot, as he was a top-five scorer for the first few months of this season. However, after a seven-game pointless drought in December (10 of 11 games without a point in that stretch), Dach has taking a back seat to some of his teammates. He is still third on the team in points, with 22 goals and 39 assists, his 61 points is far better than his total from a year ago.
The two players who have really picked up the offencive slack have actually been defencemen. Dawson Davidson and Nolan Kneen have been big weapons on the back-end in the offencive zone. Kneen came over in a trade from Kamloops back in late November, and the former 3rd overall pick in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft has really settled in as a veteran playmaker. Well known for his toughness in his time with Kamloops, Kneen has become a one of the quarterbacks of the Blades’ power play. With 36 assists, the undrafted defenceman is 10th among WHL defencemen in helpers.
Another player that has seemingly been in charge of creating any Saskatoon scoring chance, Davidson has been huge for the Blades this season. Also a defenceman that went undrafted, Davidson came over to the club from Regina last season. A big piece of Saskatoon’s top power play unit, Davidson leads Saskatoon with 68 points this season, which is best among all WHL d-men. His 58 assists is tied for third in the ENTIRE league. With the impact of offencive defencemen, and finishers up front such as Max Gerlach, Gary Haden, and Ryan Hughes, the offence is going to be key for Saskatoon heading into the playoffs.
Vancouver Giants Win First Division Crown Since 2010
It has been quite the season for the Giants. This is a club that has missed the playoffs three out of the past five years, and have not won a playoff series since Vancouver made it to the Western Final in 2010. However, the Giants have flipped their fortunes, as they have a record of 41-14-4, and sit 20 points clear of the second-place Victoria Royals. With their shootout loss over the Royals this past Saturday, the Giants clinched the British Columbia Division title for the first time in almost a decade. Despite the loss, the Giants are another hot team in the WHL, as they are 10-1-1 in February.
Koch(ed) and Loaded
The Giants have not had an overload of scoring up front, but with their defence being one of the best in the league, they have not needed to rely on scoring as some other teams do. However, they do have quite the offencive weapon in Davis Koch. The White Rock, BC native was traded to Vancouver from Edmonton last season. After taking a backseat to Ty Ronning last year, Koch has become the go-to guy for the Giants this season. The Vancouver leading-scorer took a dip with 58 points last season, but has turned his game around and put up 64 points in 59 games thus far, and could be able to beat his career best of 70 points that he set with the Oil Kings during the 2016-2017 season.
Splitting the Net
Most teams that use two goaltenders are usually struggling to find success in the CHL. Yet, the Giants have thrived this year with their use of Trent Miner and David Tendeck. The veteran Tendeck has taken the majority of the games this season. He is 20-10-2 this year, with a 2.41 GAA and .911 SV%. Certainly not mind-blowing numbers, but his consistent improvement over his three seasons with the club has earned him the trust of Head Coach Michael Dyck. Tendeck has had four separate three-game win streaks this season, with four shutouts added onto, what is shaping up to be, his best season of his career.
Miner has blossomed in his first full season in the WHL. The draft-eligible goaltender is 21-4-2 this season, and has only lost one start in regulation since January 2nd. This included a six-game win streak through the month of January. His 1.94 GAA is third-best in the league behind Dustin Wolf and Ian Scott, along with a .927 SV% that is fifth in the league. Miner has certainly shown why Vancouver selected him in the first round of the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. It will be a tough call for who Coach Dyck picks for the postseason, but no matter who he goes with, he will have the confidence in whoever steps in between the pipes.
All statistics and records found on WHL.ca