With less than three weeks to go in the regular season, it’s time for teams on the Western Hockey League playoff bubble to make their final push.
The Western Conference has a two-horse race for its final spot, with the Prince George Cougars trailing the Tri-City Americans by a point entering Tuesday. Tri-City also has four games in hand, but on a six-game losing streak and with a tough slate of games ahead, the Americans’ road to the post-season is anything but easy.
The Eastern Conference has more squads on the bubble, with only six points separating sixth through ninth place. The Brandon Wheat Kings are right in the middle of that battle, holding down seventh place in the conference at 29-26-6-2.
Mathematically, the Wheat Kings still have a shot at first place in the East Division — and the No.2 seed in the first round of the playoffs that goes with it — but with the Regina Pats now 10 points clear of the Wheat Kings, Brandon have to make up some serious ground before their season-ending home-and-home with Regina to have a chance. The Swift Current Broncos, six points behind the Pats but with the easier schedule and two games remaining against Regina, are the most likely contender to make a run at the East Division leaders.
That would leave the Wheat Kings trying to maintain their hold on a spot in the top eight and a return to the post-season, preferably by holding on to their seventh seed and avoiding a first-round matchup with the Edmonton Oil Kings or Calgary Hitmen, who are fighting for first in the conference.
The Prince Albert Raiders also have their eyes on that seventh spot, with the advantage of an extra game against a sub-.500 team that could make a March 8 meeting with the Wheat Kings in Prince Albert pivotal. Meanwhile, the struggling Red Deer Rebels, with a 2-8 record in their last 10 games, are facing an uphill battle to stay in the mix despite entering Tuesday tied with the Raiders for eighth. Although they have five of their last nine at home, the Rebels have the toughest remaining schedule of any of the Eastern bubble teams, with a season-ending home-and-home against the Oil Kings plus three games against the Medicine Hat Tigers and two more with the Kootenay Ice. Barring a collapse from a team in front of them, it appears the Rebels will have to play some of their best hockey of the season to turn the race for the final eight from a formality to a photo finish.
SECOND THOUGHTS: Defenceman Jordan Thomson of Wawanesa is set to suit up for the Saskatoon Blades, at least temporarily, after balking at joining the team following a trade from the Kamloops Blazers.
Daniel Nugent-Bowman of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix tweeted Tuesday that Thomson, who has been playing in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League with the Dauphin Kings, will join the Blades this weekend to play three games. Nugent-Bowman reported that Thomson will then return to Dauphin for the MJHL playoffs.
Thomson, 17, was traded to the Blades on Jan. 9 along with forward Mitch Lipon and a first-round pick in the 2015 WHL bantam draft, in exchange for forward Matt Revel, a second-round pick in this year’s draft and a 2016 third-rounder. Thomson has a goal and an assist in 13 games with the Kings.
AROUND THE WHL: Regina LW Morgan Klimchuk is the WHL player of the week, having posted six goals and three assists in four games for the Pats, who are 8-0-0-1 in their past nine games … Ex-Brandon G Corbin Boes made 23 saves as Portland ran its winning streak to 20 games with a 2-1 shootout victory over Everett on Sunday … Kootenay C Sam Reinhart has extended his point-scoring streak to 20 games (16 goals, 28 assists), the longest in the WHL this season … Spokane RW Mitch Holmberg took the WHL scoring lead back in style on the weekend, posting back-to-back hat tricks to give him 107 points, one more than Portland C Nicolas Petan. Holmberg also leads the league with 57 goals.
A look at the remaining games for the teams competing for the East Division pennant and the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference:
35-22-3-3, 76 pts, 1st in East Division
Games left: 9
Home: 4 (Swift Current, Edmonton, Prince Albert, Brandon)
Away: 5 (S.C., Moose Jaw, Lethbridge, Kootenay, Bdn)
Opponents’ point percentage: .502
30-24-2-6, 68 pts, 6th in Eastern Conference
Games left: 10
Home: 6 (Regina, Leth., Bdn., Edm., Saskatoon, M.J.)
Away: 4 (Reg., Red Deer, Leth., M.J.)
Opponents’ point percentage: .433
29-26-6-2, 66 pts, 7th in Eastern Conference
Games left: 9
Home: 5 (Leth., Calgary, Edm., Sktn., Reg.)
Away: 4 (Sktn., S.C., P.A., Reg.)
Opponents’ point percentage: .500
29-29-2-2, 62 pts, tied for 8th in Eastern Conference
Games left: 9
Home: 5 (Ktn., M.J., Cal., Bdn., Sktn.)
Away: 4 (Everett, M.J., Reg., Sktn.)
Opponents’ point percentage: .470
29-30-1-3, 62 pts, tied for 8th in Eastern Conference
Games left: 9
Home: 5 (Kamloops, Medicine Hat, S.C., Ktn., Edm.)
Away: 4 (Ktn., M.H., M.H., Edm.)
Opponents’ point percentage: .595
Notes: Opponents’ point percentages do not include Tuesday’s games; Prince Albert’s record does not include Tuesday’s late game in Seattle.