By Nick Patterson Herald writer
The WHL’s final playoff spot is going down to one game, winner takes all.
And the circumstances that led to it are generating questions.
For the first time since 2009 the league has a one-game playoff for a conference’s final playoff berth as the Prince Albert Raiders and Red Deer Rebels face off tonight with everything on the line.
Prince Albert and Red Deer finished tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 75 points, thus creating the need of the playoff game to determine the eighth playoff seed. Red Deer holds the tiebreaker and thus is hosting tonight’s game. It’s the league’s first one-game playoff since Edmonton topped Prince Albert 2-1 in 2009 to earn the Eastern Conference’s last playoff spot.
But it was the machinations by the Edmonton Oil Kings that raised a few eyebrows.
Brandon, Prince Albert and Red Deer went into the final weekend of the regular season neck-and-neck for the conference’s last two playoff spots. Brandon swept a home-and-home against Regina to clinch the seventh seed. Prince Albert then came from behind to be Saskatoon on Saturday to take a two-point lead over Red Deer, meaning the Rebels had to win a road game at Edmonton on Sunday to force the playoff.
That normally would have been a tough task for the Rebels, as Edmonton is the Eastern Conference’s top seed. However, with first place wrapped up the previous night, the Oil Kings sat four of their top players — defenseman Griffin Reinhart and forwards Henrik Samuelsson, Curtis Lazar and Edgars Kulda — and kept No. 1 goaltender Tristan Jarry on the bench. The Rebels proceeded to walk all over the Oil Kings, outshooting Edmonton 32-12 in the first two periods en route to a 5-0 thrashing. This was in front of an Edmonton fan appreciation crowd of 13,912, the team’s largest of the season.
However, the Oil Kings may have had ulterior motives. Edmonton will play the winner of tonight’s game in the first round. Now the winner will not only have had to expend itself an additional time, it will have less time to prepare for the Oil Kings. Edmonton also gave itself a chance of having a considerably shorter commute should the Oil Kings face Red Deer (a 90-minute drive away) instead of Prince Albert (a six-hour drive).
But Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal defended his roster decisions.
“I didn’t sit anybody,” Laxdal told the Edmonton Sun. “We’ve got some guys with nagging injuries they have battled through, we’ve got some guys with sickness.
“We’re not going to push these guys to the limit and force them to play injured. We had to make sure that guys are rested, and we’ve got some guys with some injuries, and it’s been a long haul the last three weeks … so at the end of the day we did what’s right for our hockey club.”
Just don’t expect the Raiders to be on board.
Around the WHL
The WHL has established a trust fund for Kootenay forward Tim Bozon, who remains in the intensive care unit at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Bozon has been hospitalized since being diagnosed with Neisseria Meningitis, and he remains in critical but stable condition. Donations can be sent to the Tips Bozon Trust c/o Western Hockey League, 2424 University Drive NW, Calgary, AB, T2N 3Y9. … Spokane overage forward Mitch Holmberg finished as the league leader in both points (118) and goals (62). The 62 goals were a new franchise single-season record, and his 147 career goals are also a franchise record. … Prince Albert’s Collin Valcourt was named the WHL Player of the Week. The 20-year-old forward had five goals and six assists as the Raiders went 2-2.
Points — Mitch Holmberg (Spokane) 118; goals — Holmberg 62; assists — Nicolas Petan (Portland) 78; penalty minutes — Ryan Rehill (Kamloops) 182; wins — Tristan Jarry (Edmonton) 44; goals against average — Jarry 2.24; save percentage — Coleman Vollrath (Victoria) .928.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.