EVERETT — The expression “clear as mud” seems apt in describing the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference playoff situation as the teams enter the final two weeks of the regular season.
It seems clear what teams will be advancing as seven of the eight playoff spots have been clinched in the Western Conference. Portland is currently in the No. 8 spot with 74 points — a dozen in front of the Spokane Chiefs, though the Chiefs have one game in hand. With eight games remaining the Chiefs can garner a maximum of 16 standings points. So Spokane is still technically alive, but time is growing short and the Chiefs would need some help from Portland’s remaining opponents. The two teams play each other twice more, including the regular-season finale on March 19 in the Rose City.
But the Winterhawks have their eyes set on seventh-seeded Victoria and sixth-seeded Tri-City, both of which have 79 points and remain within striking distance.
As for which teams will face off in the opening round? That’s where things get muddy. The Silvertips are currently tied for the top spot with Prince George, but have three games in hand. Perhaps more important is the fact that Seattle is just one point behind those two teams and hasn’t lost at home since January. The Tips have one more game at the ShoWare Center on Friday, though the Tips also have two games in hand of the Thunderbirds. And don’t count out Kelowna, a team that has won four straight, is 8-1-1 in its last 10 games and is just four points behind Seattle and Prince George.
So things are clear and murky in the Western Conference — mostly clear in who is getting in, but mostly murky on who will play when the playoffs begin March 24.
A look at the Eastern Conference
Remember when the Regina Pats seemed invincible, flying high and on a direct course to the Memorial Cup?
The Silvertips likely won’t want to claim too much credit, but since Everett snapped Regina’s 11-game winning streak on Valentine’s Day the Pats are 5-5-1-0. With 98 points Regina remains five points in front of Medicine Hat for the Eastern Conference lead and eight points ahead of Moose Jaw for first in the East Division. The Tigers and Warriors are red-hot, having each won nine of their previous 10 games. Swift Current is the fifth team to qualify for the playoffs, but with 78 points the Broncos are out of the running for the East Division title.
The final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference? That’s a bit complicated based on how the playoffs are structured. The top three teams in each division qualify followed by two at-large wild cards, meaning five teams can come out of one division. So far the top three teams in the East Division — Regina, Moose Jaw and Swift Current — have clinched playoff spots.
But in the Central Division only Medicine Hat and Lethbridge have clinched. That means that even though the East Division’s Brandon (68 points) is technically sixth, the Wheat Kings are in the seventh position because Red Deer (63 points) is third in the Central while Calgary (60 points) is fourth. So either Red Deer or Calgary will finish third in the Central and earn that spot while Brandon will almost certainly claim the first wild card slot. That leaves Red Deer/Calgary to battle with Saskatoon (59 points) for the second wild card spot.
Rasmussen done for season
The Tri-City Americans suffered a devastating blow last week when they announced that standout forward Michael Rasmussen will miss the remainder of the season with a broken wrist. Rasmussen, a projected first-round pick in this year’s NHL draft, hadn’t played since Feb. 1 with a separate knee injury. The Americans have also been without Russian import Vladislav Lukin for the past two weeks due to a lower body injury.
Tri-City isn’t the only team dealing with injuries. The Thunderbirds have been without overage forward Scott Eansor with a lower body injury since Jan. 14. He remained week-to-week on last week’s injury report. Seattle defensemen Jarret Tyszka (last game Feb. 24) and Ethan Bear (Feb. 26) have also missed several contests due to upper body injuries, though both were day-to-day on last week’s report.
Herringer, Wong honored by league
Lethbridge forward Tyler Wong was named the WHL Player of the Week while Kelowna netminder Michael Herringer was named Goaltender to the Week, the league announced Monday.
Wong scored three goals with seven assists as the Hurricanes went 4-0-0-0 in a four-game road trip to the East Division last week.
Herringer went 3-0-0-0 with a 1.10 goals-against average and a .961 save percentage last week. He recorded 34 saves and stopped all six Everett penalty shots in a 3-2 shootout win at Xfinity Arena last Friday.
For the latest WHL news follow Jesse Geleynse on Twitter @JesseGeleynse