Monday, April 28, 2014

Brendan Leipsic Suspended Again; Another Example of the Give and Take of an Agitator

Brendan Leipsic was suspended by the WHL for Game one of the WHL Final against the Edmonton Oil Kings. The reason for the suspension was due to a spear to the midsection he delivered to fellow agitator Tyrell Goubourne in the closing minutes of the closing game of the series against the Kelowna Rockets. The confrontation with Goublourne was well behind the play and puts his team without his services for the third time this season. This time in a pivotal playoff game.

First, he was suspended back in September: 3 games for a hit he put on Tri Cites Taylor Vickerman. Then in December agaisnt Seattle, he flew halfway across the ice to lay waste with a head hit on rookie Keegan Kolesar. That warranted a 7 game suspension from the WHL. So, safe to say he was on the WHL's radar when they looked at the incident from last Friday.

There is no denying that Leipsic is a passionate player who plays on the edge of legality. Leipsic is an explosive player who seems to feed off a large amount of energy. This energy can help and hurt his team, but it is a price that, if asked, every Winterhawks fan would be willing to pay. Leipsic has incredible skills offensively and has stepped up his play in his own zone this year. What's improved the most this year though, has been Leipsic's play in the playoffs. In the previous two seasons Leipsic disappeared in the playoffs at times the previous two seasons. When he is engaged, he is easily one of the highest skilled players in the league. He also can get in the heads of the other team, making them commit stupid penalties. He did this in round two against Victoria Royal's Defensemen Keegan Kanzig and Jordan Fransoo, causing them to put the vaunted Hawk's powerplay on the ice and contributing to their team's demise.

However, Leipsic also has the tendency to let his emotions take over and take stupid penalties. All 3 of his suspensions are examples of this. He also does things that may not be all that illegal or injurious, but still get under the other team's and their fan's collective skin (water bottle incident anyone?).

With these actions, it should not be surprising that he gets the reactions he gets in opponents barns and across the internet. Having gone to my fair share of games in Kennewick, Seattle, Spokane and Everett, I'm pretty sure that most teams fans only knowledge of the Winterhawks is the 5'10" dynamo from Winnipeg. There is probably not an insult that I have not heard directed at Leipsic.

With this having been said though, I would guarantee that if by some weird circumstance the Nashville Predators kept Leipsic in the WHL for his 20 year old season (not going to happen) and the Winterhawks decided to trade him (even more insane), Portland would find 21 suitors across the WHL attempting to outbid each other for his services.

This is the role of the agitator across all of the sport of hockey. They come in all sorts of skill sets, but one thing is for sure, they are here to stay. The easiest definition of an agitator is a guy you hate with the sort of vitriol, you didn't know you had, right up until he gets acquired by your team and his characteristics are now helping your beloved team win games. Then you are defending the actions he took and spouting out conspiracy theories.

Matt Cooke
Every successful NHL and WHL team has examples of these players in their locker room. For all the condemning of Leipsic's actions last Friday, that Rocket's fans displayed, there should come the realization that their team contains players that do very similar things that Leipsic likes to do. Tyson Baillie's "cup check" of Dominic Turgeon in Game three is but one example. If you are out there thinking that your favorite team does not contain an agitator type, you have got to open your eyes. Tyrell Goulbourne, himself, the victim of Leipsic's illegal play, committed 16 penalty minutes in the 5 game series vs. Portland, including some "unsportmanlike conduct" penalties. In an example of agitator related hypocrisy: Eugene Melnyk the owner of the NHL's Ottawa Senators tried to get the NHL to order a forensic investigation after (at the time) Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke's ice skate sliced the achilles tendon of star Defenseman Eric Karlson. The NHL deemed it inadvertent, much to Melnyk's chagrin. Melnyk was quoted as saying that there is no place in the NHL for guys like Matt Cooke. It should be noted that Melnyk also employs agitators like Chris Neil, who have also been suspended multipe times and commit liberties consistently.

A great example of the way a team's fans can turn or embrace an agitator, took place over the weekend in Philadelphia. Carcillo was emblematic of the way the Flyers play hockey over his three seasons in Philly. He was a fan favorite for the passionate and boundary pushing way he played hockey. It also helped that he contributed at important times; most notably with an over time winner in game 3 of their 2010 playoff series against New Jersey. Carcillo now plays for the New York Rangers, who are taking on the Flyers in the first round this year. Carcillo scored a huge goal in the Ranger's pivotal game three win in Philadelphia. Carcillo then appeared to taunt the Wahcovia Center crowd, receiving a few flipped birds from the fans. This was a player that was beloved when he played for the orange and black, but now that he changed sweaters, he turned into the most hated player on the ice.

Carcillo-After his Goal
The great agitators revel in their role on the ice and even sometimes off of it. Sean Avery, while a member of the Rangers, got a rule named after him (below), but is possibly more (in)famous for his comments directed at his former girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert and her beaux: Toronto's Dion Phaneuf.

Leipsic's skills both as a scorer and as an agitator are un-questioned. In fact, his abilities in the latter, may end up getting him to the NHL, just as much as his incredible offensive skills. One thing is for sure though, he needs to learn when the proper time to instigate the other team is and when it will do nothing but hurt him and his team, as his actions last Friday have done. Learning this may take awhile, as people who compete in a passionate way have trouble turning it off, even to their own detriment. In the long run though, Leipsic's actions have made him a player that Winterhawks and WHL fans will always remember, even long after he has moved on, albeit in very different ways.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Western Conference Final: A Story of Jekyll and Hyde

Game Three goes tonight for the Western Conference Final between the Kelowna Rockets and the Portland Winterhawks, with both teams coming from behind to win a game, so far in the series. The oddest thing about the series so far, has got to be how spectacularly similar the two teams won up in the Okanagan.

First, Portland quite literally (okay figuaratively) flew out to a 3-0 lead in game one and looked like they were going to skate Kelowna right out of the barn. Then the Hawk's defense fell apart, with their top two D-men playing the catalysts. Kelowna recovered from a poor start feeding off of a Madison Bowey short handed goal to slow down the game to the type they would like to play and got 5 goals from 5 different scorers to win in comeback fashion 5-4.

Secondly, Kelowna fed off the momentum of their game one victory by scoring two power play goals in the first and then chasing Portland's Brendan Burke with 3 goals on their first 11 shots. Then, just like in Game two, the losing team started to wake up and Portland scored three times in only 2 minutes and 10 seconds, erasing a 2 goal deficit, by taking a 4-3 lead. Portland outshot Kelowna 31-18 over their last 2 periods, on their way to a 5-3 win and a series tie.

So now, heading into game three with a series that is tied up at 1, there is just not much we can actually count on for the last, at least 3 games. We have seen how well and how poorly both teams can play and the only thing that is certain, is that there are sure to be more swings, both ways, before this is over.

Before Game three is upon us though, I have some specific concerns regarding a couple key Winterhawk contributors and these two are both in need of a great game:

-Much has been made of Brendan Burke getting yanked in Game two. I'm almost 100% sure that Coach Johnston will go with him to start Game three and that him being pulled in Game two was more a sign that the team needed to wake up then piss poor Goaltending (though the Stadel and Bowey goals were not that pretty). Despite trading for Corbin Boes, Johnston has never seemed to doubt Burke. Round three of the playoffs is also not a time when you want to start doubting. I have been a firm beleiver that Burke is much more mentally strong this season then he had been the previous year. Last year, he seemed to really suffer after giving up a poor goal, whereas this year he has responded for the most part. Is his REALLY poor play against Kelowna this year a concern? Well absolutely, but I think that Burke has a little of the irrational confidence that Carruth had, which enabled him tobounce back from some horrible outings against teams that had his number. 

-It was a great sign that Petan notched his first multi-point night (3 points) since he notched 2 points agaisnt Victoria in Game two. It was also his first goal since that game as well. Though he has 14 points in 11 games now this post-season, he has not been the Nic Petan of the regular season. His points per game has dropped from 1.79 to 1.27. This actually is similar to last season as well, where it dropped from 1.69 to 1.33 in the playoffs. Overall in 61 career playoff games he has 42 points, whereas in 198 career regular season games he has 269 points. His point production is a little concerning to me, as Portland's other top scorers have not suffered the same fate this season.

Consider that Oliver Bjorkstrand (1.58 to 2.0), Brendan Leipsic (1.52 to 1.91), Derrick Pouliot (1.21 to 1.82) and Taylor Leier's (1.27 to 1.45) have all gone up; Bjorkstrand and Pouliot considerably so.

The only caveat to the argument that Petan has had a disappointing playoff so far, besides the fact that it's not close to over is that he plays Center and has had to pick up his responsibilities doing other things on the ice (AKA the Jonathan Toews defense from alst year).

There defientely is some volition to this argument as Chase De Leo's points per game (1.13 to 1.0) has dropped as well and both have been great at back-checking for a defense that has definitelt needed help a lot of the time.

This having been said, stars need to raise their games, especially when they are needed and Petan was one of the Hawk's MVPs this season for a reason. Having a breakout game would quiet any of the concerns that his dropping point prodcution, not to mention losing three straight draws at the end of Game one to Ryan Olsen have started to escalate.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Kelowna and Portland: Built in Very Different Ways

When looking at the lineups for the two Western Conference finalists this season, you can see why they ended with the best records in the WHL. Without under-selling the Edmonton Oil Kings, this certainly looks like a match-up similar to the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers from this past seasons NFC Championship. I say this because this was the match-up we were expecting at the beginning of the season and now, even though, it's as expected it is easily the most exciting of this year's playoff.

Between the two teams, of the 21 players for Portland and 19 for Kelowna that have played a playoff game this year: 16 players have been drafted in the NHL and 7 have been listed in the top 141 in the final Central Scouting North American skaters for thsi coming draft. This talent was amassed by the two teams in very different ways:

First Round Bantam Picks:
  • Defenseman Jesse Lees (9th) in 2010.
  • Center Rourke Chartier (15th) in 2011.
  • Center Nick Merkley (9th) in 2012.
  • Defenseman Derrick Pouliot (1st) in 2009.
  • Center Nic Petan (16th) in 2010.
This is where you get a lot of the high end talent in the WHL. Portland not having their first round picks through 2017 will really hurt them in getting guys like Petan, Pouliot and Ty Rattie. But even before they lost them, Coach Mike Johnston showed a confidence in his recruiting staff by sending a first round pick to Seattle for Marcel Noebels. Jesse Lees has attempted to follow Myles Bell's shoes in not only copying him by moving from Defense to Forward in his injury absence, but by taking his spot on the line with Baillie and Kirkland. Chartier and Merkley are also solid already and could be elite players in the league in a couple years. It should also be noted that Kelowna along with Chilliwack/Victoria, Swift Current and Prince Albert are the only teams to have their first round picks from 2010, 11 and 12 to play games for them this season.
Second Round Bantam Picks:

  • Right Wing Colton Heffley (39th) in 2009.
  • Defenseman Madison Bowey (23rd) in 2010.
  • Right Wing Austin Glover (37th) in 2011.
  • Defenseman Joe Gatenby (34th) in 2012.
  • Left Wing Taylor Leier (24th) in 2009.
  • Defenseman Keoni Texeira (26th) in 2012. 
In researching this, I was actually surprised that Leier and Texeira were the only second rounders on the team. This really proves that Johnston is even more likely to trade away second round picks then he is first rounders. This is especially the case for the next 3 years, when they will not have one, because of the trade for Dumba. Bowey is by far the best, so far, of the group of second rounders for Kelowna. He would be a top pairing D-man for practically any other team in the WHL. Heffley plays on the line that usually sets the tone and starts the game with Olsen and Goulbourne. Gatenby and Glover are depth players that will defintely play more next season.
    Mid-Round Bantam Picks:

    • Goalie Jordon Cooke 4th Round (79th) in 2008.
    • Left Wing Tyrell Goubourne 5th Round (105th) in 2009.
    • Center Tyson Baillie 3rd Round (53rd) in 2010.
    • Center Cole Linaker 6th Round (113th) in 2010.
    • Defenseman Riley Stadel 3rd Round (51st) in 2011.
    • Left Wing Justin Kirkland 5th Round (103rd) in 2011.
    • Left Wing Brendan Leipsic 6th Round (112th) in 2009.
    • Goalie Brendan Burke 3rd Round (49th) in 2010.
    • Center Dominic Turgeon 3rd Round (64th) in 2011.
    • Right Wing Ethan Price 6th Round (130th) in 2012.
    This is where the bulk of the talent from the top seeded team from the WHL came from. Finding gold in the range between picks 45 thru 132 can be difficult for a lot of teams. For the Rocket's sake though, they have been able to count on building a lot of their depth from this area. Cooke has played in Kelowna since he was 16 and was handed the reins from Adam Brown at the beginning of last season. Baillie notched 55 points this season, Kirkland came in just behind him with 48, Goulbourne got 37, Linaker 22 and Stadel from the rearguard position had 35. Their depth was their best strength this season and these 6 players were very important to them.

    Leipsic was a steal, partially because of his size in the 6th round back in 2009 and Price could be another one in the near future, as his coming from Nebraska probably played a role in most teams staying away from him, thinking he'd go the college route.
    Late Round Bantam Picks:

    • Defenseman Damon Severson 9th Round (192nd) in 2009.
    • Defenseman Mitch Wheaton 10th Round (207th) in 2010.
    • Defenseman Josh Hanson 8th Round (156th) in 2009.
    • Left Wing Adam De Champlain 10th Round (200th) in 2009.
    • Center Chase De Leo 9th Round (192nd) in 2010.
    • Defenseman Layne Viveiros 9th Round (196th) in 2011.
      De Leo
    Kelowna hit gold with snagging Severson in the 9th round back in 2009, as he is probably their best player that is healthy for the series. He brings much the same to the table as Derrick Pouliot does, wothout being a high first round pick. Wheaton is a solid defensive defenseman with good size and he was another steal,. though not as much of one.

    Portland filling out their lineup with the likes of Hanson, De Champlain and Viveiros is nice as a lot of teams would proably find bigger roles for them, especially De Champlain. De Leo, meanwhile would be a bona fide first line center on any other team. Being from california is probably the only explanation that someone as talented as De Leo was still available in the 9th round in 2010.
    Import Draft Picks:
    • Center Kris Schmidli 2nd Round (59th) in 2013.
    • Defenseman Anton Cederholm 2nd Round (60th) in 2013.
    • Right Wing Oliver Bjorkstrand 1st Round (29th) in 2012.
    Schmidli notched 35 points for the Rockets, but down the stretch has split time as the 12th forward with Austin Glover. They will both proably have more of a role next season as 18 year olds.

    Cederholm is a bit of an unknown commodity, who has not quite found the best role for himself in the WHL yet. He has moments in which he looks to really fit the up tempo style that the Hawk's require of their defensemen and then he has moments where you do not notice him the entire game. Bjorkstrand is another in a recent line of finds overseas, after Nino Niederreiter and Sven Bartschi. He has been, at moments a transcendant talent. If there is one guy in the current group of Winterhawks, that I would not be surprised to see be an elite, MVP caliber talent at the NHL level, it would be the Danish winger. His combination of ridiculous wrist shot and release, as well as his speed and catch you off guard strength are simply a wonder.

      • Right Wing Myles Bell (9/2011) from Regina for D-man Colton Jobke and 2nd Round and 5th Round Bantam Picks in 2012.
      • Left Wing Carter Rigby (9/2011) from Prince George for 3rd Round Bantam Pick in 2012.
      • Center Ryan Olsen (5/2012) from Saskatoon with 2nd and 5th Round Bantam Picks in 2013 for Shane McColgan and Jessey Astles.
      • Left Wing Marek Tvrdon (1/2014) from Vancouver for a 2nd Round Bantam Pick in 2014.

      • Defenseman Garrett Haar (7/2013) from Medicine Hat for Conditional Bantam Pick.
      • Defenseman Mathew Dumba (12/2013) from Red Deer for Presten Kopeck and 2nd Rounders in 2014,15 and 16.
      Bell is the best player on the Rockts and a guy who had 93 points last year before falling to 77 this season. He has one of the harder slap shots in the league and has been a Winterhawks killer this season scoring 10 points in the 4 games played. He will most likely miss this round and if the Rockets lose, they will always have to wonder what might've been had their MVP played. Rigby is a good two way forward and was able to find his way out of the mediocrity he would've wallowed in if he'd stayed with P.G. Olsen is a big Center that they were able to swing when they dumped Shane McColgan and Astles. Neither of whom were abel to help Saskatoon win a Memorial Cup game. It's looking like a darn good deal now though as the Blades have nothing on their current roster to show for it. Tvrdon is a power forward that, in my opinion, does not play to the best of his abilities.

      Listed Players:
      • None.
      •  Left Wing Alex Schoenborn (1/2012) out of the Omaha Junior Lancers of the NAPHL.
      • Right Wing Keegan Iverson (3/2012) out of Breck High School in Minneapolis, MN.
      • Right Wing Paul Bittner (4/2012) out of Crookston High School in Crookston, MN.
      • Right Wing Tyson Predinchuk (12/2013) out of the Melville Millionaires in the SJHL.
      2/3rds of the Hawk's 3rd line, along with a reserve forward were signed undrafted by the Hawks and this is where they will have to make their bones in the future. Schoenborn, Iverson and Bittner will be asked to play big roles on the team in the next two seasons and they have shown themselves capable so far this season. The fact that all except Predinchuk are American, means that Jonhston and his staff have been able to convince some very talented and in Bittner's case: elite NHL prospects to pass on the college option in favor of playing in a great developmental league without leaving your country. If they can continue to do this, having only one 1st round pick and no seconds for the next season will not throw this franchise back down the deep dark hole it came from.

      Kelowna has succeeded in the last 12 seasons up in the Okanogan, winning 3 WHL Championships and one Memorial Cup, by doing things the old tried and true way, while the Winterhawks appear to be driving off the proven path into something no one has done before. And this is why, if the Hawks continue to succeed, the rest of the U.S. Division, will no doubt copy him.

      Monday, April 14, 2014

      Nine Former Winterhawks Competing in the NHL Playoffs

      The 2013-14 NHL playoffs get going on Wednesday and the Portland Winterhawks are once again heavily represented by their prestigious alumni. Some are making their first forray at the sports biggest prize, some are making perhaps a last grasp at Lord Stanley's chalice and one is going after his 3rd Stanley Cup.
      Here are the former Winterhawks, with who they are playing for in the playoffs and their 2013-14 regular season stats:

      Anaheim (playing Dallas in 1st Round):

      • (D) Luca Sbisa (30 GP, 1 Goal, 5 Assists, 6 Pts)- He battled a knee injury for most of the year and after he came back, was briefly sidelined with an upper body injury. This is not surprising for Sbisa, who battled a broken hand during his short time with the Hawks and seems just cursed with ailments.
      Dallas (playing Anaheim in 1st Round):

      • (RW) Colton Sceviour (26 GP, 8 Goals, 4 Assists, 12 Pts)- Sceviour, after 5 seasons of playing in the AHL, finally made his case to stay with the NHL's Stars, with fantastic two way play after his March 11th call up.
      Colorado (playing Minnesota in 1st Round):
      • (LW) Cody McLeod- 71 GP, 5 Goals, 8 Assists, 13 Pts)- McLeod has been the resident enforcer for the past 7 seasons and is a fan favorite, as well as, a great teammate. Cody seems like he is just a guy who enjoys every second he gets to play in the NHL. He also contributes a lot in the Denver community.
      Minnesota (playing Colorado in 1st Round):
      • (LW) Nino Niederreiter- 81 GP, 14 Goals, 22 Assists, 36 Pts)- Nino had an up and down season in Minnesota, spending time on every line from the 1st to the 4th throughout the year. It just came out recently that he will be moving to Center in the post-season, which seems like a natural move for the big bodied Swiss. It really makes me nervous though, that someone as talented as Nino, has not found a natural fit in the NHL yet, with the Islanders or Minnesota.
      St. Louis (playing Chicago in 1st Round):

      • (LW) Brenden Morrow- 71 GP, 13 Goals, 12 Assists, 25 Pts)- At the beginning of the year, this seemed like it could be Morrow's last chance at a cup. He had a bit of a career resurgence, though with his best season since 2011-12, which was much better than his poor post season with Pittsburgh last year would have led you to believe. The unfortunate thing for Morrow is that he injured his foot late in the season and was reportedly in a walking boot because of it. It seems that the Blues will need a long post-season run for Morrow to get a chance at playing.
      Chicago (playing St. Louis in 1st Round)
      • (RW) Marian Hossa- 72 GP, 30 Goals, 30 Assists, 60 Pts)- Hossa had off season shoulder surgery after helping the Blackhawks win their 2nd Stanley Cup in 4 seasons and it was unknown whether he would recover his form. He proved that he still has it though, bringing him 5 points away from 1,000 career NHL points and a guaranteed spot in the Hall of Fame. A third cup would go a long way in helping him lock that spot up.
      Columbus (playing Pittsburgh in 1st Round):

      • (C) Brandon Dubinsky- 76 GP, 16 Goals, 34 Assists, 50 Pts)- Dubinsky has made his home with the Blue Jackets, after being part of the trade for Rick Nash. He had his best season in the NHL since 2010-11 and has been one of heir best two way forwards.
      • (C) Ryan Johansen- 82 GP, 33 Goals, 30 Assists, 63 Pts)- Johansen had a break out season in Columbus and after getting benched in the playoffs in the AHL last season, this is even more impressive. We all knew he would make a great professional with his large frame and solid two way play, but the potential he has shown this year is incredible.
      Philadelphia (playing the New York Rangers in the 1st Round):

      • (D) Braydon Coburn- 82 GP, 5 Goals, 12 Assists, 17 Pts)- Coburn has been the steady, nearly mistake free Defensemen, since his 15 year old season in Portland. He has continued this now for 8 seasons with the Flyers and is one of only 4 players (Claude Giroux, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell are the others) that are still remaining from their 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final team. Coburn just doesn't get the attention he deserves, because a lot of the great things he does on the ice are overlooked.
      Regardless of how the NHL playoffs turn out, it is a great time for you to pridefully turn to your non-Winterhawks fan friends and say, "yeah you see that guy? I saw him play in Junior!"

      Monday, April 7, 2014

      Victoria Their Own Worst Enemy?

      The Victoria Royals seem to be living out the hit Lit song from 1999: "My Own Worst Enemy," in the first two games against the Winterhawks and Portland is doing all that they can to help them beat themselves.

      First, the Royals made countless mistakes in Game one: being sloppy with the puck in their own zone, then committing penalty after penalty in their parade to the penalty box.

      In particular, after Taylor Crunk notched a goal early in the second period, cutting the Portland lead to 3-1,  Victoria took 2 straight penalties: a Jack Palmer cross check and a Brandon Magee interference penalty that he took exception to. Portland then scored on the power play via a Oliver Bjorkstrand one man show. Portland was then off to the races, jumping out to a 6-1 lead and going on to blowing out Victoria 8-2.

      Towards the end of the game, Keegan Kanzing, the Royal's big shut down D-man, flipped out for some unknown reason on Paul Bittner, leading to a massive melee in front of Brendan Burke. Victoria would end the night with three 10 minute misconducts and one game misconduct and Kanzig's actions leading to the melee long with his salute to the crowd afterwards would earn him a 2 game suspension.

      Missing Kanzig would prove fatal in game 2, once they started taking another slew of dumb penalties. Brett Cote and Jordan Fransoo were given a much larger segment of penalty kill time that they were not up for. Specifically, Ben Walker and Logan Nelson hooking penalties that lead to Derrick Pouliot and Bjorkstrand power play goals swinging the game from being a one goal Royal's lead to a one goal lead for Portland, easily the most pivotal part in the game. The Hawks would go on to win 6-3, taking a 2-0 series lead up to Vancouver Island for games 3 and 4 tonight and Wednesday.

      In order for Victoria to win even one game in this series, they need to stop taking dumb penalties, especially those after the whistle or behind the play. They have given Portland 15 power plays so far, 5 of which they have converted on. This is made all the more important by Kanzig's absence for game 3 tonight Cote and Fransoo's struggle with shutting down the powerful arsenal that is the Hawk's top power play.

      If the Royals can stop beating themselves and push the Winterhawks, they can still make this the tough series that we all thought it would be. If they continue to make the stupid mistakes that they have been making, they will soon be living out another hit Lit song:

      Friday, April 4, 2014

      Second Round Playoff Preview: An In Depth Look at the Victoria Royals.

      Victoria Royals 48-20-0-1-3, 100 pts, 2nd B.C. Division, 3rd Western Conference:
      Record Setting Season:
      -The Victoria Royals, whose franchise dates back to 2006, with their first seasons as the Chilliwack Bruins, had by far their best season to date. They had never garnered more than 77 points in a season, prior to the 100 they accrued this season. This was a huge jump forward, for a franchise, that despite one season, was not terrible, just not good enough to take that next step.

      This season appears to be different for the Royals. They are loaded with depth, sporting 6 players that scored 20 goals or more and they performed well against the top teams in the league, going 5-3 vs. Kelowna and 3-1 vs. Portland for a combined 8-4 vs the top 2 teams in the WHL.

      They continued to play within themselves in doing so as well, riding an experienced blue line and stellar goal tending, to allowing the second fewest goals in the WHL (behind Edmonton). They also won the 3rd most away games (26). Theses were all things that the Victoria Royals of the previous seasons struggled with leading to early exits, every time they did manage to make the playoffs.

      This season they finally took that next step, using 2 over time wins to oust the over matched Spokane Chiefs in 4 straight, notching their first sweep and more importantly, first playoff series win in the existence of their franchise.

      All of these records are sure to have warm feelings going all around the Save on Foods Memorial Arena. When the second round starts though, they must be prepared to take on the former WHL champions and a team that has not made a habit of losing over the last 2 months in the Portland Winterhawks.

      Good news for the Royals is this record setting season was done in much the same way that they feel they can beat the Winterhawks: stellar goal tending and converting on the chances that they are able to create.
      Logan Nelson

      Scoring Depth:
      -Defense is great and all, but when the Royals were nearing the trade deadline near the top of the conference, they decided to start dealing for able bodied scorers that could help their top five of Brandon Magee, Austin Carroll, Ben Walker, Logan Nelson and Steven Hodges a quintet that has played together since the Royals moved to Victoria in 2011. Hodges and Magee actually go as far back together as 2010, when the team was still in Chilliwack.

      The Royals General Manager Cameron Hope had to know that the best way he was going to contend with teams with high powered offenses like Portland and Kelowna was to add good two way players that buy into the physical system and can pot a goal or two on the way.

      No one was a bigger addition up front then Swedish import Axel Blomqvist. Victoria traded 4th and 8th round Bantam picks to Lethbridge for the 6'6" 212 lb Right Winger. Blomqvist is a guy that has never completely learned how to play with that hulking frame, but is still difficult to play against because of his reach. Blomqvist went from a 33 point season that did not warrant him getting drafted in the 2013 NHL draft, to 56 points combined between Lethbridge and the island.
      Blomqvist Celebrating with Walker and Magee

      He really seemed to start to figure out how to score a timely goal as he ended up on a line with top scorer Magee and over age Ben Walker, giving them a solid unit that is also difficult to beat in the corners.

      Trading 3 Bantam picks and a 15 year old prospect in Noah Gregor to Moose Jaw for a 19 year old D-man in Travis Brown, may seem like a lot, but at the trade deadline, the market can stick it to teams that are desperate. Players like Brown that can provide scoring from the blue line and play both sides of special teams are rare in the WHL and he proved it with 15 points in 28 games and being a point per game player in the playoffs. Victoria knew they could not rely upon Joe Hicketts and Brett Cote to quarterback the power play, so they truly were desperate for someone like Brown.


      The Royals also added 17 year olds Mitch Skapski and Jack Palmer, in hopes that they could help take over some of the scoring that will be leaving the team after this year and a goal or two in the playoffs this season.

      Now or Never:
      -For a team like Victoria, making it's first semi-deep playoff run, it may seem like they are building towards something, better, but unfortunately a lot of their best players may be gone next season:
      • Brown is assuredly playing in the AHL, as a Chicago Blackhawks 20 year old prospect.
      • Ben Walker will be gone as he is an over-ager this season.
      • Logan Nelson will be 20 and is a Buffalo Sabres pick.
      • Steven Hodges will be 20 and is a Florida Panthers draftee.
      • Jordan Fransoo will age out as a 20 this season.
      • The Royals will have to choose between three over-agers in: Brandon Magee, Austin Carroll, Brett Cote and Patrik Polivka; all very integral to this years team.
      This means that of the top 8 scorers in the first round series for Victoria, 5 will assuredly be gone, with the strong chance that one more will or they will have to trade their starting Goalie.

      Sure they have solid pieces to build from in ('97) Tyler Soy, ('96) Joe Hicketts and ('95) Coleman Vollrath, but I think it would be fair to say that their best chance to make a WHL title run is probably now.

      -Dave Lowry himself is calling his team big under dogs. I would have to think that if they can drag out this series to 7 games, by getting fantastic goal-tending and timely goals from some of their big guns, they can win it. It's just really hard to pick a team to beat the Hawks, when they struggle so much with scoring goals. Portland should be able to take them in 5 or 6 games.

      Second Round Playoff Preview: 5 Burning Questions

      The 3rd seeded Victoria Royals take on the 2nd seeded Portland Winterhawks in the Western Conference Semi-Final, starting Friday night in Portland at the Memorial Coliseum. Victoria won the season series 3-1 vs. the Winterhawks (1-1-1-1), but the Winterhawks come in as the higher seed and having won 32 of their last 33 games. Prior to their 21 game win streak ending loss in Seattle on March 1st, Victoria was actually the last to beat the Winterhawks: 3-2 on January 4th.

      In my opinion there has got to be 5 burning questions entering this second round and they are:

       1) Which Brendan Burke will show up? Or rather: Did Brendan Burke get all of his gaffes out of the way in Game 1 against Vancouver?
      -Burke made a rather large blunder in allowing a Brett Kulak dump in shot to bank off the boards, off his skate and in, tying game 1 at 3. Since that blunder though, Burke has dazzled, making countless stops on the Giant's best snipers: Jackson Houck and Cain Franson, among others. He seems to be especially great when scrambling with the puck down at his feet. Not bad for a tall Goaltender at 6'4". One would think, once he settled down, Burke will only get better, as he makes his first run as the starting Goalie. In the last 2 and a half months he has all 5 of his shut outs for the entire 2013-14 campaign + playoffs. And this includes missing a month due to the flu bug.

      Is it a coincidence that a certain #9 NHL draft picked D-man joined the team just prior to this run? Probably not, as Mathew Dumba has helped take a lot of the defensive load off of the other blue-liners, as well as, Burke.

      It is doubtless that Burke will be needed much more in a series against an experienced team in the Victoria Royals, especially one that's speed and size is sure to create more chances than the very young Vancouver Giant's team was able to create. Hopefully, the recently turned 19 year old Goalie (hockey age: 18), will be up to the challenge.

      Leipsic celebrating with Petan and Bittner
       2) How will Brendan Leipsic do against much bigger and better defensemen?
      -Let's face it, Leipsic has dined out in the past on inexperienced defensive units, especially those that cannot use their length to poke-check and help keep his speed and stick work in check. Vancouver was that team, especially as the series wore on and they became frustrated with trying to contain Leipsic and took stupid penalties. Leipsic ended the 4 game sweep with 9 points, including 5 goals and maybe should've had at least 5 more, if not for great performances by Payton Lee.

      -Victoria started 7 defensemen in all 4 games against Spokane and figures to do the same vs. the Winterhawks. 5 of those D-men are big boys. Especially (1995 born) Keegan Kanzing who is 6'5" 242 lbs. they also have Captain Jordan Fransoo ('93) who is 6'3" 202; Travis Brown ('94) is 6'2" 193 lbs; Brett Cote ('94) is 6'0" 207 lbs and Ryan Gagnon ('96) is 6'1" 190 lbs. So not only do they have 5 large bodies to throw at the skilled, yet small Leipsic, they have much more experience than the Giants D-corps was bringing to the first round match up.

      -In the face of this argument is the fact that in only 4 games against the Royals, Leipsic has 4 points (2 goals and 2 assists). This is even more impressive when you think about the fact that the Royals only allowed 4 total goals in those 2 games, Leipsic being in on all 4 goals. So even though most other large defensive teams seem to create issues for the shift winger, Leipsic has performed well against them, albeit being a small sample size.

      -It seems that Leipsic is on a complete tear in these playoffs as he continues to move his way up the all time point list. At this point, I doubt any defense can completely shut him down, though Victoria will surely try.

       3) Whose defense will provide more offense?
      -This series is sure to be tight checking affair. If Portland's forwards struggle in establishing a solid cycle against the solid Victoria defense, they will rely upon their capable defensemen to jump into the play and create grade A scoring chances. Derrick Pouliot seemingly did this at will agains the Giants and Mathew Dumba has proven more then capable as well. The real boon lately for the Winterhawks defensive corps has been the offensive play of 16 year old Keoni Texeira. Texeira got his two assists in similar ways and in pivotal points in 2 different games. In game one, he used his incredible speed to create an odd man rush, setting up the Oliver Bjorkstrand goal to make the score 2-1. Then he made a similar play late in the 3rd period in a 5-3 hockey game, leading to Paul Bittner's lone goal of the series and putting away the Giants for the game and essentially the series.

      -If the Winterhawks can get this type of play from their young rookie and get more of the same from Pouliot, Dumba and Garrett Haar, Victoria Goalie Patrik Polivka will have to have a truly unbelievable series for the Royals to have a shot.

      -For the Royals, Travis Brown is their best hope for offense from the back end. Brown was acquired at the trade deadline and scored 15 points over his 28 games with Victoria. In 4 games in the first round vs. Spokane, he notched 4 points, including the over time winner in Game 1, setting the tone. On his game winner, he took advantage of a gap in the Chiefs defense and received a perfect feed from Brandon Magee. Chiefs Goalie Eric Williams had no chance. Brown was a 5th round pick in 2012 by the Chicago Blackhawks and you can see why he would fit well with the other Hawks. He has wheels and can create chances from the point for his team, especially on the power play. This team is far more formidable with him added then they were previously.

      The other guy who will be counted on for the Royals is draft age defenseman Joe Hicketts. He is a small speedy D-men with a great shot, who battled injuries a lot of the year. He still put up 24 points in only 36 games. His speed can certainly create problems for the Winterhawks, as witnessed last year when he scored the game winner during a regular season game vs. Portland. He did not score any points in the series vs. Spokane but is always a threat. Brett Cote had 4 points vs. Spokane all assists and can also be dangerous at times.

      -Pouliot and Dumba's talent cannot be matched, probably anywhere else in the CHL and should they play up to their potential in this series, it could mean the difference.

      4) If Polivka struggles, will the Royals go to Coleman Vollrath?
      -Among playoff teams, the Royals seem to be one of the few that has the benefit of throwing out their choice of two top Goalies. Polivka earned the starting gig for the playoffs with a 2.21 GAA and .920 Save % in the month of March. He then proved he was the right pick with a stellar series vs. Spokane, notching an even better 1.68 GAA and .938 Save % and only allowing 2 total points (both assists) from Spokane's 20 year scoring dynamos Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani.

      That being said, Coleman Vollrath got all 4 starts against the Winterhawks in the season series and posted an amazing 1.92 GAA and .949 Save % in back stopping them to 3 wins over the best offense in the WHL.

      -There is little doubt Polivka will go in game one, but Coach Dave Lowry has the confidence in his back up, knowing he has succeeded in the past vs. the offensive juggernaut that is the Winterhawks.

       5) Where will Victoria's scoring come from?
      -Brandon Magee ('94) is by far their most talented forward, as he is shifty and can create great scoring chances for himself and his line-mates. Magee lead the way in the regular season (67 points) and so far in the post season as well (7), while his line mates Ben Walker and Axel Blmoqvist (54 and 43 in regular season, 4 and 1 in the post season) have not been as consistent. The second line of Austin Carrol ('94), Steven Hodges ('94) and Logan Nelson ('93) has carried a lot of the load as well.

      -Nelson potted the over time winner in game two vs. the Chiefs and tied for the team lead with 3 goals in the series. This team, with it's top regular season scorer only notching 67 points, is sure to rely upon their defense in beating the Winterhawks. This is because not only can their top scorers not match up with the Winterhawks parade of NHL level talent, their secondary scoring will not be able to match the Hawks 3rd and 4th lines either. Not a single member of the 3rd and 4th lines for Victoria notched a goal in the 4 regular season games vs. Portland and only Tyler Soy ('97) and Logan Fisher ('95) found the net vs. Spokane.

      -If the Royals can start to get some more consistent production from their 3rd and 4th lines, the Hawks may be in for a tougher series then they were prepared for.