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5 storylines to watch as end of season nears

 

As the 2018-19 CHL regular season draws to a close, a handful of storylines will unfold in its remaining days, from determining which teams will snag the last few playoff positions, to what players will claim the top awards, and how the first round of the postseason could shape up. Here are five key scenarios to watch this weekend:

Wild finish for the wild card

In the OHL, three playoff positions remain open, counting one in the Eastern Conference and two in the West. The East spot favours the North Bay Battalion, who hold a five-point lead on the Barrie Colts. North Bay closes out the season against Hamilton, Mississauga, and Niagara, while Barrie faces Owen Sound, Niagara, and Mississauga. Meanwhile, the OHL’s Western Conference sees three teams battling it out for the final two spots, including the Sarnia Sting, Windsor Spitfires, and Erie Otters. Both the Sting and Otters have three games remaining, while the Spitfires have two, including one against Sarnia. The Spitfires hold a 3-1-0-0 edge in the season series against the Sting.

In the QMJHL, one playoff seed remains up for grabs as the Saint John Sea Dogs and Shawinigan Cataractes vie for the final spot. Both sides have three games remaining, while Shawinigan also carries a one-point lead. However, the Cataractes are also riding a 12-game losing skid, with their last victory coming against the Quebec Remparts on February 9. The club has also won just three of its past 22 games, so strong performances against Sherbrooke, Chicoutimi, and Victoriaville to close out the season may be a tall ask.

Out west, where the WHL uses a wild-card playoff format, four positions remain open, including both Eastern Conference wild cards, third place in the B.C. Division, and a West wild-card slot. The opening in the B.C. Division is a two-horse race between the Kelowna Rockets and the Kamloops Blazers, with the Rockets currently holding a two-point edge. Of the two, whichever finishes with the lower total will battle the Seattle Thunderbirds, currently with 64 points, for the final wild card in the conference. In the East, three teams are in the mix for two wild card spots, including the Medicine Hat Tigers, Red Deer Rebels, and Brandon Wheat Kings. The Tigers and Rebels both hold a four-point lead on the Wheat Kings, while a Wednesday battle between Medicine Hat and Red Deer adds to the intrigue.

Battle for the division crown

Tight races atop divisions will finally see a winner after weekend action, with two in particular drawing the most attention. In begins in the OHL, where the Niagara IceDogs (41-17-7-0) and Sudbury Wolves (41-19-3-2) are separated by just two points and are battling it out for top spot in the Central Division. Both squads have three games remaining, as Niagara will face Mississauga, Barrie, and North Bay, which may prove to be a more favourable schedule as only the Colts have locked down a playoff position. Meanwhile, the Wolves will take on Hamilton, Peterborough, and Oshawa, all of whom have punched their ticket to this year’s dance.

A division win would mark Niagara’s first time finishing atop their grouping since the 2011-12 campaign when they went 47-18-0-3, good for 97 points, and ultimately went on the OHL Finals only to fall to the London Knights. As for the Wolves, the franchise has just two division titles in its history, with its last coming in 2000-01. That year saw Sudbury post a 35-22-8-3 record for 81 points before being eliminated in the first round of the postseason.

Meanwhile, there is also an exciting division race happening in the WHL, where the Edmonton Oil Kings and Lethbridge Hurricanes are fighting it out for the Central Division crown. Both teams have two games remaining, though the Oil Kings currently carry a two-point advantage. The end-of-season schedule will see Edmonton square off for a home-and-home with the rivaled Calgary Hitmen, while Lethbridge goes on the road to take on the Red Deer Rebels and Medicine Hat Tigers.

A division title for the Hurricanes would mark their first since 2015-16, when the team went 46-24-1-1 to finish with 94 points. It would also be Lethbridge’s fifth division win in the past 30 years. As for the Oil Kings, while the team has clinched a playoff berth after missing the last two years, it would like to underline that accomplishment with a division title, and their first since 2013-14 when they went on to win the Memorial Cup.

Chase in the scoring race

The race is heating up to see who will take home the CHL Top Scorer Award, with 15 players already cracking the 100-point mark, including seven from the OHL. However, leading the pack is Portland Winterhawks forward Joachim Blichfeld, who has tallied 53 goals and 59 assists for 112 points. The San Jose Sharks prospect has a four-point lead on the next highest scorers – Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds centre Morgan Frost, a first-round pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2017, and QMJHL overager Peter Abbandonato of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, both with 108 points.

It has been an impressive campaign for Blichfeld, who finished last season at a point-per-game pace with 24 goals and 32 assists in 56 games. The Winterhawks have two games left on the season in a home-and-home series with the U.S. Division rival Seattle Thunderbirds. It is an opportunity for Blichfeld to build up his totals in the stretch run for the CHL Top Scorer Award, as this year he has notched nine goals and eight assists for 17 points in nine contests against the Thunderbirds.

As for the century club, a few others could soon be joining the pack, including Niagara IceDogs centre Ben Jones (40-58-98), Red Deer Rebels left-wing Brandon Hagel (40-58-98), and Jones’ Niagara teammate Akil Thomas (35-62-97).

Meanwhile, the race for the top goal-scorer promises to be an exciting finish, and appears to be down to two candidates in North Bay Battalion right-wing Justin Brazeau and Ottawa 67’s forward Tye Felhaber, both with 58 tallies on the season and both with three games remaining. The Battalion close out the season with dates against Hamilton, Mississauga, and Niagara, while Felhaber’s squad will take on Peterborough twice followed by the East Division rival Kingston Frontenacs.

Excelling in the blue paint

Everyone loves a goalie showdown, while the end of the 2018-19 CHL campaign promises to be no different with a handful of netminders in the mix for CHL Goaltender of the Year recognition. Among the top contenders is Dustin Wolf of the Everett Silvertips, as the second-year WHLer leads the league with 41 wins, a .936 save percentage, and a 1.69 goals-against average. Meanwhile, his seven shutouts sit second to Prince Albert Raiders netminder Ian Scott, who has posted eight perfect games on the season, including three in a row last week against the provincial rival Swift Current Broncos.

In the OHL, Sudbury Wolves netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who won gold with Finland at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, continues to turn heads in his first season on North American ice as he leads the OHL with 36 wins and a .921 save percentage. On Saturday, the Buffalo Sabres prospect turned aside 41 shots against the Hamilton Bulldogs to record his sixth shutout on the season, the most-ever by a Wolves netminder. Of course, Luukkonen has received healthy competition all season from Ottawa 67’s accomplished goaltender Michael DiPietro, whose busy year has included a run with Team Canada at the world juniors and an emergency call-up to the Vancouver Canucks when he made his NHL debut in February. After beginning the year with Windsor, DiPietro has continued to shut the door since shifting to Ottawa, where he has found the win column in 12 of 16 appearances. He also owns an OHL-leading 2.41 goals-against average.

In the QMJHL, the biggest story to watch is Rouyn-Noranda Huskies netminder Zachary Emond, who leads the league with a 1.80 goals-against average, .930 save percentage, and six shutouts. Most interesting, however, is that Emond remains unbeaten in regulation, as he is sporting a 23-0-0-1 record through 26 appearances. A sixth-round pick by the San Jose Sharks in last year’s NHL draft, Emond’s lone loss this season came in a shootout versus the Sherbrooke Phoenix.

All eyes on Alexis

It won’t be long before Rimouski Oceanic forward Alexis Lafreniere fills the mantel with accolades, while the 17-year-old has a unique opportunity to make an addition this season as he takes his shot at the Jean Beliveau Trophy, presented to the QMJHL’s top scorer.

No 17-year-old has claimed the award since former Drummondville Voltigeurs forward Sean Couturier did so during the 2009-10 campaign on the back of a 96-point season, although Lafreniere could change that this year. As the season winds to a close, the projected top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft sits second in league scoring to Rouyn-Noranda Huskies forward Peter Abbandonato, who has tallied 109 points. As for Lafreniere, he has picked up 36 goals and 67 assists, good for 103 points. And while a six-point gap may seem like too much to make up with just two games remaining – especially when Abbandonato has two contests of his own left this season – it’s not out of the realm of possibility either, especially considering the many multi-point nights Lafreniere has recorded in 2018-19.

The Oceanic close out the year with two road games, both against the Baie-Comeau Drakkar. Lafreniere has been in the lineup for just one game against the Drakkar this season – he was absent from the other three due to his participation at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship – but he fared well in that one meetup with one goal and one assist. Lafreniere has been held scoreless in his last three outings, but he is also only five games removed from a wild February that saw him put up eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points in 12 games.

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