Sunday, 24 December 2017

Blades in the thick of things at WHL Christmas break

Nolan Maier (#73) and Randen Schmidt celebrate a Blades win.
    The Saskatoon Blades are in the thick of the race to make the playoffs at the WHL’s Christmas break, and that development is a welcome site.
    In the early going, the Blades stumbled out of the blocks posting a 3-7-1 after falling 7-2 to the Victoria Royals at the SaskTel Centre on Oct. 24. At that point, it appeared the Blades might be in for a long season.
    Things have gotten a lot better since then. At the Christmas break, the Blades (15-17-2-1) are tied with the Prince Albert Raiders (13-14-5-2) for the second wildcard berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference standings at 33 points. The Raiders have a game in hand.
    Both of those squads are two points behind the Memorial Cup hosting Regina Pats (16-17-3) for the first wildcard berth. The Raiders have two games in hand on the Pats, while the Blades have one game in hand on the Regina side.
    The Blades are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013 playing out of a tough East Division in the WHL.
Nolan Maier makes a glove stop for the Blades.
    The East Division has three teams ranked in the Canadian Hockey League’s Top 10 Rankings including the Moose Jaw Warriors (27-6-1-1), the Swift Current Broncos (25-7-2) and the Brandon Wheat Kings (24-8-0-1) who are rated second, fourth and fifth respectively.
    At the moment, the six clubs that make up the East Division are sitting in the top seven in the Eastern Conference. It is possible that all of these clubs could finish in the top eight in the Eastern Conference forcing one team to miss the post-season to a club with a weaker record.
    Starting with the 2014-15 campaign, the WHL changed its playoff format to match the NHL’s. In the format that has been used since that campaign, the top three teams in each division make the playoffs plus two wildcard entries from each conference.
Kirby Dach is finding his groove with the Blades.
    Before the 2014-15 campaign, the first place teams in each division make the post-season plus the teams with the next six best records in each of the Eastern and Western Conferences after the division winners. The old system was better for ensuring the clubs with the best records made the post-season.
    The Blades could finish last in the East Division, but place in the top eight of the Eastern Conference and miss the post-season under the present system. If that came to pass, the season would likely still be graded as one with progress.
    With all that said, there has to be optimism that the Blades could make playoffs regardless. The team’s goaltending has come around with the emergence of 16-year-old rookie and Yorkton, Sask., product Nolan Maier, while 19-year-old veteran Ryan Kubic appears to have found his confidence after a slow start.
    Overage forwards Cameron Hebig and Braylon Shmyr have been lighting it up as Hebig leads the Blades in scoring with 26 goals and 23 assists for 49 points, and Shmyr is second with 14 goals and 26 assists for 41 points.
Libor Hajek has been solid on the back end for the Blades.
    Kirby Dach, the team’s highly touted 16-year-old forward, is getting more and more comfortable with each outing and has four goals and 18 assists in 27 games. Josh Paterson, who is an 18-year-old winger, has quietly collected 12 goals and seven assists so far this season.
    Import defenceman Libor Hajek, who is currently with the Czech Republic’s world junior team, has been a rock on the back end, and rearguard Jackson Caller has made big strides in his 18-year-old year.
    There should be a lot of excitement at the SaskTel Centre after the Christmas break.
    The Blades return to action on Wednesday, when they host the Raiders at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.

Christmas had to be a relief for Pats

The Pats haven’t met the expectations of a Memorial Cup host squad so far.
    The WHL Christmas break likely couldn’t have arrived quick enough for the players of the Regina Pats, who will host this season’s Memorial Cup.
    The Pats entered the break posting three regulation losses and an overtime loss in their last four games. They hold down the first wildcard playoff spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference with a 16-17-3 record. If they had three fewer points in the standings, they would be sitting out of a playoff position.
    Right now there are a lot of vocal members of the “Pats Regiment,” who are voicing their displeasure with how the season has progressed so far. If the players venture out of their billet homes to get out into the city, they might likely encounter a fan here or there getting on them about their record.
    Players might likely overhear a person here or there cutting him or his teammates and coaches down. You could try to live in a bubble between your billet home and the rink, but that gets old after a while. You have to get out and live at some time.
Goalie Tyler Brown and the Pats need some time to rest.
    The break will allow the Pats players to get out of Regina and exit the pressure cooker for a little over a week providing some welcome relief.
    When the Pats last hosted the Memorial Cup in the 2000-01 campaign, the team was almost in a similar spot. At the WHL Christmas break in 2000-01, the Pats had a record of 17 wins, 17 losses, one tie and two overtime losses. The WHL still had ties back in those days.
    The heat was on the team to become a squad that was more worthy to be a Memorial Cup host. The heat then was a little less than it is now due to the fact the Pats in 2000-01 were still comfortably in a playoff position at the Christmas break. After making a number of trades before the WHL’s trade deadline, the Pats finished the campaign with 40 wins, 27 losses, three ties and two overtime losses.
    It is conceivable the Pats, who host the Memorial Cup this coming May 17-27, could have a similar turnaround this season. At the moment, the players should take every opportunity to rest and recharge.
    The Pats return to action on Wednesday, when they travel to Brandon to face the Wheat Kings.

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