Tough West Turns Focus To Playoffs

By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2009

VICTORIA, British Columbia – They set their standards high in Boise and Anchorage, where the hockey buzz around town is that nothing less than an ECHL Kelly Cup championship will suffice.

Those standards will be put to the test starting Friday as the Kelly Cup playoffs get underway. The Victoria Salmon Kings begin Saturday in Boise against the Steelheads.

The Steelheads and Aces have both won titles before, Idaho winning in 2004 and 2007 and Alaska in 2006.

Once bitten by the championship bug, an organization and its fans crave more of it. A story Thursday in the Anchorage Daily News, under the headline “History Puts Pressure on Aces,” says it all.

How’s that for pressure and expectation?

The Dallas Stars-affiliate Steelheads and St. Louis Blues-affiliate Aces are the two teams the third-place Victoria Salmon Kings must get through just to make it out of the West Division, the toughest in the National Conference.

But it might not have been any easier for the Salmon Kings under the old format, whereby the National Conference playoff teams were in the same bracket ranked one through eight. That would have put the conference third seed Salmon Kings on collision course with the sixth-seed Bakersfield Condors. The Anaheim Ducks’ farm club has been the best team in the league to close the season. The Condors are a scorching 19-5-2 in their last 26 games.

The Condors, Aces, Steelheads, Salmon Kings and Pacific Division-champion Ontario Reign appear legitimate contenders to represent the National Conference in the Kelly Cup final against the American Conference champion. Here is a look at the first-round playoff matchups in the National Conference. All series are best of sevens.

NATIONAL CONFERENCE

West Division

No. 2 Idaho (44-24-4) vs. No. 3 Victoria (38-27-7)

Games: Saturday, Sunday in Boise; Wednesday, Friday in Victoria.

Season Series: 6-1 for Idaho

Affiliations: Idaho (Stars); Victoria (Canucks)

Analysis: A compelling match-up between Idaho’s speed and skill players – such as former Cowichan Valley Capitals junior Bryan McGregor, who has 14 goals and 16 assists in his last nine games – and Victoria’s grind-it-down-low style. The edge in goal goes to Idaho, with Matt Climie having spent this week playing in the NHL for the parent Dallas Stars. Goaltending matters above all in the playoffs. Could that prove the difference?

Prediction: Idaho in seven

No. 1 Alaska (45-24-3) vs. No. 4 Utah (32-30-10)

Games: Friday, Saturday in Anchorage; Wednesday, Friday in West Valley City

Season Series: 7-2 for Alaska

Affiliations: Alaska (Blues); Utah (Islanders)

Analysis: Alaska, which has won the West Division regular season four times in the past five years, is talented and deep with three lines that can score. Getting sniper Josh Soares back from the AHL is a huge bonus. ECHL goaltender of the year Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, who backstopped the University of North Dakota to the NCAA Frozen Four last year, has proven his chops in his first year as a pro and will be tough to beat in the Alaska crease. The Grizzlies, however, have leader Ryan Kinasewich back from the AHL and are a rugged, suffocating group capable of upsets under astute coach Kevin Colley — as they proved last year against Victoria. But not this time.

Prediction: Alaska in six

Pacific Division

No. 1 Ontario (38-29-6) vs. No. 4 Stockton (32-33-7)

Games: Friday, Saturday in Ontario; Wednesday, Friday in Stockton.

Season Series: 6-3-1 for Ontario

Affiliations: Ontario (Kings); Stockton (Oilers)

Analysis: With Los Angeles Kings first-round draft-pick Colten Teubert and third-rounders Bud Holloway and Jeff Zatkoff, the Ontario Reign has some fine young talent to showcase. So does the Stockton Thunder, which is bulging with Edmonton prospects. But Ontario plays a stifling, defensive style which is perfect for the playoffs. Stockton has been too erratic a team to have any edge in this series.

Prediction: Ontario in five

No. 2 Las Vegas (34-31-8) vs. No. 3 Bakersfield (33-31-8)

Games: Friday, Saturday in Las Vegas; Wednesday, Friday in Bakersfield.

Season Series: 5-2-1 for Las Vegas

Affiliations: Las Vegas (Flames); Bakersfield (Ducks)

Analysis: Don’t let the seedings fool you. Bakersfield has been the best team in the ECHL down the stretch. The first line of league top-10 scorers Mark Derlago and Dave Bonk, along with Mike Wirll, can pass the puck around like nobody’s business. Free-wheeling Bakersfield is the highest-scoring team in the conference with a 3.42 goals-per-game average and has seven players with 20-plus goals. The Condors got forward Chad Painchaud and defenceman Andrew Thomas back for the playoffs from the Iowa Chops of the AHL. If they get Matt Pope back from AHL Manitoba, they could be off for a deep run. Las Vegas has lost veteran twin brothers Chris Ferraro to a broken leg and Peter Ferraro to a season suspension. The Wranglers are done.

Prediction: Bakersfield in five