The week before the penultimate week of the regular season could break up the logjam that is the CHL's best conference race.
Over the next nine days, the Portland Winterhawks will play the other two teams atop the WHL's Western Conference, the Kamloops Blazers and Tri-City Americans, both home and away. When the dust settles, it might be clearer who will secure home ice throughout the playoffs. It's probably where the biggest shakeup in the BTN Dynamic Dozen pecking order will come, since the Saint John Sea Dogs and Shawinigan Cataractes are 1-2 for the second week in succession.
1. Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL (.567 RPI, —). The good news for the Sea Dogs is they don't see Moncton and goalie Roman Will again for the rest of the regular season after Tuesday's game. Saint John's 14-game skein was nearly interrupted when Will stymied them in an eventual shootout contest last Saturday. The path to a third consecutive regular-season title will be very clear should Jonathan Huberdeau, Tomas Jurco and friends sweep their final homestand. Please bear in mind that includes a Sunday tilt with ever-tricky Acadie-Bathurst.
2. Shawinigan Cataractes, QMJHL (.564 RPI, —). Complacency might have been the culprit for the loss in Halifax which imperiled Shawinigan's chance of finishing first. Coach Éric Veilleux did exactly what Eric Taylor would have done, benching some veterans and going with the rookies/shock troops. They ended up getting 61 shots on goal, albeit against a Moncton team that spent the night previous chasing Saint John around the rink, so mission accomplished. Four of Shawinigan's last seven games are against good Telus East Division teams, along with that March 11 rematch with the Sea Dogs.
3. Tri-City Americans, WHL (.558 RPI, +1). The Ams' Brendan Shinnimin-Adam Hughesman-Patrick Holland line has been more devastating lately. All three could reach the 100-point mark before a single players does in the Ontario Hockey League. Empathy in advance for the goaltenders in this weekend's home-and-home between the Americans and Portland Winterhawks, who have scored a WHL-best 275 goals. Now that that's been said, both contests will probably end 2-1 in shootouts. Tri-City's Ty Rimmer and Portland's Mac Carruth are not exactly chopped liver.
4. Portland Winterhawks, WHL (.555 RPI, -1). The 'Hawks big week includes a visit from Kamloops on Tuesday where the winner could take over first overall and a 3-in-3 weekend with tilts against Tri-City at each end. That's a pretty busy itinerary for the most offensively opportunistic team in the WHL. With Sven Bärtschi and Ty Rattie leading the way, Portland has outscored opponents by an average of 3.8 goals across their past 10 games has been 3.8 goals, which is almost Carleton Ravens-like, except in a different sport.
(That's right: make a reference to a Canadian university basketball powerhouse in a blurb about a U.S.-based hockey team. Google it, people.)
5. Moose Jaw Warriors, WHL (.550 RPI, —). The split for the week that include being pasted 8-2 by Regina apparently did not hurt the Warriors' standings since the Pats are playing really well. The big takeaway for Moose Jaw is that it bounced back well from the setback. Its next four games are all against teams likely to miss the post-season, meaning they can fine-tune their game ahead of a March 7 showdown against division rival Edmonton.
6. Quebec Remparts, QMJHL (.547 RPI, +3). Scoring 11 goals in two home wins, including one over Victoriaville, helped the Rockets climb up three rungs. Coach-GM Patrick Roy's latest tweak, putting a line together that includes Florida Panthers pick Logan Shaw and former Halifax Moosehead Gabriel Desjardins, has paid some quick dividends. Meantime, Mikhail Grigorenko now has more points than Alexander Radulov did for Quebec at the same age; the Russian centre had nine goals in 10 February games.
7. Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL (.547 RPI, -1). One gets the sense the scorelines from last week, twin 4-1 wins over Calgary and Lethbridge, are closer to what Edmonton wants as the playoffs draw near. Getting an offensive team that has scored 269 goals (second-best in the Dub) to commit to that is easier said than done. Edmonton should get a good test of how to play defensive hockey when they roll into Kootenay on Wednesday.
8. Victoriaville Tigres, QMJHL (.543 RPI, -1). Anyone who predicted Yanni Gourde, once unwanted by his midget AAA team, would be running away in the scoring race is either a genius or a liar. The overage centre plays six of his final eight games at home, making it tougher for coaches to get their checkers out against his line. Of likely greater importance to the Tigres is that their loss in Quebec on Sunday left them three points adrift of the fourth-place Remparts. They would need help to wrest away that spot.
9. Rimouski Océanic, QMJHL (.538 RPI, +3). An eight-game home win streak has helped Rimouski stay alive in the tough playoff race in the Q. The only dark lining in this silver cloud is centre Jean-François Plante, who's been a nice secondary scorer with 17 goals, is out for the rest of the regular season (at least). Rimouski comes into this week one point ahead of Chicoutimi for the No. 6 playoff seed.
10. Niagara IceDogs, OHL (.538 RPI, -2). Goaltender Mark Visentin finally had an off-night. It was probably not a moment too soon, since they would have been opening up his skull to search for the computer chip. That loss to Mississauga caused the 'Dogs to dip this week. Niagara's two-point lead over the Ottawa 67's for the Eastern Conference lead might be larger than it appears. The IceDogs have more home dates (five) than Ottawa (three) and only have two out-of-conference opponents remaining. The 67's, in contrast, still have a 3-in-3 Western Conference swing.
11. London Knights, OHL (.532 RPI, -1). Not that anyone needed convincing of the Knights' worth, but how many teams win by three goals on the road in the final leg of a 3-in-3 weekend? The Knights had what assistant coach/assistant GM Misha Donskov called a "character win" in winning at Ottawa on Sunday. Sniper Seth Griffith has hit a plateau (only one goal in seven games, that in a blowout win), but if that's the only obvious nit to pick, they must be sitting pretty. Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Greg McKegg also had one of his strongest games of late in that Ottawa game, scoring the dagger goal in the third period.
12. Plymouth Whalers, OHL (.530 RPI, +5). Odd how that works: coach-GM Mike Vellucci returns to the bench from a suspension and Plymouth starts winning again. The Whalers have already started this third-to-last week of the regular season with a win, with centre Alex Aleardi sparking the four-goal comeback to beat Saginaw in a school day game earlier Tuesday.
The next dozen
13. Calgary Hitmen, WHL (.527, +1); 14. Medicine Hat Tigers, WHL (.527, -3); 15. Saskatoon Blades, WHL (.526, -2); 16. Chicoutimi Saguenéens, QMJHL (.525, +4); 17. Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL (.525, +2); tied-18. Brandon Wheat Kings, WHL (.519, +3); tied-18. Kamloops Blazers, WHL (.519, -2); 20. Spokane Chiefs, WHL (.518, -2); 21. Blainville-Boisbrand Armada, QMJHL (.517, -2); 22. Regina Pats, WHL (.515, +3); 23. Baie-Comeau Drakkar, QMJHL (.511, +2); 24. Kitchener Rangers, OHL (.509, —).
Dropping out: Acadie-Bathurst Titan, QMJHL (22nd to 25th) and Kootenay Ice, WHL (23rd to 26th).
Hot team: Owen Sound Attack, OHL, up nine spots (37th to 28th).
Cold teams: Gatineau Olympiques (33rd to 40th) and P.E.I. Rocket (44th to 51st), QMJHL, each down seven spots.
Looking (nowhere but) up: Erie Otters, OHL (.423 RPI). The Prince George Cougars (.430) are the closest.
An explanation on rankings: Buzzing The Net uses Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) with a recency factor. RPI combines a team's record with the strength of its opponents to produce an overall rating. Our method also gives more weight to recent games. Shootout wins and losses are classified as ties for philosophical and practical reasons. All three CHL leagues are considered equivalent in quality.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: WHL).