Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Now we know why there is no head-and-shoulders favourite in any Western Conference.

The top two slots are pretty familiar; but one half the Ontario Hockey League has three teams in the top five.  The Joey Hishon-Ryan Strome confrontation last week apparently had a butterfly effect. The Attack, who lost their offensive kingpin for six games for a punch to a defenceless opponent, were nudged up in this week's Dynamic Dozen. Meantime, the Strome-less and head coach-less IceDogs had the most extreme plunge.

Meantime, the the usual suspects from the WHL's U.S. Division remain as esconsced as ever. How about Kitchener and Spokane, which met in the MasterCard Memorial Cup final three seasons ago, being in a dead heat this week?

1. Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL (.572, —)

Finish that three-game Quebec swing this weekend — Gatineau, Victoriaville and the strongest team in the lot for the gotta-get-home game, the Shawinigan Cataractes — and then we'll chance putting the Dogs into some kind of historical perspective. Saint John has only five regulation losses in 56 games, comparable to the 2005 London Knights (who lost just seven of 68). Saint John made a similar trek last month and won all three, although each was close.

Teammates Jonathan Huberdeau (86 points in 55 games) and Zack Phillips (81) remain among the Quebec league's top 20 scorers.

2. Saskatoon Blades, WHL (.567, —)

There is no substitute for some good shut-eye; Saskatoon arrived in Medicine Hat at around 5 a.m. for a day game before its loss on Sunday. Small wonder Brayden and the Schenn-sations lost that one. The Blades will try to bounce back this week with a home-and-home against the Brandon Wheat Kings, one of the few teams to deat them twice this season. Workhorse starting goalie Steven Stanford's statline reflected his team perhaps hitting a bit of a wall, as he allowed eight goals on 64 shots, pretty uncharacteristic of him. 

3. Owen Sound Attack, OHL (.564, +1)

The Attack still have the best body of work across the entire season of anyone in their conference, which is probably why coach Mark Reeds' team is in such a lofty spot. One hidden factor in their success is that Toronto Maple Leafs second-rounder Jesse Blacker, overage Matt Stanisz and undrafted 18-year-old Matt Petgrave are each among the top 15 in points among Ontario league defencemen. That speaks to their balance.

Owen Sound faces a 3-in-3 gauntlet of teams no one wants to face in the playoffs, London, Guelph and Oshawa. Hishon is eligible to return March 11 against Kitchener.

4. Erie Otters, OHL (.562, +7)

Anyone who would love to see a 'healthy Erie' will soon have the pleasure. New York Rangers-drafted centre Andrew Yogan has returned ahead of schedule to a team which has a goal differential of +31 in February. Neither the Otters or their U.S. counterparts in Saginaw are getting any MasterCard Memorial Cup buzz, for what it is worth. If Yogan's shoulder holds up, Erie will be a legit three-scoring-line offence by the post-season.

t-5. Kitchener Rangers, OHL (.556, +8)

Chide top scorer Jason Akeson (pictured) and pals for not hiding their burgeoning confidence under a bushel, but coming within five seconds of sweeping a home-and-home from Mississauga is a great leap forward for Kitchener. This weekend's schedule, home to Saginaw followed by a voyage to Erie, should be a good measuring stick, especially for the goaltending and defence.

Nice to see captain Gabriel Landeskog slip on a hair shirt after being on the ice for each of those last-minute goals in a shootout loss to Mississauga on Friday. He knew Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray, his potential boss, was watching and listening.

t-5. Spokane Chiefs, WHL (.556, +4)

They kind of had a good week, what with banking four road wins and never allowing more 29 shots on goal on goalie Mac Engel, who has only been charged with two losses while subbing for overage James Reid. (Engel stopped 92-of-99 shots for the week, officially.)

Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur — coach of the year in the Western league, perhaps? — has his team well set up to win the U.S. Division. It has only has one more cross-border trip and eight of its last 12 games at home.

7. Montreal Juniors, QMJHL (.553, +1)

Not saying the pack is stretched-out in the Quebec league or anything, but what does it say if Saint John and Montreal each go for 0-for-February, with the zero being in the regulation (and overtime loss) columns? The Juniors, who got a bounce-back week from star Louis Leblanc, have not lost in 60 since Jan. 29. Of course, that last bit of tire-pumping probably sealed their fate on Wednesday against Acadie-Bathurst, when Leblanc would likely be shooting on former world junior teammate Olivier Roy.  

Stuff you can't make up: the top five teams in the Q are each among the top five in penalty-killing. The Juniors are No. 2 behind the Drummodville Voltigeurs.

8. Red Deer Rebels, WHL (.552, -2)

Standout rookie defenceman Matthew Dumba might return from a knee injury for Wednesday's divisional tilt with Kootenay and not a moment to soon. The Rebels muddled through a home weekend, not surprisingly since this is the stage of the season where teams are between knowing the hay is almost in the barn and not trying to lapse into bad habits.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins needs 14 points in his final 10 games to get 100 as a 17-year-old.

9. Portland Winterhawks, WHL (.551, -2)

Ten of their remaining 14 games are on the road, which is balanced out somewhat by the fact the 'Hawks have the best road record in their conference. Star centre Ryan Johansen faces Team Canada teammate Brett Connolly, the Prince George Cougars, twice this week.

10. Saginaw Spirit, OHL (.547, +5)

Welcome back, Saginaw. The Spirit have won five in a row (following a five-game skid) while managing to get No. 1 goalie Mavric Parks some much-needed R&R. They would need a perked-up Parks on Friday when they visit Kitchener; we'd mention Parks is playing in his former home rink, but that can be said of about half the OHL arenas (OK, so he's only changed teams four times).

Another priority for Saginaw is getting centre Brandon Saad back to health. A lower-body injury has kept him out of five games in the past month; he's stuck on one goal since Jan. 14.

11. Tri-City Americans, WHL (.544, -8)

The Jet set — Winnipeggers Adam Hughesman and Brendan Shinnimin plus linemate Carter Ashton, whose pops played in the former (and future) NHL city — have gone cold. That was a contributing factor in a lost long weekend that was topped by losing to Spokane on Presidents' Day.

It is doubtful any team would volunteer to face Tri-City with a healthy No. 1 goalie, Drew Owsley.

12. Niagara IceDogs, OHL (.540, -8)

Leading scorer Ryan Strome is now listed as having a head injury, which is the main Niagara storyline until he is cleared to return. They have a rematch at home with Erie on Thursday; coach-GM Marty Williamson has three games left on his suspension.

The next five — t-13. Drummondville Voltigeurs, QMJHL (.537, +3); t-13. Kootenay Ice, WHL (.537, -1); 15. Guelph Storm (.534, +5); 16. Plymouth Whalers (.532, +1); t-17. Acadie-Bathurst Titan (.527, +7); t-17. Mississauga-St. Michael's Majors (.527, -4); t-17. Quebec Remparts (.527, -7).

Hot team — London Knights, OHL, up 11 spots to No. 31.

Cold team — Prince George Cougars, WHL, down 11 spots to No. 42.

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 recently played games. Shootouts are treated as ties, for philosophical and practical reasons.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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