FRESNO MONSTERS (17-14-1, 35 pts)
The Fresno Monsters' rivalry with Long Beach continued last week as Fresno dropped the first two games in another intense three-game set before claiming two points with a 7-3 victory.
Overall, the Monsters earned three of six possible points in the series. They lost the opening matchup by a 3-2 final in a shootout.
Czech backstop Adam Barvik has been a staple between the Fresno pipes this season. The 20-year-old rookie, playing his first season in North America, has compiled a 3.46/.909 slash line with one shutout over 24 appearances.
Even though Kyle Franceshini and Max Karlenzig have both proven to be more than capable of manning the Monsters' net, head coach Kevin Kaminski has kept Barvik in his starting role because of his overall talent and consistency.
Fresno will continue a tough stretch with three games in Valencia. The series began Thursday, when the Monsters won 5-4 in overtime, and will continue into the weekend.
The Monsters recently announced plans to bring hockey back to Selland Arena in downtown Fresno. The team currently plays at Gateway Ice Center, about a 10-minute drive from Selland, which is the former home of the ECHL's Fresno Falcons.
LONG BEACH BOMBERS (22-6-3, 47 pts)
The Long Beach Bombers enjoyed a solid weekend, taking two of three against Fresno at The Rinks in Lakewood, California.
After winning the first two games, the Bombers struggled to close out the series and lost by four goals, giving them just their second regulation loss of the year on home ice.
"I was pleased with our ability to come from behind in all three games, but our special teams were terrible, and we allowed the first goal in each game," said Long Beach Head Coach Chris White. "We also gave up untimely goals and the saw the same players on the ice for goals against."
White has watched his team struggle since the calendar hit December, dropping six of its last nine games. He knows there's still plenty of work to be done.
"Our execution has been lacking, and we need to get on the right path if we're going to be where we want to be," he added.
Forward Parker Moskal (20-25-45) is riding a 15-game point streak that dates back to late October. The San Diego native has had a great rookie season after taking last year off. He has yet to register a hat trick this year, but has logged 13 multi-point contests and is fourth on the team in points.
Fellow rookies Miroslav Rohlik (29-26-55) and Artem Korolev (19-34-53) are first and second, respectively, on the team in scoring. That speaks to the ability of White and his coaching staff to recruit elite talent year in and year out.
On Friday night, Long Beach will begin a six-game road trip that will take them through San Diego and Tahoe. With five wins over San Diego, the Bombers have yet to lose to the Sabers and will be taking on Tahoe for the first and only time this season.
ONTARIO AVALANCHE (20-10-1, 41 pts)
Despite being tested by San Diego, the Ontario Avalanche rattled off three consecutive road victories over the Sabers last weekend.
The sweep pushed the Avalanche to second place in the Western Division, two points ahead of third-place Valencia and six points back of division-leading Long Beach.
With a pair of assists in the third San Diego game, leading scorer Jesse Zaharichuk became the first Avs player to reach 50 points, with an 18-32-50 line.
The 20-year-old has brought valuable experience to Ontario after playing in the Western Hockey League for each of the past three seasons. He has put up at least one point in 27 of his 30 appearances, including a six-point performance back on December 7.
If Long Beach continues its recent struggles, the Avs could quietly take over as division leaders later in the second half, even though Long Beach and Ontario will only play two more times during the regular season.
But the Avalanche can't afford to look ahead. They need to focus on their three-game set in Phoenix against the surprising Knights this weekend.
PHOENIX KNIGHTS (15-19-2, 32 pts)
The Phoenix Knights clawed out a win over one of the best teams in the division last week, defeating Valencia 5-3 after losing the first two games of the series to the Flyers.
Winning on the road is tough, but winning in Valencia is even more difficult. The victory served as further validation for a Knights club that has proven it can compete against the stacked Western Division following an ugly start to the first half.
Forward Andrius Bermejo had one of his best series of the season, posting a hat trick in one game and figuring in four of five Phoenix goals in the final contest after being held off the scoresheet in the opening matchup.
Bermejo's scoring line now stands at 12-19-31, second-best on the club. He's also tied for second in penalty minutes with 70.
Because of their frontloaded schedule, the Knights have played more games than any other team in the division. Phoenix has already played 36 contests, while San Diego has played the second most with 33. No other club has played more than 31 games.
Phoenix has five three-game series left on its schedule, three of which will be played on home ice. The two road sets will not be easy, as the Knights will battle Fresno and Long Beach in hostile territory.
Overall, Phoenix has one of the most difficult second-half schedules in the league, which is attributable to their talented division. With one series left against each of their five division rivals, the Knights are guaranteed to play against whichever club that will end up being their first-round playoff matchup.
SAN DIEGO SABERS (3-27-3, 8 pts)
When a team plays six competitive games in a row, odds are they usually will win at least a couple of those matchups. But that hasn't been the case for the San Diego Sabers, who have gone winless through the first six games of their nine-game homestand.
The Sabers have been playing solid hockey, but their Western Division opponents have proven to be too much. In last weekend's series against Ontario, the Sabers lost by scores of 5-2, 4-3, and 4-2, pushing their losing streak to seven.
San Diego showed it is more talented than most other last-place teams at the Western States Shootout One of the few bright spots for the Sabers has been their power play, which is operating at a 22.5% clip and ranks top 10 in the league.
San Diego has collected 32 goals on the man advantage, which is also within the top 10. In fact, more than 40 percent of its total goals have been scored on the power play.
The Sabers close out their homestand this weekend as they welcome Long Beach to town for three games. It marks the last regular-season series of the season between the two clubs.
VALENCIA FLYERS (19-10-1, 39 pts)
Early in the season, the Valencia Flyers established themselves as the central threat to Long Beach's shot at a division title. The goal of winning the division remains, but the Flyers have struggled since the end of November.
Valencia took four of six possible points from Phoenix last weekend to get back on track following a relatively quiet showing at the WSHL Showcase.
Goaltender Spencer Kozlowski recorded his first shutout of the season in the first game of the series, putting aside 33 Knights shots.
The Flyers' offense erupted for nine goals last Saturday to win the second game before falling by a 5-3 score on Sunday.
Following a few weeks' worth of of anticipation, veteran Jacob Kranabetter (22-56-78) tied the WSHL all-time assist record when he hit 210 career helpers last weekend against Phoenix. With one more assist, he will be all alone at the top of the list.
The records and milestones continue to pile up for Kranabetter, who broke the Flyers' franchise goal-scoring record with the 91st tally of his career on Thursday night in Valencia's overtime loss to Fresno.
The Fresno series will continue into the weekend with games on Friday and Saturday evenings. After that, Valencia will take on San Diego, Fresno, and Ontario over the course of three days next weekend.
--- Jared Tennant for Harrington Sports Media
BELLINGHAM BLAZERS (14-15-3, 31 pts)
After a couple of big wins against Seattle last week, the Bellingham Blazers stumbled to a 7-5 loss in the series finale, preventing them from securing a winning record.
The Blazers won the first two games of the series by scores of 3-1 and 12-2 before falling by a 7-5 final, so the series was unpredictable, to say the least.
After the letdown in the third contest, Blazers Head Coach Mark Collins spoke about his team's performance.
"I think we played well overall the first couple of games," Collins said. "After the big win in the second game, I think that got into the players' heads a bit, and we played very poorly on Saturday night."
While there's not much to complain about regarding the five goals scored by the Blazers' offense, the defensive effort was not good. Seattle is just outside the bottom five in the league in terms of goals scored.
"Because of poor play, it was a very costly loss," Collins continued. "It hurt in the standings, player injuries, and suspensions. I feel it also hurt from a confidence point of view, as well, traveling to Idaho this week."
Bellingham will need a short memory if it wants to take down the IceCats this week in Idaho. The Blazers are playing the IceCats for the first time, so they have yet to experience the elite play of the division leaders.
One thing the Blazers have on their side is their ability to stay disciplined. They have earned the second-fewest penalty minutes in the division, and, according to Collins, they need to stay out of the penalty box in order to be successful.
"We try to be a very disciplined team and not take penalties. We take pride in that. When we stay away from taking penalties, we win games."
IDAHO ICECATS (25-4-1, 51 pts)
The Idaho IceCats picked up six points last week in dominating fashion, sweeping the West Sound Warriors and once again establishing themselves as the class of the Northwest Division.
Netminder Jacob Hough put up one of his best series of the season in the sweep, shutting out West Sound in a 25-save effort on Saturday before sharing a shutout with Shaun Brown the next day after making 11 saves.
Forward Lance Herning appeared in just one game in the series, but he made it count as he notched his third hat trick of the season and reached 50 points (30-20-50) on the campaign in Idaho's 9-4 victory on Friday evening.
Other than Herning, the IceCats don't really have any other elite scorers, but it's worked out perfectly. Idaho uses a balanced team effort to rack up goals. Twelve Idaho skaters have logged 20 points or more, and all but three members of its roster have double-digit points.
Even with their disappointing results at the Western States Shootout, the IceCats still have yet to encounter any legitimate challenger within the Northwest as they vie for their eighth consecutive division crown.
Idaho still has six games in hand on the second-place Warriors in addition to its 14-point lead. It has played fewer games than every team in the division except Seattle, which, like the IceCats, has played 30.
Idaho continues its six-game homestand this weekend as it welcomes Bellingham to Manchester Ice Centre for a three-game set.
SEATTLE TOTEMS (10-17-3, 23 pts)
Things weren't looking good for the Seattle Totems after they dropped their first two games to Bellingham last week, but the Totems managed to bounce back and salvage two points with a 7-5 win in the series finale.
Forward Bogdan Klotchkov has rejuvenated the Seattle offense. He found the back of the net four times in the win and has a 5-2-7 line since joining Totems during the WSHL Showcase.
Klotchkov's four goals were more than he scored over 32 games with Tahoe during the first half of the year. Perhaps the change of scenery will nudge him back to his form from last season, when he scored at a point-per-game pace with Utah and Tahoe.
At fifth place in the division and eight points behind the next closest team, Seattle is still on the outside looking in on the race for home ice in the postseason. The third and fourth seeds in the division will enjoy home-ice advantage, while the top two clubs will receive a first-round bye.
Seattle will need a second-half revival if it wants to open its playoff schedule in front of its hometown fans at Olympicview Arena.
The Totems have a great opportunity in front of them over the next few weeks. They will begin a six-game homestand this weekend with a three-game set against Tahoe, which will be followed by a single-game matchup with Bellingham and a brief two-game series against West Sound.
That stretch will take them into the first week of February, when they will battle Southern Oregon on the road for a pair of games. With the plethora of division rivals coming up on its schedule, Seattle can potentially get back into the thick of things in the Northwest over the next few weeks.
SOUTHERN OREGON SPARTANS (8-24-0, 16 pts)
After a long wait, the Southern Oregon Spartans will finally get back to work this weekend at home against West Sound.
The Spartans have not played a game since they blew out San Diego on December 21 in their final game in Las Vegas. The month-long break has provided plenty of rest, but likely made them a little anxious to play another game.
If a second-half turnaround is going to happen, it will need to start soon. With just 19 games left in the regular season, Southern Oregon does not have much time to right the ship.
Fourteen of those 19 contests are at home, giving the Spartans a chance to improve upon their 5-10-0 record at Southern Oregon Ice.
This season has not been the norm for Southern Oregon. It has finished in the top three of the Northwest Division in each of the last three seasons, and has secured a top-three seed in four of its five seasons in the WSHL.
Ultimately, aside from player development, what really matters is the postseason. No matter what happens over the final months of the regular season, the Spartans will qualify for the playoffs. If they can manage a quality second half and build some momentum, making some noise in the tournament is not out of the question.
TAHOE ICEMEN (15-15-3, 33 pts)
Like Southern Oregon, the Tahoe Icemen have yet to open the second half. They will kick things off this weekend on the road with three games against Seattle.
As head coach Mickey Lang said last week, the Icemen have big plans for the rest of the season. Most of their first half was used to develop players and give them opportunities to earn roles. From here on out, it's all about winning.
After this weekend's series, Tahoe will begin a tough homestand that will see them take on Western Division-leading Long Beach as well as Idaho and Southern Oregon.
In his fourth WSHL campaign, veteran forward Paul Frys is on pace for his best season yet. With a 25-36-61 line through 33 games, he needs just 11 more points to surpass his career high of 71, set last year with the Vancouver Rangers.
Back in 2014-15, Frys appeared in the 39 games for the West Sound Warriors, who were members of the North Pacific Hockey League at the time. Now, the Warriors are one of Frys' division rivals and the biggest threat to Tahoe's bid for a first-round bye.
This weekend, Frys will likely reach 200 career points. The Portland, Oregon, native is currently 18th on the WSHL's all-time scoring list with 199 points (79-120-199). He needs 36 points to move into the top 10 on the list.
WEST SOUND WARRIORS (18-17-1, 37 pts)
The West Sound Warriors are coming off a forgettable series. They were thoroughly dominated for most of the weekend against Idaho last week.
"The biggest thing is we have nine games left until March 1, so we must fine-tune everything," said Warriors Head Coach Ty Smith. "Last weekend was very needed to show our guys where they need to be.
"We must improve in all three phases of the ice, the d-zone to the neutral zone to the o-zone."
West Sound is still clinging to second place, four points ahead of Tahoe. Outside of first-place Idaho, the Northwest Division is one of the league's most competitive. The rest of the division will be gunning for the Warriors' spot for the rest of the regular season.
With 36 games down, West Sound is tied with Phoenix for the third-most games played in the WSHL and has played more contests than anyone else in the Northwest Division. That creates a sense of urgency to pick up points over the team's final 15 games, especially if other Northwest teams have a successful second half.
West Sound's top three scorers – Erik Safstrom (22-37-59), Harrik Koll (28-27-55), and Mattias Wikstrom (13-37-50) – have arguably been the Warriors' three best players. Smith mentioned the impact that the trio has had on the club.
"It's huge to have guys like them," he said. "They have been the backbone of goal scorers, and we will need them going forward. We also need other guys to step up as well from here on out."
--- Jared Tennant for Harrington Sports Media
Written By: Jon McBride and Posted on: The Ogden Mustangs News