The Canadian Hockey League, Canada's major junior circuit made up of three seperate leagues (WHL, OHL, QMJHL), seems to have the timing of their regular season pretty much perfect. In late September, in the earliest days of autumn, the puck drops and the regular season continues until the last weekend of winter. When the long days mercifully end, the real fun of the season begins with the playoffs. For some teams, the season ends, but for the vast majority there will be playoff hockey: each league qualifies sixteen teams to the playoffs and there are only sixty teams total in the three leagues (22 for the WHL, 20 for the OHL and just 18 for the QMJHL). So the playoff races aren't quite as intense in major junior, and sometimes the first round of the playoffs is a bit too predictable. With teams becoming more and more NHL-like in their trading trends, we end up with a few loaded teams at the top while everyone else is building for the next season and beyond.
While there aren't a lot of important games around the major junior circuit this weekend, there are a couple, so we'll hi-light those here. And when spring officially arrives, we can officially look forward to the match-ups that will eventually lead to a Memorial Cup champion in Mississauga, Ontario this May.
Western Hockey League
By far the league with the largest amount of important games this weekend is the WHL. This is probably the function of having the most teams, but there always seems to be just a bit more parity in the 'Dub than the other leagues. The Saskatoon Blades have already clinched the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as the regular season winners, but two division titles are still up for grabs heading into the final weekend, as well as the final playoff spot in each conference.
Key Eastern Conference Games: The Red Deer Rebels and Medicine Hat Tigers still haven't decided the winner of the Central Division, although Red Deer's magic number is only one. A single point earned by the Rebels against the Edmonton Oil Kings in a home and home matchup will clinch the title for the team led by 18 year old sensation Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Tigers need to sweep their home and home with the Calgary Hitmen and hope for Edmonton to do the same to Red Deer, but the Tigers remain a top threat heading into the post-season regardless. The Oil Kings and the Brandon Wheat Kings are in a battle for the 6th and 7th seeds, and will be the opponents of the two title chasers in the first round. Meanwhile, the Prince Albert Raiders are also just a point away from clinching the final playoff spot in the East, with the Lethbridge Hurricanes hoping for a last weekend miracle. P.A. has a home and home with the Swift Current Broncos, who are out of the playoffs, while Lethbridge has to play the playoff bound Kootenay Ice in a home and home.
Key Western Conference Games: The U.S. Division couldn't be much tighter at the top: the Portland Winterhawks hold only a single point lead over the Spokane Chiefs. Each U.S. Division team has three games in three days this weekend, which should create an interesting finish on Sunday as all the other WHL action will be done with. Spokane's schedule sees them hosting the Seattle Thunderbirds, visiting the Tri-City Americans, before setting up what could be the ultimate showdown at the Rose Garden in Portland on Sunday. Portland hosts the Everett Silvertips on Friday and visits Seattle on Saturday before the potentially big Sunday game. Everett and the Prince George Cougars are in the driver's seat for the final two playoff spots in the West, with Everett needing one point in three games and Prince George needing two in two games to be clear of both the Thunderbirds and the Kamloops Blazers. The Kelowna Rockets have wrapped up the B.C. Division Title with 85 points through 70 games, and will be the #2 seed in the West.
In individual races, Linden Vey of Medicine Hat with 114 points leads Tyler Johnson of Spokane by three points for the league lead (and Bob Clarke Trophy), but Johnson does have one additional game this weekend to catch Vey. That extra game for Johnson could come in handy as he is currently tied with Ryan Howse of Chilliwack for the goal lead as well. Nino Niederreiter of Portland would be right up there if he had played a full season: his 38 goals in 52 games would put him at 50 for the full season.
Ontario Hockey League
The OHL has some intrigue heading into the final weekend, with the East Division title to be determined as well as the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, although that race has been pretty sorry to see. The Ottawa 67's currently lead the Oshawa Generals by three points heading into the final weekend, although the Generals have a game in hand. Plus, they meet tonight in Ottawa, so an Oshawa win would then give them the chance to win out the title, while an Ottawa win would clinch it. Oshawa hosts the Brampton Battallion and Peterborough Petes to close out their year, while Ottawa hosts the Sudbury Wolves on Sunday. Meanwhile, with a record of 20-42-0-4, the Belleville Bulls hold a three point lead over the Petes for the final playoff spot heading into the weekend, which would appear to be an insurmountable lead at this point. Belleville hosts Sudbury on Saturday and travels to Brampton on Sunday, while Peterborough has road games against the Barrie Colts and then Oshawa to try and catch the Bulls. The winner is likely first place fodder for the Hamilton Spectator Trophy winning Mississauga Ice Dogs, so it might not matter a lot.
Jason Akeson of the Kitchener Rangers appears to have a comfortable four point lead for the scoring title (Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy) with 106 points, though Ryan Strome (102) and Tyler Toffoli (101) could make a late push for it. Oshawa and Ottawa also have another score to settle this weekend, as Christian Thomas of Oshawa leads the OHL with 54 goals, followed by Toffoli of Ottawa with 52. Nail Yakupov, the star Russian rookie of the Sarnia Sting that will likely go #1 overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, has 48 goals while Greg McKegg of the Erie Otters could also hit 50 as he's currently at 47.
Quebec Major Junior Hockey League
There really isn't a lot of intrigue in the QMJHL this weekend: the three division titles have been determined (Saint John Sea Dogs, Montreal Juniors, Quebec Ramparts), the regular season title (Jean Rogeau Trophy) was decided long ago (Saint John), and all 16 playoff spots are decided. Twenty year old Philip-Michael Devos of the Gatineau Olympiques has a six point lead for the Jean Beliveau Trophy as the top scorer, and he needs four goals to reach fifty in two games to join Etienne Brodeur of the Lewiston MAINEacs in the league's 50 goal club. Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs and Devos are in a battle for points per game (1.67 to 1.66 for Devos), but that's about it. Some minor playoff positioning is all that remains to be determined.
For people curious as to how this might affect Canada's entry in the U18 World Junior Championships next month in Germany, basically any player on the twelve non-playoff teams will be available, as well as those that are eliminated in the first round. So the chances of, say, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins playing is quite remote since Red Deer seem likely to advance to Round 2.