1. Special teams — this has been a series key since the University of Toronto Schools beat the Regina Pats to win the first Memorial Cup in 1919. As obvious as it is, it is still no less important — especially this year.
Simply put the Hitmen power play is staggeringly good. They connected on 29 per cent of their chances during the regular season. They were even better at home (30.2%) and even better against the Warriors in the season series (35%). The Hitmen scored more power play goals (108) than anyone else in the league.
It’s easy to see why the Hitmen power play is so effective. The Hitmen use Matt MacKenzie and Michael Stone on the point. If Stone doesn’t have the best point shot in the league, then it’s second behind Saskatoon’s Jyri Niemi. Five of MacKenzie’s six goals came on the power play, but he’s mostly there to keep the puck moving. Joel Broda and Brandon Kozun are the triggermen, while Ian Schultz makes sure all 208 pounds of 6-3 frame are screening the goalie in front of the net.
The Hitmen have been using a Kamloops Blazers unit of Giffen Nyren, Zak Stebner, Jimmy Bubnick, Tyler Shattock and Kris Foucault (the only one who was never in Kamloops) on the second unit.
One the other side of the coin, the Warriors power play has had spell where it’s been red hot — even in the post-Travis Hamonic era.
Those amongst the Warriors’ faithful who are always convinced the men in stripes are out to get the Tribe will be interested to know that the Warriors have had the second fewest number of power play chances in the WHL. Their conversion rate of 23.4 per cent is sixth-best in the league, but the Warriors’ 67 power play goals is 10th best.
The Warriors spent much of Wednesday’s morning skate working on their special teams. Danny Gayle was on the top unit with Suer, Stanton, Bast and Frazee. The Honejsek-Rowinski-Hood line was on the second unit with Connor Cox and Kevin Smith.
2. Discipline — point two obviously plays into point one, but the Warriors spent most of the season being one of the least penalized teams in the league (they finished sixth best) and the Hitmen had more power play chances than anyone else in the league.
The Warriors average 15 minutes in penalties a game. They were under that in both home games the 2-1 overtime loss and their 6-3 win. They were over that mark (substantially) in both the Warriors’ 4-3 win and 5-0 loss in Calgary.
3. Line match-ups — the key to the Warriors’ success has been the balance between their top three lines and the match-up problems it causes for other teams. Simply put if the Warriors’ checking line can do a good job on the opposition’s top line and the Warriors top line can play well against one of the opposition’s other top lines, the Warriors’ second line of Hood-Rowinski-Honejsek gets some favourable match-ups against bottom-six players.
That’s why Jason Bast’s injury was such a blow. Not only was the top line struggling to produce, but their struggles rubbed off on the second line who getting a lot more attention. From night to night that second line can be a game changer — when they spent lots of time in the offensive zone the Warriors are tough to beat. When they spend a lot of playing defence that favours the opposition.
The first job is seeing if Spencer Edwards, Cody Smuk and Jesse Paradis can help keep the Hitmen’s big guns in check. They’ve done a great job all season against some big name players, but they also recently saw Swift Current and Brandon’s top lines have some big nights.
Calgary head coach Mike Williamson likes to tinker with his lines almost as much as Warriors’ bench boss Dave Hunchak does. The Hitmen’s top line will definitely feature Joel Broda and Brandon Kozun and will likely have Russian Misha Fisenko out there to be a play-maker. In the 2008 series, Kozun killed the Warriors tallying four goals and four assists from the second line.
It’s a big challenge, but probably no worse than trying to corral Regina’s top line, which the Warriors third line did consistently.
Danny Gayle will start on the Warriors top line with Jason Bast and Thomas Frazee and the Hitmen’s checking line of Ian Schultz (6-3), Tyler Fiddler (6-0) and Tyler Shattock (6-3) will spend a lot of time against the Warriors’ top line. While Shattock and Schultz are big power forwards, Fiddler is one of the more under-rated players in the Eastern Conference. A key member of the Prince Albert Mintos’ Sask. midget AAA title team, Fiddler had 30 goals and led the team in plus-minus.
The Hitmen still have quality players like Jimmy Bubnick, Cody Sylvester, Kris Foucault and Del Cowan to throw on their second line. The Warriors are going to need to win at least two of these three line match-ups. They’re going to need to generate a fair number of chances to score goals and the more time they spend on the attack, the less time the Hitmen have to create danger with their offensive skill and the less likely the Warriors are to take penalties.
While the Hitmen’s offensive depth is very challenging, it’s still not as scary as that of the Brandon Wheat Kings.
4. The Hitmen’s defence — As good as Michael Stone is, the Hitmen’s top pair are actually Zak Stebner and Matt MacKenzie. The Hitmen have a lot of size on defence and MacKenzie, 18, is pretty under-rated.
Still Stone is likely to log lots of minutes and pair with former Warrior Giffen Nyren. The 20-year-old is capable of dazzling rushes with the puck, but was dealt by Kamloops early in the season after being a minus-15 in 25 games.
After that the Hitmen have four more defencemen who have no playoff experience. The only one who isn’t a rookie is Kyle Aschim who played 41 games over three years with Prince Albert. The Hitmen will likely roll four defencemen a lot, but as talented and deep as they are, their defence is one of the only areas where they aren’t as deep.
5. Goaltending — another obvious factor given that Jones picked up the Eastern Conference nomination for the Del Wilson Trophy that goes to the goalie of the year on Wednesday.
Jones is capable of stealing games and has been fantastic in the second half. He recorded seven of his eight shutout wins this season since Jan. 16. Jones posted three straight shutouts to start March. A run that lasted 187 minutes and 59 seconds.
Jeff Bosch was also better in the second half. He posted four of his six shutouts after Christmas and had won four straight starts before being injured against Brandon.
It would be unfair to expect Bosch to out-play Jones and try to steal the series. But he is going to have to match Jones’ play as best he can. It may not be enough, but if the Warriors have any hope of pulling an upset, Bosch is going to be critical.
When the Warriors beat the Hitmen in the second round in 2006 Joey Perricone out-played Justin Pogge in the Game 6 and Game 7 wins. No one would have predicted that going into the series.
Perricone flat-out stole Game 5 in 2008 in the Saddledome with a 44-save performance.
6. Finally a nod to Dave Hunchak. The Warriors head coach said that: “the team that has the least amount of turnovers in the series is probably going to win.”
It makes sense. Given the speed each team has up front, neutral zone turnovers will be going the other direction very quickly.
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The Warriors weren’t entirely shutout of the WHL year end awards Wednesday. Captain Jason Bast was named the Eastern Conference finalist for the Brad Hornung Trophy which goes to the most sportsmanlike player of the year.
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The Warriors’ loss Sunday to Swift Current dropped them down to eighth in the Eastern Conference standings, but it also moved them up to the 10th selection in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft.
The WHL held its draft lottery Wednesday and the Prince George Cougars had their ping pong ball pulled after finishing with the worst record in the league.
Thanks to two Brandon draft picks acquired in the Travis Hamonic trade the Warriors be selecting 10th, 21st, 32nd and 43rd.
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The Warriors may call-up some extra players for the playoffs, but none are planned immediately.
They will, however, bring in Calgarian Sam Fioretti for Friday’s off-day practice. Fioretti has not signed a WHL player’s contract, but the 1993-born player impressed the Warriors after a strong training camp.
Fioretti spent this past season with the midget AAA Calgary Buffaloes who were swept in the Alberta Midget Hockey League’s Chrysler Division final series Friday.
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Many different Western Hockey League writers are offering up their playoff predictions. Here’s what a few of the league’s pundits feel about the Warriors’ chances:
Rob Henderson, Brandon Sun — Calgary in 4
James Shewaga, Brandon Sun — Calgary in 5
Greg Meachem, Red Deer Advocate — Calgary in 4
Rob Vanstone, Regina Leader-Post — Calgary in 5
Kevin Mitchell, Saskatoon StarPhoenix — Calgary in 4
Cory Wolfe, Saskatoon StarPhoenix — Calgary in 4
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Jeff Bromley from the Cranbrook Daily Townsman has a story on former Warrior netminder Todd Mathews and his eye-popping 50 minutes in penalties this season.
You can read it at Bromley’s blog: http://jeffbromley.blogspot.com/