Mid-season report: West Division
Of the all the division leaders at the break, the Alaska Avalanche (22-9-2, 46 points) may be the most intriguing. It is thanks in large part to their no-nonsense and business-like way which they have climbed atop the West standings ahead of the perennial names that people are used to seeing at the top. Alaska has a seven point lead thanks to the fact they lost just once in regulation since November 11th, a stretch of 14 games. The Avs have one the league’s best defensemen in UCONN recruit Joe Schmitz, who ranks 4th in the NAHL with a +24 rating. Offensively, the Avalanche are being led by Evan Janssen and his team-leading 16 goals. Gage Christianson, Kevin Novakovich, Mitch Kontny and Air Force recruit Ryan Dau also have contributed offensively to help Avs into 1st place. Alaska got a big lift with the return of Brandon Brossoit to the line-up, who is averaging almost a point per game since his return. The Avalanche team numbers are not eye-popping like a Bismarck or an Amarillo, but they have a very good concept of playing as a team. They also play very well with a lead, not having lost a game yet in regulation when leading after two periods. They also have two very capable netminders in Nick Kulmanovsky and Bodhi Engum. Kulmanovsky has three shutouts so far this season and a save percentage over 92%. Engum has a 10-3-0 record and has put up some good numbers as well. Perhaps the biggest number is the Avs 5-0-1 record this season against Fairbanks, the defending Robertson Cup Champion. That type of success and subsequent confidence will be paramount for the Avs when they begin the playoffs this year looking to finally win a West Division playoff championship.
The defending Champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs (16-7-7, 39 points) are finding out that as the current cup holder they are getting their opponent’s best games almost every night. Yet, they still have found a way to reload their squad and remain in the hunt for a division title. Fairbanks hasn’t missed a beat under new head coach Trevor Stewart and they have the league’s top two scorers in veterans Gabe Levin (46 points) and JT Osborn (45 points). Both have proven that skill is king and you don’t have to be an oversized, power forward to be successful of get noticed while playing in the NAHL. Alaska-Fairbanks recruit Alec Hajdukovich also has had a great first half of the season with 31 points and 18 goals. The Ice Dogs have only seven regulation losses, however they also lead the league in overtime/shootout losses with seven. Perhaps the most staggering statistic is that the 16 of the Ice Dogs 30 games to this point have been decided by a goal. The Ice Dogs have tremendous depth with the likes of Taylor Munson, Pavlo Padakin and newcomer Jeff Earnest on offense, while Sean O’Rourke and Anton Racklin provide one of the best defensive combinations in the league. Fairbanks has a solid combination in goal with Alex Fons and Steve Perry, both of whom could be considered a #1 netminder in the NAHL. History may be on the Ice Dogs side. Four times in the last eight years, NAHL teams have successfully defended their Robertson Cup title and Fairbanks has the personnel to do just that this season.
Occupying 3rd place in the West are the Kenai River Brown Bears (17-10-1, 35 points), who at this midway point of the season are on pace to have their best record in franchise history. Kenai River was in 1st place for a time this season thanks to a red-hot October. Like Fairbanks, the Brown Bears have been accustomed to playing in tight games so far this season. 15 of their 28 games have been decided by just a goal. However, what is giving everyone in Kenai River so much optimism is their ability to win on the road this season. The Brown Bears have one of the best road records in the league at 9-3-1. Despite the fact they finished the first half winning just three of their last nine games, they are well positioned for a playoff run this season. Holy Cross recruit and third year forward Brett Lubanski is one of the best set-up men in the league. He is tied for 4th in the NAHL with 35 assists and leads the team with 35 points. Air Force recruit Jesse Ramsey has 18 points and a team-leading +8 rating from the blueline this season. One of the big things you notice when looking at the Kenai roster this season is the lack of ‘x’ by players. It means that very few players are on the move or cut, and a sense of stability has been created by head coach Oliver David, who should get some consideration for Coach of the Year to this point. Paul Bourbeau and Austin Severson have split time in goal to this point and both have put up numbers that make the Brown Bears playoff worthy. The key to the second half will not only be making the playoffs, but finding a way to get over the 1st round playoff hump to have a shot to make it to the Robertson Cup tournament.
In a tie for 3rd with Kenai River sit the Fresno Monsters (14-8-7, 35 points). Along with Fairbanks, the Monsters have seven losses this season in overtime or a shootout to lead the league in that category. They also have played in 15 games decided by a goal. Right before the break the Monsters shook up their roster by trading second leading scorer Jeff McMinimy to Springfield. Plenty of firepower remains and what has gotten Fresno to this point as a legitimate playoff contender is their special teams. Thanks to players like leading scorer Brendan Bradley and defensemen Jeff Pauluk and Kyle Sucher, the Monsters boast the league’s best power play, scoring almost 25% of the time. They also have the league’s 3rd ranked penalty kill. Riley Borer and Mikhail Bushinski also add depth up front. In goal, it has been like clockwork as Tomas Sholl and Macauley Haight have split every game so far this season. They have identical records, but Sholl has proven to be better statistically, ranking in the top six in goals against average and save percentage. Fresno faces a brutal final month of the season with 10 of their final 12 games on the road, which is why their nine games at home coming back from the break in December and January may be the difference between making the playoffs or missing out.
In 5th place in the West and in unfamiliar territory is the Wenatchee Wild (14-9-4, 32 points). The Wild do boast the league’s best goaltending duo in Robert Nichols and Greg Lewis, who rank 1-2 in NAHL goaltending statistics respectively. As a team, Wenatchee gives up just 1.70 goals per game, by far the best in the NAHL by over half a goal per game. However, Wenatchee ranks 21st in offense scoring 2.74 goals per game, a number that was actually lower until recently since the Wenatchee offensive production has started to pick up. Leading the charge has been Air Force recruit Ben Carey, who leads the team in goals (15) and points (32). Newcomer Blake Roubos is a welcome addition with six points in his four games in a Wenatchee uniform. Shawn Pauly and Chris Kerr both are over the 20-point mark. The Wild could use more production from their blueliners as just five of the Wild’s 74 total goals have come off the sticks of defensemen this season. Wenatchee has also played just 27 games to this point, so following the break they will have games in hand on the rest of the division they will need to take advantage of. With Wenatchee just three points away from 3rd place and seven points from 2nd place, a couple of winning streaks will secure them their fourth straight trip to the playoffs for a shot at a return to the Robertson Cup.
At the bottom of the West Division is the Dawson Creek Rage (7-24-2, 16 points), who have yet to click yet this season with just seven wins, the third lowest total in the NAHL. The Rage rank in the bottom four in the league in goal for and goals against. The Rage do have three players that are above the 20-point plateau and have had good offensive seasons in Ryan Matthews, Jason Wark and Scott Fellnermayr. Josh Hartley has had a productive season on the blueline. In goal, both Jack Surgenor and veteran Edward Dyson have combined to see over 1,200 shots this season, but for the team to start winning on a consistent basis in the second half, both Surgenor and Dyson will have to improve their save percentages, which are both at 87%. 15 of Dawson Creek’s next 17 games are at home, so the schedule sets up nicely after the break after a first half filled with brutal roadtrips. What has improved for the Rage however is their attendance, which is up this season over last season with the meat of the season remaining. Although the Rage are currently well out of the playoff picture with their schedule after the break, anything is possible. All they need is a run and something to bring it all together because it isn’t too late.