The Minnesota Wild missed the playoffs for a 4th season in a row, but that doesn't mean there is not quality Wild-related hockey still to watch. There are a small number of prospects battling their way through their respective league playoffs that should give Wild fans more than enough reason to check up on their progress. There is one Wild prospect so far that can say his team won a league championship, and no I'm not talking about the Golden Gophers' Erik Haula. I'm talking about Mario Lucia who had a fantastic season with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League (Jr. A). The Vees were a Minnesota-powered offensive juggernaut which mauled most of their competition with an incredible depth of firepower. Penticton dominated the 2011-12 regular season, which included a record breaking 42-game winning streak. No team in junior hockey history has ever won that many consecutive games. In the playoffs, the Vees had it a bit tougher but Penticton still rolled to a series sweep of the Powell River Kings in the BCHL Championship. Yet, the Fred Page Cup Champions' season is still not over. The Vees next opponent are the winners of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the Brooks Bandits as they battle for the Doyle Cup. This best of seven series will start April 20th.
Penticton Vees (Mario Lucia, 2nd row, 4th from left)
The Vees are not the only team with meaningful hockey left to be played. The Wild's American Hockey League affiliate the Houston Aeros understand just how slight their chance of qualifying for the post-season was. How slight was it? Try 2 3/8ths inches. That is the width of an NHL goal post, and in the Aeros' last game of the regular season against the Texas Stars that 2 3/8ths inches was all that was kept the Stars' Tomas Vincour's shot from finding the twine in the closing seconds of the game allowing Houston to sneak into the AHL post-season. The Aeros should also send its arch rival, the Milwaukee Admirals a nice thank you card for their generous 6-1 defeat of the Charlotte Checkers that gave Houston a chance to make it in the first place. If Vincour is just an inch or two inside on his shot we could be talking about the Aeros' season being over already. Making the AHL playoffs means the Wild's young players get at least 3 more guaranteed games to hone their game. Houston's reward for barely making the playoffs is a first round series (best of 5) against the Oklahoma City Barons, a division rival who more or less owned the Aeros throughout the regular season. So how well do the Aeros match up?
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Houston Aeros' Joel Broda
Houston Aeros 35-28-5-11
Top 5 Scorers:
1. #14 Jon DiSalvatore ~ 28G 33A = 61pts
2. #37 Justin Fontaine ~ 16G 39A = 55pts
3. #22 Jeff Taffe ~ 18G 35A = 53pts
4. #39 Chay Genoway ~ 7G 29A = 36pts
5. #20 Chad Rau ~ 14G 21A = 35pts
Top 3 PIM's:
1. #4 Drew Bagnall ~ 98 PIM's
2. #12 Cody Almond ~ 91 PIM's
3. #26 David McIntyre ~ 76 PIM's
1. #31 Matt Hackett (20-17-6) 2.38GAA .917%SP
2. #34 Mike Brodeur
Oklahoma City Barons 45-22-4-5
Top 5 Scorers:
1. #28 Ryan Keller ~ 21G 28A = 49pts
2. #26 Mark Arcobello ~ 17G 26A = 43pts
3. #15 Phillippe Cornet ~ 24G 13A = 37pts
4. #12 Josh Green ~ 16G 21A = 37pts
5. #10 Teemu Hartikainen ~ 14G 18A = 32pts
Top 3 PIM's:
1. #23 Triston Grant ~ 163 PIM's
2. #34 Alex Plante ~ 84 PIM's
3. #14 Antti Tyrvainen ~ 71 PIM's
1. #35 Yann Danis (26-14-2) 2.07GAA .924%SP
2. #1 David LeNeveu (18-12-3) 2.24GAA .918%SP
On paper, the Aeros look like a pretty good match for the Barons who are the AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers. And when you consider the Aeros are more or less completely healthy and have some slight upgrades in its defense with Nate Prosser and up front with Brett Bulmer and Nick Palmieri there is reason to believe this could be a much tougher series than the #1 vs. #8 match up that it is. Working in the Barons' favor is scoring depth and some tremendous experience in AHL veterans Ryan Keller (who won a Calder Cup last year against the Aeros as a key member of the Binghamton Senators) and Bryan Helmer who at age 40 brings perspective to a club that has a good blend of youth and seasoned veterans. Keller, Mark Arcobello and Phillippe Cornet are the offensive workhorses, and Corney especially has had some of his best gaimes against the Aeros so I think its without question he'll be shadowed rather closely. Defensively the Barons are led by Helmer but have a number Oilers' prospects on its blueline including Taylor Chorney, and big bodied bruisers in Alex Plante and Colten Teubert. The Oilers have a few forward prospects that will be looked to raise their game despite underwhelming performances in the regular season from Centennial High School's Tyler Pitlick and Magnus Paajarvi whose game seems to be in limbo right now.
Meanwhile the Aeros are going to need its veterans like Jon DiSalvatore and Jeff Taffe to raise their game and it certainly wouldn't hurt if some of Houston's younger core which includes Bulmer, Palmieri, Chad Rau, Justin Fontaine but also Kris Foucault and Joel Broda who both were pretty clutch through the month of April thus far. Foucault usually saves his best performances for the post-season as he was a playoff stud for the Calgary Hitmen. On the blueline, Chay Genoway is the engine that makes the Aeros' offense go as he makes an excellent first pass to start the rush. Prosser and fellow Colorado College alum Kris Fredheim along with seasoned vet and physical force Drew Bagnall will be looked to, to stabilize the Aeros' zone to sweep away any rebounds Matt Hackett may give up. Hackett must play very well for the Aeros to have a chance in this series and he could be the x-factor if Houston manages to pull off the upset. Hackett has proven he can carry this team a long way as evidenced by last year's run to the Calder Cup finals. So hopefully the team can rally around their goaltender to make another long run through the AHL playoffs. The best of 5 series starts Thursday in Houston at 7:05PM CST.
Saint John's Charlie Coyle
With the possible exception of the Penticton Vees, Wild fans' most likely successful playoff run is that of the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as they are led by two prospects in Zack Phillips and Charlie Coyle. And to say that Coyle and Phillips are leading the way could almost be construed as not giving these two enough credit. The Sea Dogs are absolutely destroying their competition, having swept both Cape Breton and Baie-Comeau respectively. Saint John overpowered both the Screaming Eagles and Drakkar with ease meaning they have spent the week patiently awaiting the outcome of the series between Chicoutimi and Shawinigan which is winding down to a decisive Game 7. Phillips and Coye have both been incredible and are #1 and #2 in playoff scoring. The 6'1" Phillips has 6 goals 23 points in 8 games, while Coyle has 11 goals and 21 points in 8 games. The Sea Dogs are hoping to win their 2nd straight QMJHL title and have a chance to repeat as Memorial Cup Champions and barring some unforeseen challenger I think they have to be considered the odds on favorite. When you consider their team sports four 1st round picks (Jonathan Huberdeau, Nathan Beaulieu, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips) and a number of other NHL drafted players the Sea Dogs simply possess the incredible depth that very few teams in major junior can even come close to.
Ottawa 67's Tyler Graovac
Coyle and Phillips are not the only Wild prospects in major junior still playing. Tyler Graovac of the Ottawa 67's is re-establishing himself after a tough injury-filled season. The 6'4" 190lbs center has found his scoring touch again as the 67's are rallying back against a tough Barrie Colts squad. The Brampton, Ontario-native has 3 goals, 7 points in 12 games. Most of those points have come in this most recent series against Barrie. We will see how this series ends Tuesday night as Graovac and the 67's hope to pull off the improbable comeback.
Brynas' Johan Larsson
Meanwhile in Europe, the Wild have to be excited about the strong play of Eliteserien Rookie of the Year Johan Larsson. Brynas is battling Skelleftea in the Eliteserien championship and currently Brynas has its opponent on the ropes with a 3-1 lead in the 7 game series. The Lau, Sweden-native has been logging important minutes and has chipped in a goal and 7 points in 14 games.
So there is plenty of Wild relevant hockey games still being played. Sure its not the same as having the hometown club in the playoffs, but there are still lots of good things happening for many future contributors of this franchise. Definitely something to pay attention to!