GWMHL

Playoff Preview: Sawchuk Quarterfinals

In Uncategorized on April 26, 2022 at 1:35 pm

The Sawchuk Conference quarterfinals have the makings of a meat grinder. While teams vie for the pleasure of facing Adirondack or West Virginia in the semis, even the first round will see some of the league’s better teams in action. Here’s what to look forward to:

Vancouver Night Train (53-23-6) vs. San Jose (36-38-8)

On paper, it doesn’t look good for San Jose. The Night Train finished with the league’s third best record and ended the season on a roll. They boasted the top powerplay (23.8%) and second best PK (87.1%). Only one team scored more goals and they were tied for the fewest goals allowed. Their dominant top line featured the league’s goal-scoring leader (Connor Brown with 70) and the league’s assist leader (Mark Stone with 80). Their defense had three guys over 50 points and one at 49, and deadline acquisition Mike Smith found a groove after a shaky start, posting 4 shutouts in 24 starts with his new team.

So it’ll be an uphill battle for the Hosers as they make their first playoff appearance in over two decades. But they too have high-end scorers in John Tavares and Mitch Marner, who each had 84 points, and a deep defense of their own, headlined by Cam Fowler (17 goals in 82 games) and two-way rock Charlie McAvoy (46 points in 76 games). Most critically, Vancouver won the season series only narrowly (3-2-1) with the results going down home/away lines — the Night Train managed just a road tie against the Hosers, and that could be an advantage for the lower seed in a 2-3-2 playoff format. There’s also the huge X factor of Igor Shesterkin. The young San Jose netminder posted poor numbers (3.47, .896 in 38 games) but has the ability to be so much better. If he can bring his game up to the level of his potential, he could steal a couple — and a couple is all it takes in a tough playoff series.

Farmington (50-23-9) vs. Ice Harbor (45-30-7)

This could be the most entertaining series of the four quarterfinals. The teams match up so well: each has high-end forward depth, 60-point defensemen to run the offense, and big question marks in goal. Ice Harbor scored more goals than any other team during the regular season and allowed the most goals, too. The Storm have Alex DeBrincat, who finished second in points with 122 and third in goals with 59, alongside 100-point men Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau; the Fighting Saints can counter with JT Miller (104 points) and Mikko Rantanen (102). The teams were comparable on the powerplay (Farmington 4th at 20.6%, Ice Harbor 3rd at 21.1%) but while Farmington’s PK was very good, the Storm had the league’s second worst penalty kill at 77.5%. Big edge for the Saints there.

Which brings us to goaltending, the source of much of the series intrigue. Farmington got solid performances out of Robin Lehner (28 games, 2.98, .912) and Ilya Samsonov (28 games, 3.23, .909), but Pekka Rinne was a lot less good (26 games, 3.25, .900). The problem is, due to eligibility rules, they’d have to play all three if the series were to go 7 games. And then there’s Ice Harbor. Carter Hart was a disaster this season, posting a .867 save percentage in 30 games. Jonathan Bernier (28 games, 3.93, .892) was better but not exactly good, and Linus Ullmark was decent (24 games, 3.38, .906). However, unlike Farmington, the Storm won’t have to play their worst goalie in the playoffs at all. Take Hart out of the equation and the goaltending goes from catastrophic to… passable?

We don’t have to go back far to look at the season series between these two, since all six of their games happened in the fourth quarter. Ice Harbor ended up going 3-2-1 and were undefeated on home ice (2-0-1), and — as you might expect — the teams combined for an absolute ton of goals — 56 of them in all, with the Storm scoring 7 twice and Farmington hitting the mark once. This series has barnburner written all over it.

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