By Aaron Bell
The Road to the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup in Saskatoon is getting clearer every day. There are still 12 teams in the hunt for the three champion spots in the tournament as all three league semi-finals get underway this week.
In the Ontario Hockey League, the defending OHL champion London Knights face the Plymouth Whalers in the Western Conference final while the Belleville Bulls and Barrie Colts meet in the Eastern Conference finals.
In the Western Hockey League, the Portland Winterhawks and Kamloops Blazers meet in the Western Conference championship while the Edmonton Oil Kings and Calgary Hitmen meet in an all-Alberta Eastern Conference final.
In the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Halifax Mooseheads and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies meet in one semi-final while the Baie-Comeau Drakkar and Blainville-Boisbriand Armada meet in the other.
The four finalists in the OHL were the four division winners in the regular season and all had a relatively easy road to the semi-finals.
The Knights swept the Saginaw Spirit in the opening round of the playoffs and then got past the Kitchener Rangers in five games to advance to the semi-finals. The Whalers swept the Sarnia Sting the first round and then knocked off the Owen Sound Attack in six games to set up their series against the Knights.
"They’ve got a lot of high NHL picks, just like us," Knights head coach Dale Hunter told the London Free Press. "So it should be a real exciting series with lots of skill and lots of will."
In the Eastern Conference, the Colts are coming off of a pair of playoff sweeps – first against the Kingston Frontenacs and then against the Oshawa Generals and are looking to keep that momentum rolling against the Bulls, who needed six games to eliminate the Mississauga Steelheads in the first round before sweeping the Sudbury Wolves in the second.
The Winterhawks and Blazers both come into the WHL semi-finals after second round sweeps. The Winterhawks swept the Spokane Chiefs after a six-game series win over the Everett Silvertips in the opening round.
The Blazers needed six games to get past the Victoria Royals in the first round before sweeping the Kelowna Rockets.
"They are two of the most offensively dangerous teams in our conference,"
Rockets’ coach Ryan Huska told The Kamloops Daily News. "I think it will be a fast paced series. Probably at the end of the day it will come down to goaltenders."
In the Eastern Conference, the Oil Kings knocked off the Kootenay Ice in five games in the opening round before a four-game sweep of the Medicine Hat Tigers in the second while the Hitmen needed five games to get past the Swift Current Broncos in the first round and another five games to eliminate the Red Deer Rebels in the second round.
All four teams in the QMJHL semi-finals have cruised their way through the playoffs to date. The Mooseheads swept the Saint John Sea Dogs in the first round and the Gatineau Olympiques in the second round while the Huskies were winners in five games over the Drummondville Voltigeurs and then Quebec Remparts.
"For sure they’re confident, but we are too," Mooseheads coach Dominique Ducharme told The Chronicle Herald. "Again for us, it’s all about us preparing properly and making sure that we’re as good as we can be."
Meanwhile the Drakkar swept the Sherbrooke Phoneix in the first round and the Victoriaville Tigres in the second and the Armada knocked off the Acadie-Bathurst Titan in five games and then the Val-d’Or Foreurs in four.
The champion from each league will join the host Saskatoon Blades in the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup May 17-26 in Saskatchewan.