TORONTO — The Canadian Hockey League is down to only a handful of games remaining for each team, and there's plenty to pay attention to before the playoffs begin.
The Quebec Major Junior League season wraps up on March 16, while the Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League finish one day later.
Here are 10 storylines to watch down the home stretch of the season:
— Who will squeeze into the playoff spots still available?
The post-season picture is nearly set in the QMJHL, with just one available spot remaining, while the OHL and WHL could come down to the final week of the season. Saint John trails the Shawinigan Cataractes by three points for the last opening in the QMJHL, but the Sea Dogs had a game in hand going into Thursday night. Saint John and Shawinigan are both on 10-game losing streaks. Meanwhile, the OHL still has four available spots in both the West and the East, with the Flint Firebirds and Kingston Frontenacs being the only clubs guaranteed to not make it. In the WHL, the only league to use a wild-card format, seven teams are in the running for the final five spots.
— Can the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies set the new QMJHL single-season record for wins?
Rouyn-Noranda hasn't lost a game in all of 2019 and tied the 1973-74 Sorel Eperviers for the longest win streak in QMJHL history on Wednesday at 25 games with an 8-3 victory over the Shawinigan Cataractes. At 55-7-1, the Huskies need to win just three of their final five games to match the single-season wins record of 58 jointly held by the ’73-74 Eperviers, Saint John (2010-11), Halifax Mooseheads (2012-13) and Trois-Rivieres Draveurs (1978-79).
— Can Dustin Wolf set the WHL single-season goals-against average record?
The Everett Silvertips netminder has put up the best numbers of any goalie across the CHL this season and could finish with the best single-season GAA if he can stand tall in the final five games of the season. The 17-year-old from California is 40-13-1 with a 1.71 GAA and .936 save percentage in 57 games, putting him close to Kelly Guard's all-time best 1.56 GAA set in 2003-04 with the Kelowna Rockets. Wolf's GAA is already the second best all-time for goalies to play over 3,000 minutes in a season and with his Silvertips tied atop the West standings with Vancouver, he may not get much rest down the stretch.
— Will Alexis Lafreniere be the youngest player to lead the QMJHL in scoring in a decade?
The Rimouski Oceanic star isn't eligible for the NHL draft until 2020 but could still wind up taking home the Jean Beliveau Trophy as the QMJHL's top scorer this season. The Saint-Eustache, Que., native would be the first 17-year-old to lead the league in scoring since Philadelphia Flyers forward Sean Couturier, who did it in 2009-10 with Drummondville. As of Wednesday, Lafreniere sat second with 103 points in 58 games, putting him four points behind leader Peter Abbandonato of Rouyn-Noranda with four games to go. What makes it even more impressive is that Lafreniere missed eight games while at the world junior hockey championship.
— Can the Kootenay Ice go out on a winning note?
The Ice are closing out their final season in Cranbrook, B.C. after 21 years as the team plans to relocate to Winnipeg for 2019-20. The final season has been a tough one for the remaining fans in Kootenay with the club expected to finish second last in the 22-team WHL while missing the post-season for the fourth year in a row. The Ice have just a .297 win percentage at home, but are hoping to go out with a victory when they host their final game at Western Financial Place on March 17 against the Red Deer Rebels.
— Will the defending Memorial Cup champions win at least once more this season?
The Acadie-Bathurst Titan sold the farm to win last year's national title and are paying for it this season as they sit in the league basement — approaching a record no team wants. The New Brunswick squad had lost 23 straight games heading into Thursday night's meeting with Saint John to sit 7-50-5 and is four defeats away from tying the 1975-76 Shawinigan Dynamos for the QMJHL single-season losing streak mark.
— Can Zachary Emond tie or break the QMJHL single-season shutout record?
The 18-year-old Emond is Rouyn-Noranda's 1B behind starter Samuel Harvey, and he's gone 21-0-1 with a 1.79 GAA and .929 save percentage in 25 games. Despite being the backup, the St. Cyprien, Que., native has posted six shutouts, leaving him just one behind the league record shared by five players. The Huskies have five games remaining, which would likely give Emond two final starts to try to match, or beat, the mark last reached in 2013-14 by Philippe Cadorette.
— Which league will have the most players reach the century mark in points?
The OHL currently leads the way with four players already over the 100-point mark and could double it with four more with at least 93 points after having six do it last season. The WHL, which had nine players reach the mark last season, has two skaters over 100 points and the chance to raise it to six with four skaters sitting at 92 or more points. And the QMJHL has two players over 100 points and the chance to add two more. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds forward Morgan Frost and Portland Winterhawks forward Joachim Blichfeld currently are tied for the CHL scoring lead with 107 points.
— Which league has the best chance to produce the most first-round picks for the 2019 NHL draft?
Behind American Jack Hughes, who has been pegged as the No. 1 selection for the upcoming NHL draft, is a large contingent of WHL talent leading the way as potential fist-round draft picks. The top four CHL draft prospects on the NHL's Central Scouting list of North American skaters come from the west, with Saskatoon Blades forward Kirby Dach (No. 2) making the top of the list. Mississauga Steelheads defenceman Thomas Harley (No. 9) is the top-ranked skater from the OHL while the highest-ranked player from the QMJHL is Halifax Mooseheads forward Raphael Lavoie at No. 13. In total, out of the top 30 North American skaters, eight are from the WHL, seven are from the OHL and three from the QMJHL.
— What veterans could sign AHL contracts as free agents when their junior season ends?
The end of every junior season leads to players signing tryout contracts in the American Hockey League in an attempt to take their career to the next level. How deep a junior team goes on a playoff run often dictates who could sign an AHL deal, meaning forwards like Abbandonato and Kevin Hancock (London) likely won't taste pro this season as they chase league titles. But there are plenty of other veterans that could take the next step including forwards Jeremy McKenna (Moncton), Justin Brazeau (North Bay) and Mark Kastelic (Calgary), defencemen Charle-Edouard D'Astous (Rimouski), Kade Landry (Hamilton) and Dawson Davidson (Saskatoon), and goalies Tristan Cote-Cazenave (Victoriaville), Luke Richardson (Kitchener) and Dylan Myskiw (Edmonton).
Around the CHL: Longtime Saint John Sea Dogs equipment manager David (DK) Kelly died on Thursday after a long battle with cancer at the age of 40. Kelly was head equipment manager for the team's inception in 2005 before joining the front office in 2017. ... It's been a difficult few days for the QMJHL, with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada announcing the death of forward Alec Reid on Sunday. The 18-year-old Reid had been dealing with complications related to epilepsy that had sidelined him from his squad since Feb. 19. Reid was in his first QMJHL season. ... Hockey Canada announced Thursday that London Knights executive Mark Hunter, former assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, will lead the national junior program next season.
Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press