By Neate Sager
The West's best have company. This week, the Western Hockey League has its best, balanced showing during the 37 years 15 months the Dynamic Dozen has been kept, with three teams from each conference cracking the top 12.
Credit the Calgary Hitmen, who are channeling the championship juggernaut of two seasons ago, for adding more spice to a thick stew in the Eastern Conference. Meantime, the Tri-City Americans hit a rough patch, opening the door to the Quebec league's leaders to take the top two slots. And guess what? Saint John and Shawinigan have a game on Saturday.
1. Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL (.566 RPI, +2) — Plowed through two wins last week, with the Hub Line of Zack Phillips between Jonathan Huberdeau and Charlie Coyle looking sharp, particularly on Sunday vs. Blainville-Boisbriand. (Coyle and Phillips each have Massachusetts ties, hence Hub). The only fault one can find with Saint John's week is a centre-ice coughup that Nathan Beaulieu had in that Armada game. Amazingly, no Montreal sportswriters are suggesting the Canadiens trade him; it's only a matter of when until the media there start suggesting any good young defenceman in the Habs system get dealt just to make sure he won't make mistakes in Montreal. (Yes, that's sarcasm about the suggestion the Habs move P.K. Subban.)
2. Shawinigan Cataractes, QMJHL (.561, +3) — You know how you know the pressure is off Cats coach Éric Veilleux? He's dropped the ban on players using Twitter. Note that he did it after loading up on veterans. Shawinigan is three games into an eight-game stretch at home that includes a return game Saturday vs. Saint John, which it beat in the second week of January. That was Coyle's first game with the Sea Dogs; much has changed.
3. Tri-City Americans, WHL (.555 RPI, -2) — Five games in a row without a regulation win has eroded the Americans' once-massive lead over the rest of the pack; the only game in that stretch where they got the W was an overtime contest in Edmonton that star goalie Ty Rimmer stole from the Oil Kings. Surely Tri-City sorely needed the four-day break it has this week before getting back to business.
4. Portland Winterhawks, WHL (.556, —) — They a three-game win streak into a three-game homestand this weekend. One should not worry about Ty Rattie being without a goal in his past four games. The leading sniper in the WHL had six assists in that stretch, suggesting he's adapting to how teams are defensing his line.
5. Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL (.553, -3) — In the ebb and flow of a season, having a single-game week after a middling 1-1-1-0 week is probably big for the Oil Kings. It's a good chance to move on and find their focal point. Draft prospect Henrik Samuelsson recently had his first two-goal game since coming over from Sweden earlier this month.
6. Victoriaville Tigres, QMJHL (.548, —) — Overage centre Yanni Gourde could reach 100 points by Valentine's Day, needing nine in Victo's next four games. One does have to wonder about a team that leads the country in goals per game but gets zonked in what was supposed to be a big game vs. Shawinigan, though. The Tigres' mettle will get tested in two weeks when they do a three-game Maritime swing, followed by another road trip the next weekend.
7. Moose Jaw Warriors, WHL (.547, +1) — How about the Eastern Conference in the WHL, where seven points separate second from sixth? The Warriors have been that group's rock all season, as their three wins last week once again affirmed. Nineteen-year-old forward Justin Kirsch carried the mail last week with seven points in three games; goalie Luke Siemens seemed dialled in (81 saves on 84 shots over the same stretch). The Warriors have a challenging start to the new month, with 4-of-5 games on the road.
8. Calgary Hitmen, WHL (.541, +7) — The Richard Dreyfuss character in the criminally underrated gambling comedy Let It Ride never had a run so good. The Hitmen won six games in nine days, including four against top-flight teams. Veterans Jimmy Bubnick and Cody Sylvester have been lead contributors during this 14-1-0-0 run.
9. Plymouth Whalers, OHL (.539, -2) — Someone lit a nice fire under or at least around New York Rangers first-rounder J.T. Miller, who has had three two-goal games in the past fortnight. Plymouth finished the month well with three wins during a Barrie-Sudbury-Sault Ste. Marie swing through northern Ontario, with captain Beau Schmitz playing like a tower of strength in the last leg of the trip. They play 7-of-11 February games at home as they set their sights on first overall.
10. Quebec Remparts, QMJHL (.538, +1) — The Remparts are gladder than most to say au revoir to the January blahs. There probably isn't a team that didn't deal with fatigue this month, but it caught up to them. It turns out there is no way a team can save goals from a blowout game and apply them to the next one. Are there are any more showcase events that Patrick Roycan get mad about his players attending?
11. Spokane Chiefs, WHL (.537, -2) — One wonders if there's a way to quantify which coaches have done the best with switching goalies in a contested game. The head Chief, Don Nachbaur, pulled off a beaut in an eventual OT win last week by going from Mac Engel to Eric Williams (remember him from last season's playoffs vs. Saskatoon?). Spokane staying up gives each Western league conference three teams in the ranking this week. Meantime, January arrival Dylan Walchuk has five goals in his first 10 games.
12. London Knights, OHL (.532, —) — They have been short-handed on defence and don't have an apparent backup for goalie Michael Houser. On the plus side, they still have not lost two games in a row all season, which is keeping them ahead of Plymouth for the OHL lead.
The next dozen — 13. Saskatoon Blades, WHL (.531, —); 14. Chicoutimi Saguenéens, QMJHL (.528, +6); 15. Medicine Hat Tigers, WHL (.526, -1); 16. Kamloops Blazers, WHL (.524, -6); 17. Niagara IceDogs, OHL (.523, -1); 18. Rimouski Océanic, QMJHL (.521, +5); 19. Acadie-Bathurst Titan, QMJHL (.521, —); 20. Halifax Mooseheads, (.515, +5); 21. Kitchener Rangers, OHL (.514, +8); 22. Baie-Comeau Drakkar, QMJHL (.513, -4); 23. Regina Pats, WHL (.513, -6); 24. Ottawa 67's, OHL (.508, —).
Dropping out — Kootenay Ice, WHL (from 20th to 26th) and Brampton Battalion, OHL (22nd to 27th).
Hot team — Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, QMJHL, up 18 spots (50th to 32nd).
Cold team — Val-d'Or Foreurs, QMJHL, down 12 (38th to 40th).
Looking (nowhere but) up — Erie Otters, OHL (.410 RPI).
An explanation on rankings — Buzzing The Net uses Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) with a recency factor. RPI combines a team's record with the strength of its opponents to produce an overall rating. Our method also gives more weight to recently played games. Shootout wins and losses are classified as ties for philosophical and practical reasons. All three CHL leagues are considered equivalent in quality. All results based on play through Mon., Jan. 30.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports . Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: The Canadian Press).