WHEELING, W.V. – Heading into the final weekend of the ECHL regular season, there are only two things certain in the North Division; one, nothing is etched in stone; and two, Brampton Beast are not playing past Sunday.
The three teams who clinched playoff spots — Manchester, Adirondack, and Reading — are separated by just three points.
The fourth playoff spot is currently held by Worcester with a magic number of two. Wheeling is three points back of Worcester.
Division leader Manchester has three games remaining; everyone else has two. Manchester, Adirondack, and Reading have a shot to win the division if the chips fall right.
The highest Worcester can climb to is third, should they win out and Reading stumble.
For Wheeling, fourth is the best they could do after faltering on the road down the stretch, but they will need to win and get help.
Together with my ECHL North colleagues, we break down each team heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
The Monarchs have held the division lead for quite some time, and at one point were a whopping eight points ahead of their nearest rivals. Going into the final weekend of the season, they have a scant one-point lead over the Thunder, with Reading only three points behind.
More bad news: the Monarchs are on a 0-3-0-1 run right now, and haven’t had a streak (win or lose) end at fewer than five since February 10th. That’s fairly absurd. Oh, and as they’ve done seven times previously this season: with home-ice on the line, the Monarchs will play three days straight to finish out the season.
Tonight, they visit Glens Falls to fight with the Thunder, a game that means practically everything. Saturday and Sunday, they trade a home-and-home with potential first-round opponents Worcester.
So is there some good news? Well, sure. First of all, the Monarchs have a critical game-in-hand over all of the chasers. Secondly, even though two of their three are on the road, the Monarchs are one win better away from the SNHU than they are inside of it. And third: they control their own destiny against the Thunder. A win over Adirondack clinches the division. A single point makes Saturday and Sunday interesting. All sorts of things would have to happen for the Monarchs to regain the lead, including a Brampton win over the Thunder on the final day of the season. Not likely. Also possible: the Monarchs fall to third. Last weekend of the season and they can finish anywhere in the top three? Madness. Even crazier: their first-round opponents could be any of four different teams.
ECHL North…gotta love it.
The Adirondack Thunder currently sit in second place in the tight North Division, only one point out of first. The third-place team, Reading Royals, only trail Adirondack by two points. The standings are not yet set in stone, and the Thunder could end up anywhere from first place to third, depending on how things shake out not only with their own games, but with their rivals’ as well.
The Thunder have two games remaining in the regular season. They face the North Division’s top team, Manchester Monarchs, at home Friday night. A win or overtime/shootout loss would keep Adirondack in the running for the first-place slot. A regulation loss would relegate them to second place at best. The Thunder have had some success against the Monarchs, going 7-4-1-0 on the season, though only 3-2-0-0 at home.
After having the day off Saturday, the Thunder travel to Canada to take on the Brampton Beast to close out the regular season. This should be a relatively easy game for Adirondack. The Beast are out of playoff contention and seemingly have nothing to play for. Also, Brampton plays in Kalamazoo Saturday and has to travel overnight for the 2 pm game Sunday.
Even if the Thunder win both games, it is still very possible for Manchester to come out on top in the standings, as they only need three of a possible six points to clinch the division title. The Thunder will finish in no less than second place with any combination of two points earned. With so many factors at play, the final divisional seedings may not be known until Sunday afternoon.
The Reading Royals end the regular season with a home-and-home set against the Norfolk Admirals on Friday and Saturday night. Friday night’s game will go down at The Scope in Norfolk, Virginia, where the two teams matched up against each other earlier this season. In the two previous outcomes, the Royals outscored the Admirals by a margin of 9-1. Matt Willows has scored a third of the Royals goals this season against the Admirals and is the first Royal to have a 30-goal season since Olivier Labelle back in 2014-15.
Entering the games this weekend, the Royals are three points behind Manchester for first place and two points behind the Adirondack Thunder. Winning the division seems like a steep mountain for the Royals to climb, but they can jump over Adirondack for second place and get home ice for the first round. Against the Thunder this season, the Royals went 7-7, but haven’t beaten them since December 30th. On the other hand, against the Monarchs this season, the Royals went 4-5 in the nine regular-season matchups.
Keep an eye on who makes the Royals playoff roster and who doesn’t. More than likely, Kirk MacDonald will be carrying three goalies; Branden Komm, John Muse, and Mark Dekanich; which is something you don’t see often in the ECHL.
The Railers had a hell of a fight ahead of them if they were going to make the playoffs. They had a few things going for them, not the least of which was their favorable schedule compared to that of the Nailers, who they had been chasing. Well, here we are, at the final weekend of the regular season, and dreams do come true. The Railers have sole possession of the final playoff spot, with a three-point lead over Wheeling and with both teams having only two remaining games.
Long story short, the Railers need two points to seal the deal. One point leaves the door open for Wheeling, who would most likely own the tiebreaker if push came to shove. Not preferable.
But, there are a few obstacles in the Railers’ path to the franchise’s first playoff berth. First and foremost: their final two games are against the Monarchs, who will be fighting to keep their hold on the division title. Secondly, the first of Wheeling’s games is against Brampton, which is as close to two free points as you can get in the North. However, the Nailers also have to contend with the Fort Wayne Komets, a 94-point squad who have dropped a ridiculous 276 goals on opponents this season (for you mathy types, that’s four goals per game. FOUR.) That might be a roadblock too high for the struggling Nailers.
Expect the Railers to clinch the fourth spot, and face the Monarchs, Thunder, or maybe even the Royals in round one.
Wheeling has two games left this weekend: Friday night in Brampton and Saturday in Fort Wayne. This season, the Nailers are 3-2-0-0 against the Beast. Wheeling leads in goals-for, having outscored Brampton 21-18. Wheeling won the last meeting, which was at Wesbanco Arena, and eliminated Brampton from postseason contention in the process.
On Saturday night, the Nailers will be in Fort Wayne to battle the Komets. Fort Wayne is locked into the playoffs as the second seed in the Western Conference’s Central Division. Wheeling is 1-4-0-0 against Fort Wayne, including a loss on its only trip to the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. Fort Wayne has outscored Wheeling 21-14 this season and the Komets won the last meeting between the two, a 4-3 contest in Wheeling.
To qualify for the postseason, Wheeling must win both games. In addition, Worcester can gain no more than one point as they currently lead Wheeling by three points. If the teams were to finish tied in points, and one or both wins for the Nailers came in regulation/overtime, then the Nailers would hold the first tiebreaker.
The Beast are going to close out their season with one final 3-in-3. As is typical of these situations, Friday and Sunday they are home, and Saturday they will be on the road. Such is the hard life that most minor pro hockey players endure. While the Beast cannot make the playoffs, having been eliminated before the start of April, their games still matter.
Tonight, they host the Wheeling Nailers. Having played five games thus far, the Beast are 2-3-0 in the season series, and are hoping to win one to tie the series and go out with their heads held high. Meanwhile, the Nailers need the win to stay in the playoff hunt and get back to fourth.
On Saturday night, the Beast play in Kalamazoo for the ninth time this season. While neither team has the edge (series is 4-4-0 for the Beast), the Wings are in the same boat as the Nailers: trying to get into the playoffs from the fifth spot in the central division. Every point will count for the Wings, but the Beast like to play in the ‘Zoo.
Sunday will be their toughest challenge. The hard-fighting Thunder comes to town deep in the hunt for first in the North. They can also drop to third if they lose to the Beast and the Royals win both of their games. The Beast and Thunder have played ten times already this season, with Brampton going is 4-5-1 in those games, but the Thunder have won the last two meetings. The Beast are unlikely to have any gas in the tank, but then that is hard to say. The last 3-in-3 the Beast had, they dropped the first game and then beat the Walleye on Saturday and the Fuel on Sunday in an overtime thriller.
The Beast are out of the playoffs. All of their games mean something for their opponents. All of their games mean something for their fans. The Beast could come out of the weekend ruining the Nailers, just like they did two seasons ago to the Jackals. The Beast could also easily drop all three games and only be proud that they were not the bottom of the East.