Improved Avalanche likes chances in WSHL’s tight West
Sitting 10 games over .500 with a lineup that features three players in the top 10 in scoring in the Western States Hockey League (WSHL), the Ontario Avalanche may be an unusual pick for a dark horse candidate come playoff time.
Such is life in the league’s top division.
Under the guidance of first-year head coach Rob O’Rourke, the Avalanche have drastically improved from an up-and-down season a year ago, where they went 27-23-1 and changed coaches mid-season. Now featuring some fresh talent on the ice and a familiar face in O’Rourke – who previously coached the 18U AAA Avalanche – Ontario is looking to play spoiler in the West, a division that features two of the league’s top teams in Long Beach and Valencia, as well as a pair of radically improved squads in San Diego and Las Vegas.
“I would say we are cautiously optimistic,” said O’Rourke. “We are developing a little more depth and getting some scoring other than our top line. We’ve done a lot better job keeping the puck out of our own net as well. That’s what is going to get us to the next level come playoff time, so that has been an encouraging sign for us.”
Knowing that strong goaltending will be a must-have for the Avalanche to get out of the Western Division, Ontario recently added Owen Liskiewicz (pictured) to the mix in the crease and the 18-year-old hasn’t disappointed, posting three wins and a .933 save percentage in his first five starts. Liskiewicz will split time with incumbent starter Filip Subrt to give O’Rourke a rock-solid 1-2 punch in goal.
“Owen’s a big kid and he’s very controlled,” said O’Rourke. “He uses his body well and he covers a lot of the net – he doesn’t exaggerate his movements. He’s very fundamentally sound, and between him and Subrt, I’m very comfortable with what we’ve got.”
Up front for the Avalanche, you’d be hard-pressed to find a trio across the entire WSHL that has matched the production of Swedish-born snipers Filip Ullgren and Filip Stensson and their California linemate Manny Mancha. The top line has accounted for 88 of the Avalanche’s 197 goals this season.
“Stensson and Ullgren came in as a package deal as a couple of guys who had played together in the past and it’s almost as if those two can read each other’s mind,” said O’Rourke. “Adding Manny to those two was a no-brainer because he’s a perfect compliment. The chemistry is there, they lead by example and will do anything to help this team win and as a coach, there is nothing else you can ask for.”
While the middle of the West remains tight, there is still room for the first-round playoff picture to change. That said, O’Rourke is aware that his club is only .500 away from home, which means after the first round, the short series WSHL playoff format means that every game – should the Avalanche hold on to home-ice advantage in the first round and move on to round two – would be on the road.
However, O’Rourke will take his chances against any team.
“It’s funny people point out the road record because it’s not something I’m really worried about,” said O’Rourke. “We played three in El Paso and we played three games in Valencia against a team that really seems to have our number. That’s six away losses against really good teams. I’m not too stressed about it because I think it has more to do with the schedule than anything.
“Regardless of record, I think the pieces are in place and now it’s a matter of getting into that playoff mode. I said at the beginning of the year that I’m a competitive guy. I want to win the whole thing and I think we are capable of doing that.”
— John B. Spigott