CHL playoffs: The most intriguing first-round matchups

Quebec's Anthony Duclair  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

The CHL playoffs begin tonight and it’s going to be a lot of fun. Connor McDavid has one last chance to win it all with the Erie Otters in the Ontario League, but the powerfully-built Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have designs of their own. Out in the Western League, Kelowna and Brandon seem to be on a collision course for the final, while the Quebec League has the added wrinkle of sending two teams to the Memorial Cup – one being the host Quebec Remparts, who won’t want to crawl in through the back door.

Here’s a look at all the first-round matchups in the CHL, with a bit more info on one series per league that has me riveted from the get-go.

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Why the Arizona Coyotes need to finish last more than the Buffalo Sabres do

Ken Campbell
Connor McDavid  (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)

BUFFALO – Forty-five years ago, the Buffalo Sabres won the first overall pick with the spin of a wheel and chose Gilbert Perreault. The Vancouver Canucks settled for Dale Tallon. The Sabres got the better player and the Canucks got the better future GM. Of course, there was nothing preventing the Canucks from taking Darryl Sittler second overall in 1970.

But you get the point here. That one moment in time changed the course of history. And even though Perreault could never deliver a Stanley Cup to Buffalo, his Hall of Fame career gave the Sabres an identity and set them on a far better course.

Tonight’s game could be another one of those defining, franchise game-changing moments for the Sabres. Just as it could be for the Arizona Coyotes. All they have to do is lose tonight, then lose again in four days when the teams meet in the desert. It’s the only two times these teams meet this season and – wouldn’t you know it? – they play each other twice down the stretch with one of two generational talents on the line. Read more

Saskatoon traded away the first overall pick in the WHL for the second year in a row

Ryan Kennedy
Saskatoon's Brett Stovin (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

There was a lot of hand-wringing in Toronto when the first draft pick traded to the Boston Bruins in the Phil Kessel deal turned out to be No. 2 overall, netting the B’s Tyler Seguin. But hey; at least the Leafs got one of the top scorers in the NHL in Kessel.

Now gently and kindly turn your eyes to the Western League’s Saskatoon Blades, who, thanks to their own trades, have accidentally given away the first overall pick in the bantam draft for the second year in a row.

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Mark your calendars – the date has been set for the NHL’s most anticipated draft lottery in years

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly announces the Buffalo Sabres as holders of the second pick in the 2014 entry draft. (Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

For months now, hockey fans have slowly built their anticipation for one of the most highly-consequential NHL draft lotteries since the process was introduced in 1995. And now it appears the league has settled on a date people can circle on their calendars.

According to a Sportsnet.ca report, the league has decided to hold this year’s draft lottery Apr. 18, as part of a Hockey Night In Canada playoff broadcast. That leaves a little more than three weeks for fans of sad-sack teams to firm up viewing party plans and binge on lottery simulation websites – and when you look at some of the teams with a decent chance of drafting nascent superstars Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel (and the stakes involved if they fail to win the lottery), you’ve got near-perfect conditions to deliver what could very well be hockey’s most drama-packed off-ice night in history.

For one thing, the increasingly-improving chance the Maple Leafs have at McDavid is going to push TV ratings to record levels. Like them or not, the Leafs have millions of fans, and after their brutal free-fall through the NHL standings this season those fans are going to try every superstitious trick in the book in the hope it allows fortune to smile on their beloved Buds. If that does happen, the city of Toronto is going to instantly explode in the biggest hockey-related celebration since a Stanley Cup was won here in 1967.

And for as dramatic as that result would be for the Leafs franchise – it would almost certainly tempt team management to fast-track their rebuild – think of the ripple effect it would have on the rest of the league, and on Toronto rivals in particular: Read more

Want to stop tanking? Here’s how

Ken Campbell
Anders Lindback  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

It’s not hyperbole to suggest the next four days could provide a franchise-defining moment for the Buffalo Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes. It’s just kind of weird that a couple of games between the two worst teams in the league are accompanied by Super Bowl-type hype, and potentially toilet bowl results.

But there is so, so much on the line here. As we’ve said in this space a number of times this season, the reward for finishing 30th overall is not having a 20 percent chance of getting Connor McDavid in the draft. The motivation for finishing last is having a 100 percent chance of getting either McDavid or Jack Eichel. Read more

Prospect Hot List: Casey Fitzgerald’s deep hockey roots

Casey Fitzgerald (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Since I did a big NCAA dig on Monday, it’s time to focus on some other circuits. Major junior playoff brackets are set and there will be some barnburners – Quebec vs. Cape Breton is intriguing, while a potential second-round match between Erie and the Soo Greyhounds is dizzying to think of. But the big story right now is Youngstown of the United States League. The Phantoms just broke a USHL record by winning 17 straight – and Chicago gave them a good game in that last one. But enough about teams, here are the players making noise in the prospect world right now.

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NCAA Frozen Four: Players to watch from every team in the tournament

Minnesota State goalie Stephon Williams (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

College hockey’s Frozen Four kicks off this week with 16 teams gunning for a spot in Boston, where the semifinal and final will be held in April. Regionals spread the squads across four cities and there is a lot of firepower at this year’s installment. But who are the players to watch for? Here’s a primer for every school, with an admitted bias towards NHL prospects.

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