DOWN TO THE WIRE
|NEW YORK - There had never been a final day of the XHL season that had all 24 teams in action, nor had there ever been four playoff spots still up for grabs on the final day of the season.
So the last day of the 2016 XHL season was bound to be wild, and when the dust settled, there was little doubt that the day ended up living up to the hype.
In the end, the Toronto Fire would complete a comeback from way back to clinch a hard-fought playoff spot, the Detroit Cougars went another year without playoffs in Motown, the Whalers, Rebels and Seals would secure berths, and Brooklyn would miss out to ensure that there would be no playoffs in New York in 2016.
Ten of the 12 games scheduled for Saturday took place at 3 PM EST to maximize drama, and there was no shortage of that whatsoever.
In Toronto, the Winnipeg Jets held a 2-1 lead going into the third, but thanks to a big third period that saw the Fire strike for three goals, Toronto would come away with a 4-2 home win. Pavel Datsyuk had two goals on the night and Brandon Bochenski, who missed most of last year with a concussion, was credited with the game-winning goal.
Meanwhile in Detroit, the Cougars were looking for their first playoff berth since 2011, and with less than ten minutes remaining in the second period, they had as good a chance as anyone as their game with the Chicago Blackhawks was tied at 1.
What would follow over the next 28 minutes would be a nightmare of biblical proportions for the home team as Chicago struck for three goals in the second period and then four more in the third (along with a startling 27-8 shots edge) as Chicago ended Detroit's playoff hopes with a shocking 8-1 slaughter.
"We just ran out of gas," said Vaclav Prospal. "When the league does nothing to help you out or give you any depth, this is what happens. I'm proud of our team for getting this far despite not getting any help from anyone."
Toronto's win combined with Detroit's loss means that the Fire will return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. They will take on the top seed Ottawa Rough Riders for the first-ever playoff edition of the Battle of Ontario.
Ottawa, by the way, saw their six-game win streak end as Nikolay Zherdev's shootout goal lifted the Edmonton Oilers to a 6-5 road win. Ottawa's shootout loss clinched the Presidents Trophy for the Greensboro Swordsmen, who fell 3-2 at home to the Philadelphia Wildkatz thanks to a David Laliberte overtime goal.
Speaking of the National Conference, they had their own dramatic battle for the playoffs as four teams vied for three spots on the last day of the season.
The biggest game of the day in the conference was a "win-and-in" battle in New England between the Whalers and Brooklyn Red Bulls HC. Early on, it looked as if there would be playoffs in the borough of kings as Brooklyn raced out to a 2-0 lead after one, but New England fought back in the second with two goals of their own to tie the game at 2 after two.
In the third, Jack Connolly and former Red Bull Cameron Gaunce scored to put New England ahead 4-2, and after a late James van Riemsdyk Brooklyn goal brought the Red Bulls within a goal, the Whalers would hold on to get the 4-3 regulation win while clinching a playoff spot that seemed highly unlikely at the trade deadline.
Despite the loss, which also clinched a playoff berth for the San Francisco Seals, who fell 4-3 in a shootout to the Toros in San Diego, Brooklyn still had a faint glimmer of light as they held the ROW tiebreaker over the New Orleans Rebels, but unfortunately, that too would disappear as Jeff Skinner's three assists led the Rebels to a 4-2 home win over the New York Empire.
That clinched a playoff berth for the Rebels, a team that has truly rode a roller coaster this season, and meant that Brooklyn finished a bizarre season out of the playoffs.
"It was a strange year all around," said van Riemsdyk. "All you can do is regroup and wait for next year. For now though, it's not easy to swallow."
All eight playoff series' in both the National and North American conferences will begin on Monday night.
QUICK AND EASY - Jonathan Quick stopped 33 of 35 shots as the Denver Stallions edged the Minnesota North Stars 3-2 at home. The win clinched the 2 seed in the Hull for Denver, and they will take on 3 seed Winnipeg in their series.
GOOD TO BE 'BACK - Anders Lindback stopped 22 of 24 shots as the Montreal Moose defeated their provincial rivals, the Quebec Red Devils, 4-2 at home. However, a Battle of Quebec playoff series will not come to fruition as Chicago owned the head-to-head tiebreaker over Montreal, meaning that 2 seed Quebec will take on 3 seed Chicago while Montreal slides to the first wildcard and will take on Hull division champion Vancouver.
KINGS WITHOUT A CROWN - Tyler Pitlick and Anze Kopitar scored in the shootout as the Los Angeles Kings ended their first playoff-less season in franchise history with a 5-4 home win over the Las Vegas Sharks.
WELL OF A SEASON - Kyle Wellwood scored two goals and two assists to cap off an incredible 53-goal season as the Dallas Freeze crushed the Anaheim Ducks 6-3 at home.
OFF THE MATT - In a season that ended without playoffs but included several upsets of better teams, the Calgary Inferno capped off 2016 with one more upset as Matt Marquardt's late goal lifted them to a 4-3 upset in Vancouver over the Canucks.
2016 XHL CUP PLAYOFFS, FIRST ROUND
(1) Greensboro Swordsmen vs. (4) New Orleans Rebels
(2) Philadelphia Wildkatz vs. (3) New England Whalers
(1) San Diego Toros vs. (4) San Francisco Seals
(2) Las Vegas Sharks vs. (3) Dallas Freeze
North American Conference
(1) Ottawa Rough Riders vs. (4) Toronto Fire
(2) Quebec Red Devils vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (4) Montreal Moose
(2) Denver Stallions vs. (3) Winnipeg Jets
MONDAY: It's Game 1 of the 2016 XHL Cup Playoffs with all eight series' getting underway. Among the matchups, Las Vegas will look to defend their XHL Cup championship as they host Dallas, while Ottawa looks to exercise their past playoff demons as they take on provincial rival Toronto.
2016 XHL CUP PLAYOFFS - All times Eastern
Monday, September 26, 2016
New England (white) at Philadelphia (black) - 8 PM - NBCSN, Sportsnet, CSN New England, CSN Philadelphia
Toronto (white) at Ottawa (black) - 7 PM - CBC, TVA, USA
San Francisco (white) at San Diego (brown) - 10:30 PM - NBCSN, Sportsnet, CSN Bay Area, FS San Diego
Winnipeg (white) at Denver (burgundy) - 9:30 PM - CBC, XHL Network, Altitude
New Orleans (white) at Greensboro (maroon) - 8 PM - NBCSN, Sportsnet, Cox Sports Television, FS South
Chicago (red) at Quebec (black) - 7:30 PM - CNBC, CBC, TVA, CSN Chicago
Dallas (blue) at Las Vegas (white) - 10:30 PM - NBCSN, Sportsnet, FS Southwest, Cox Sports Las Vegas
Montreal (red) at Vancouver (blue) - 10 PM - CBC, TVA, CNBC