2024 Trois-Rivières vs Jacksonville Icemen

Four ECHL Teams That Won't Go Away As Playoffs Near

Four ECHL Teams That Won't Go Away As Playoffs Near

We’re in the stretch run of this ECHL regular season. Teams have between 10-14 games left – and only Kansas City and Idaho have locked up playoff spots.

Mar 20, 2024 by Justin Cohn
Four ECHL Teams That Won't Go Away As Playoffs Near

We’re in the stretch run of this ECHL regular season – every team has between 10 and 14 remaining games – and only the Kansas City Mavericks and Idaho Steelheads have locked up playoff spots so far. In other words, so incredibly much has yet to be decided.

Only one team, the Atlanta Gladiators, has been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. And that’s a bit surprising, considering how things were trending a few weeks ago. 

But some teams, some surprising teams, have been turning it on lately to make the races for postseason spots all the more interesting.

Here’s a look at four teams – one from each division – that just won’t seem to go away.

Cincinnati Cyclones, Sixth In Central Division

Record: 27-28-5, 59 points
Points out of playoff position: 8
Regular-season games remaining: 12

Coming into the season, fresh off a regular season in which they had the second-best record in the league (47-16-9) and made a trip to the Central Division playoff finals, expectations were high for the Cyclones – especially since they brought back much of the nucleus from last season. 

A lack of consistency, injuries and spotty goaltending have kept the Cyclones from gaining much momentum throughout this season, though, and they haven’t strung together more than three consecutive victories since Nov. 11.

It really looked as if the Cyclones’ hopes of making the playoffs were done in February, when they lost forward Justin Vaive to a season-ending injury, which came on the heels of losing forward Louie Caporusso to one in January. 

And it hasn’t helped matters that the Central Division is incredibly tough from top to bottom. 

The Toledo Walleye (37-14-9, 83 points) unquestionably are the best team in the division, but only five points separate second place with the Indy Fuel (33-22-6, 72 points), Wheeling Nailers (34-25-3, 71 points), Fort Wayne Komets (31-25-5, 67 points) and Kalamazoo Wings (32-24-3, 67 points) duking it out for the places 2-5 in the division.

The Cyclones still have a slim chance of getting back into the conversation, though, and are coming off a 3-1 victory Saturday over the Komets, paced by 31 saves from Talyn Boyko, and a 4-0 victory Sunday over the Fuel, thanks to a 28-save Pavel Cajan shutout.

It’s difficult to imagine the Cyclones actually sneaking into the playoffs, even if they have won four of their last seven games, but they have been getting some standout performances. 

Sahil Panwar, who has 19 goals and 47 points in 53 games this season, has been one of the ECHL’s best rookies and has two goals and four points in his last five games. Nick Isaacson, who was acquired from the Jacksonville Icemen in November, has been coming on strong with three goals and four points in the last five games. 

And, even tough guy Cole Fraser, who went 33 games without a goal, scored Friday in a loss to Fort Wayne and then netted the winner Saturday.  

The Cyclones are loaded with offensive talent, in spite of the injuries, and if they can keep up the defensive stinginess of the last couple games, they can at least continue to be in the playoff conversation.

Wichita Thunder, Sixth In Mountain Division

Record: 23-29-8, 54 points
Points out of playoff position: 5
Regular-season games remaining: 12

One of the great stories of the season was the Thunder’s Peter Bates, who was in the hunt for the scoring title and maybe even MVP – he had 23 goals and 50 points in 45 games – before he bolted Feb. 12 for a lucrative contract to play in Slovakia.

I already was skeptical about the Thunder’s chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 2021, but I pretty much wrote them off right then. I was wrong. 

The Thunder are 9-3-1 since Feb. 16, and it hasn’t been against a particularly weak schedule; there have been two victories over league-leading Kansas City, two over Indy and two over the Tulsa Oilers.

The Thunder’s defense never is going to wow you – it’s allowed an average of 3.4 goals per game over the last 13 games – but goalies Beck Warm and Trevor Gorsuch can get hot.

What makes the Thunder scary is the offense: Michal Stinil, one of the ECHL’ s most exciting players, has 11 goals and 16 points in his last 12 games; Jay Dickman has seven goals and 21 points in his last 14; and Brayden Watts has five goals and 21 points in his last 14 games.

A real spark for Wichita has been rookie Kobe Walker, who signed Feb. 7 after a career with the Rochester Institute of Technology. 

The 5-foot-9 forward has six goals, 13 points and a plus-9 rating over his last 14 games, hasn’t taken a single penalty and has drawn four of them. He’s also been versatile enough to play on any of the forward lines.

Kansas City (44-10-6, 94 points) and Idaho (40-17-4, 84 points) have playoff spots locked up. 

After that, neither Tulsa (27-28-6, 60 points), the Utah Grizzlies (28-30-3, 59 points) nor the Allen Americans (26-30-3, 55 points) have shown much momentum, so the door could be open for the Thunder to slip into the playoffs. 

The Thunder have a forgiving schedule that includes three games with the Iowa Heartlanders and three with the Rapid City Rush, who have the two worst records in the Western Conference.

Orlando Solar Bears, Fifth In South Division

Record: 31-22-8, 70 points
Points out of playoff position: 3
Regular-season games remaining: 11

The cool thing about the Solar Bears is that they’re getting offensive production from a lot of sources. 

Over the last 10 games, Darik Angeli has three goals and 11 points; Aaron Luchuk has six goals and 10 points; Tyler Bird has three goals and eight points; and Brayden Low has four goals and eight points.

And then there’s Alex Frye, who has five goals in the last 10 games and scored game-winners in the last two – he scored at the end of a 2-on-1 rush, with a slapshot from the left circle, to cement Friday’s 6-5 overtime victory at the South Carolina Stingrays, then in Monday’s 3-1 victory over the Florida Everblades, he rushed the net, accepted a pass from the corner by Angeli and banged it in for a 2-0 lead. 

In his first full pro season out of Northen Michigan University, Frye now has 15 goals and 28 points in 56 games.

Big plays for a team that came into last weekend with losses in four of five games has given Orlando a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2019.

The South Division has been incredibly tough among the top teams this season – it’s led by the Greenville Swamp Rabbits (40-18-3, 83 points), Jacksonville Icemen (36-18-6, 78 points), South Carolina (35-23-4, 74 points) and Florida (32-19-9, 73 points) – but the Solar Bears certainly still are in it. The problem is they’re chasing teams, namely two-time defending-champion Florida, which thrives at this time of year.

Orlando has been riding goalie Evan Fitzpatrick, who has gone 3-3-0 over the last six games and stopped 91% of the shots he’s faced, and if the Solar Bears can buckle down more defensively, they’ll certainly be better for it – especially against a schedule that includes five games against lowly Atlanta, the Savannah Ghost Pirates and the Reading Royals.

Trois-Rivières Lions, Fifth In North Division

Record: 25-26-7, 57 points
Points out of playoff position: 2
Regular-season games remaining: 14

There are three teams tied for fifth place in the North Division: the Lions, the Worcester Railers (25-27-7) and Reading (25-29-7), but recent evidence suggests Trois-Rivières has the best chance of those three of overtaking the fourth-place Maine Mariners (26-26-7, 59 points) or maybe even the third-place Newfoundland Growlers (26-24-10, 62 points).

Of the teams tied for fifth, Trois-Rivières has the most remaining games and has been playing the best hockey with a 6-2-2 record in the last 10 and a 3-0-1 record in the last four, which included going 2-0-1 against visiting Idaho last weekend when Zachary Emond stopped 24 shots in a 2-1 overtime loss and 23 shots in a 5-0 victory, and Strauss Mann thwarted 34 shots in a 5-4 shootout victory.

There were a lot of changes in the Lions’ staff last year – Ron Choules took over as coach in August to replace Pascal Rhéaume, who went to Bridgeport of the AHL to be an assistant coach, after he replaced Marc-André Bergeron in June, after he’d taken over for Eric Belanger in November 2022 – and I know, that’s all very confusing. 

The point is, I should have expected a learning curve for all involved with the Lions this season, it’s just that they lulled me into a false sense of security with their hot 11-3-0 start.

By Feb. 17, the Lions were an uninspiring 19-24-5, and I figured that was that, that they’d miss the postseason for a second consecutive season. 

Since then, though, the Lions have hit their stride and been impressive with that 6-2-2 10-game record, and they’ve been paced by Nolan Yaremko’s six goals and 13 points in that span. He’s only 25, has 25 games of AHL experience on his résumé after completing his college career at Mount Royal University in 2023, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence. 

Jakob Novak, Nicolas Guay and Alex-Olivier Voyer have four goals apiece in the last 10 games, too.

The top of the North Division is very strong – led by the Adirondack Thunder (36-15-8, 80 points) and Norfolk Admirals (35-20-6, 76 points), but I suppose neither of those teams particularly wants to face the Lions in the first round of the postseason. 

And the Lions have a great chance to control their own destiny with three remaining games against Maine and three against Worcester to finish the regular season.

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