April 15th, 2024

HJHL playoffs kick off under new format

By JAMES TUBB on February 23, 2024.

jtubb@medicinehatnews.com@ReporterTubb

The Heritage Junior Hockey League’s playoffs received a facelift this season.

The Junior B hockey league made some changes to the bye process and the seedings in a later round of the playoffs.

Under the new format, the top three teams in each division get a bye to the second round, while the fourth and fifth place teams face off. The winner of that series faces the highest seed in their division, with the second and third place teams facing each other, both series a best-of-five.

That sets up the second-round series between the Medicine Hat Cubs, who finished second, and the third-place Coaldale Copperheads, which gets underway Saturday. The South division winner, the HJHL-leading Okotoks Bisons, will face the winner of the first-round best-of-three series between the fourth-place Cochrane Generals and fifth-place High River Flyers.

In the North division, the first-place Sylvan Lake Wranglers will face the winner of fourth-place Airdrie Thunder and fifth-place Three Hills Thrashers, while the second seed Mountainview Colts face off against the third-place Rocky Rams.

The real change comes in the third round, which used to be the division finals.

Now, in place of the two remaining teams from each division facing off for a place in the league finals, the top remaining seed from the South will face the second remaining seed from the North, and subsequently, the highest North seed will face the second highest remaining South seed.

The winner of those best-of-five series will meet in the HJHL finals and face off in a best-of-seven series for the league title.

It’s a format change Cubs head coach and general manager Randy Wong says was targeted toward getting the best teams in the finals, regardless of division.

“The North division was quite a bit weaker – Strathmore didn’t make playoffs in our division (but) would have finished in third place in the North,” Wong said. “So it tells you a little bit about what that division did this year, and every year is different. It just worked out the South was very strong this year and all six teams were battling hard right to the end. It took until the last weekend before Strathmore was kicked out of the playoffs.”

The move does benefit the Cubs indirectly, having been knocked out of the playoffs in the South finals by the Bisons the last two years straight. The Cubs have now finished top three in the league for three straight seasons but have lost to the top team in Okotoks. Under the new format, the first time they could see the Bisons would be in the legaue finals.

While the Cubs are squarely focused on their second-round series with Coaldale, Wong says there’s some intrigue around not having to face the familiar foe until the league final, only four wins away from a championship.

“You hope that plays out and we’re going to try to get to that point, but we’re not worried about who that team is going to be,” Wong said. “We go back to, let’s just look out for ourselves and get ready for whoever we play.”

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