Tyler Wong strengthened his case for league MVP last night — spoiling my perfect second-round predictions in the process.
Nevertheless, the Lethbridge Hurricanes captain was heroic by scoring shorthanded in overtime of Game 7 to eliminate the rival Medicine Hat Tigers and advance to the Eastern Conference final against the top-ranked Regina Pats.
— #WHLPlayoffs (@TheWHL) April 19, 2017
The Pats had plenty of their own heroics in rallying from a 3-1 series deficit and overcoming three overtime losses to the Swift Current Broncos, prevailing 5-1 in their seventh-and-deciding game.
The Western Conference final materialized without nearly as much drama, as the Seattle Thunderbirds completed their second straight sweep and remained undefeated in the WHL playoffs by ousting the Everett Silvertips, while the Kelowna Rockets routed the Portland Winterhawks in five mostly lopsided games.
As for those predictions, I went 3-for-4 in the second round after going 6-for-8 in the first round, making me 9-for-12 overall — that’s 75 per cent, not too shabby.
To recap my picks thus far:
Prince George in 7 — Portland won in 6
Kelowna in 7 — Kelowna won in 6
Everett in 5 — Everett won in 6
Seattle in 5 — Seattle won in 4
Regina in 4 — Regina won in 4
Moose Jaw in 7 — Swift Current won in 7
Medicine Hat in 4 — Medicine Hat won in 4
Lethbridge in 5 — Lethbridge won in 7
Kelowna in 5 — Kelowna won in 5
Seattle in 6 — Seattle won in 4
Regina in 5 — Regina won in 7
Medicine Hat in 7 — Lethbridge won in 7
I was bang-on about Kelowna, the team I cover full-time, and I knew that Battle of Southern Alberta would be a barnburner. But I underestimated Swift Current as well as Seattle’s dominance.
Manny Viveiros deserves mad props for the job he did in building the Broncos into a contender during his first season in the league — in the dual-role of head coach and general manager, no less.
On the other hand, it’s the end of an era in Everett — with the Silvertips declining to extend the contract of head coach Kevin Constantine, whose defensive-minded system failed to deliver a championship or much in the way of playoff success over the last four years.
Onward we go, into the third round — the conference finals, the final four. Without further ado, my predictions:
Seattle Thunderbirds (US2) vs. Kelowna Rockets (BC2)
SEASON SERIES: 3-1-0-0 for Kelowna
KEY PLAYERS: This is going to be the battle of the top lines. Seattle is deeper than sometimes given credit, but the T-Birds go as their top line goes. Matt Barzal is arguably the most talented player in the WHL, certainly the top playmaker, and he centres two big power-forward types in goal-scoring wingers Keegan Kolesar and Ryan Gropp. Kolesar, a Columbus prospect, is having a terrific playoffs and leads the league in points-per-game (2.13) with 17 in just eight games. He’s been an offensive catalyst in the postseason for Seattle, which was missing Barzal for the entire first round (illness, possibly the mumps) and also lost Gropp for four games (undisclosed injury, upper-body). Gropp, a Rangers draft pick, returned for the last two games against Everett and should be good to go against Kelowna. That trio will be tough to stop now that they are all healthy and have been practising together for a week to get their chemistry back.
— #WHLPlayoffs (@TheWHL) April 15, 2017
— #WHLPlayoffs (@TheWHL) April 15, 2017
Kelowna’s top line was unstoppable against Portland, with Reid Gardiner, Calvin Thurkauf and Nick Merkley combining for 15 goals and 35 points in five games. No, that’s not a typo. Do the math and that trio averaged seven points per game in the second round. Gardiner, the Rockets’ trade-deadline ringer who returned from the pro ranks, is leading the league in both goals (12) and points (22) through 11 games — averaging exactly two points per game. Gardiner scored hat tricks in both of Kelowna’s series-clinching wins, producing a six-point performance (four goals, two assists) in finishing off Portland and becoming the CHL’s player of the week. Thurkauf and Merkley failed to score in the first round but both heated up in the second round, with Thurkauf netting five goals and 10 points while Merkley chipped in three goals and nine points.
— CanadianHockeyLeague (@CHLHockey) April 18, 2017
ANALYSIS: This is a rematch of last year’s Western Conference final, which saw Seattle sweep a depleted and exhausted Kelowna club that was without Merkley (missed playoffs after knee surgery) and was coming off two seven-game wars against Kamloops and Victoria, winning both deciding games in overtime. Kelowna is fresher and all the key players are healthy this year, though the Rockets will be without top defenceman Cal Foote for the series opener. He’ll finish serving a three-game suspension for a check to the head on Portland’s leading goal-scorer from the regular season, Skyler McKenzie (concussion).
Seattle has been without over-age goaltender Rylan Toth, its regular-season starter, but rookie Carl Stankowski is unbeaten in his absence — a perfect 8-0 in the playoffs. If the T-Birds stick with Stankowski, he’ll be facing his toughest test against Kelowna’s firepower. Rockets netminder Michael Herringer, also an over-ager, has yet to have a bad start in these playoffs and leads the league with two shutouts. Herringer was mostly solid in last year’s series against Seattle (.927 save percentage over the four losses), and he’s been consistent in silencing his critics this spring.
Kelowna has the better overall roster on paper — with seven NHL draft picks to Seattle’s four — but the T-Birds have the series’ top forward in Barzal and arguably the top defenceman too in Ethan Bear. Lucas Johansen, a first-round pick for Washington last year, and Foote, a sure bet to be selected in the first round this year, anchor Kelowna’s blue line. The rest of Seattle’s defence is really underrated, mostly big shutdown types that will try to keep the Rockets to the outside while clearing traffic and rebounds.
Seattle has home-ice advantage this year — Kelowna had it last year — and the Thunderbirds won the final meeting of the regular season, 5-3 at their home in Kent, Wash., on Feb. 25. The Rockets had Toth’s number, torching him for 13 goals in three games (eight periods), with Kelowna winning 5-1 on the road, then 6-1 and 6-3 at home. Worth noting, Kelowna has never faced Stankowski.
Both teams are coached by former NHL players — Steve Konowalchuk in Seattle and Jason Smith in Kelowna — but they won’t likely decide this series. The players on the ice will, and I get the sense that the Rockets are determined to reverse that result from last year. The more I think about it, the more I like Kelowna’s chances.
PREDICTION: Kelowna in 6
Regina Pats (E1) vs. Lethbridge Hurricanes (C2)
SEASON SERIES: 2-1-1-0 for Regina. 2-2-0-0 for Lethbridge.
KEY PLAYERS: This is a battle between MVP candidates in Wong and Regina’s Sam Steel. Wong led the league with 51 goals in the regular season, one more than Steel, who won the scoring title with 131 points — one more than his teammate, Regina captain Adam Brooks.
In the playoffs, Wong and Steel are right up there again and seem to be matching each other’s efforts. After Steel scored twice in Regina’s Game 7 win — netting the all-important 1-0 and 3-0 goals — Wong responded with a two-goal, three-point performance, including the aforementioned overtime winner for Lethbridge in Game 7.
— #WHLPlayoffs (@TheWHL) April 18, 2017
That lifted Wong into a tie for the playoff scoring lead with Gardiner at 22 points and he’s just one goal behind him, with 11 — though Wong has played three more games than Gardiner since Lethbridge went the distance in both rounds (also beating Red Deer in Game 7). Steel is tied for second in playoff scoring with 19 points, including seven goals, in 11 games. Lethbridge’s Giorgio Estephan also has 19 points, with eight goals, in 12 games.
It should be noted that Steel and Barzal are the actual finalists for the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s Player of the Year — representing their respective conferences — but Wong might be the frontrunner for the people’s MVP. The Lethbridge fans will surely let Steel know who they feel is “da real MVP!” For the record, Steel gets my vote — he’s two years younger and had the most dominant 18-year-old season since Pat Falloon’s 124-point campaign in 1990.
ANALYSIS: Many were hoping for a Regina-Medicine Hat showdown between division winners and the league’s only 50-win teams from the regular season — finishing first and second in the overall standings with 112 and 103 points, respectively — but Lethbridge absolutely deserves to be here in the final four. Make no mistake about that, and note that while these teams split their season series, Lethbridge won the two most recent meetings, including their only encounter to date in 2017 — a 4-1 victory in Regina on Feb. 28. Lethbridge also won 5-4 in overtime at home on Dec. 7, while Regina’s wins were both blowouts back in October (7-2 and 6-1).
Both these teams have shown tremendous resiliency in the postseason, with Lethbridge also overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in the first round against Red Deer. And both have battled through injury adversity involving significant players, with Lethbridge losing Estephan for two games in the opening round and Regina missing Brooks for two games in the second round — going a combined 0-4 in their absences, including three overtime defeats, but bouncing back upon their returns. Estephan and Brooks appear to be healthy now and should play key roles in this matchup, complementing Wong and Steel.
Correction, Estephan is healthy but Brooks is questionable to play against Lethbridge. Brooks dressed for Regina’s final three games against Swift Current but did not step foot on the ice due to his knee injury. Those were all elimination games and, as an over-ager, Brooks likely didn’t want his junior career to end in the stands, though he was also serving as an emotional leader for his teammates. The Pats are hopeful that Brooks will be able to play at some point in this series.
Comparing rosters, it’s clear that Regina is built to win this year — and next year, as the Memorial Cup host in 2018 — but Lethbridge almost seems destined so far, even getting the tying goal from an affiliated player to force overtime and stay alive against Medicine Hat. The Pats are deeper, more talented from top to bottom, but the Hurricanes have several underrated contributors who may also be overachieving throughout this playoff run.
Regina’s John Paddock and Lethbridge’s Peter Anholt made some major moves as GMs over the course of the season, while Paddock and Brent Kisio have been pushing the right buttons as bench bosses to get the most out of their players — especially when the going gets tough and their backs are against the wall.
Enough clichés, this is going to be another stellar series. Like Kelowna, Lethbridge will be looking to avenge last year’s playoff exit at the hands of Regina — when the Pats were underdogs and upset the Hurricanes in the first round, just as the Thunderbirds did in dethroning the then-defending champion Rockets in the third round. Tempting as it is to predict another upset, I’m sticking to my pre-playoff prediction for the Ed Chynoweth Cup championship series.
PREDICTION: Regina in 7