2016 WHL Playoff Preview: The Conference Finals

Two rounds have been completed in the Western Hockey League’s playoffs and after a tumultuous second round, we’re a bit closer to finding out which two clubs will represent the league in the Memorial Cup. The host Red Deer Rebels survived a seven-game scare against the Regina Pats and now press on into the conference final round, where they could provide a lot of clarity for May’s big mega-tournament or throw things into disarray.

If Red Deer beats Brandon, then both clubs that head to the WHL Championship series will also take part in the Memorial Cup. If Brandon wins, then the final series would determine who gets the extra trip to Red Deer. The Memorial Cup berths add an extra wrinkle into what’s been a really entertaining (and somewhat unpredictable) playoff season.

Here’s how we see the third round shaking out.

The Western Conference Final

SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS (45-23-4-0; beat Prince George and Everett) vs. KELOWNA ROCKETS (48-20-4-0; beat Kamloops and Victoria)

Season Series: The teams split their four-game series, each winning twice. Seattle had an aggregate score edge of 14-12, and the home side won every game.
Recent High NHL Picks: Seattle’s Matt Barzal (2015 16th overall, NY Islanders), Ryan Gropp (2015 41st overall, NY Rangers); Kelowna’s Nick Merkley (2015 30th overall, Arizona)
Top 2016 Draft Eligibles: Kelowna’s Dillon Dube (35th-ranked North American skater) and Lucas Johansen (38th-ranked North American skater)

It’s shaking up to be a goaltending duel in the Western Final, as Kelowna’s Michael Herringer faces off against Seattle’s Landon Bow. Through two rounds, nobody has played more hockey than Herringer – by way of two seven-game series. But he’s held Kelowna in some tough games, as the club’s normally-potent offense has sputtered at times without Nick Merkley. That said, Seattle’s been really strong in the playoffs, getting timely offense from Matt Barzal and Ethan Bear and great goaltending from Landon Bow, who’s been the best netminder in the league over the past few weeks. Unless Kelowna can manage to find their offensive swagger again, and somehow rattle Seattle’s confidence early-on, expect the Thunderbirds to fly into the finals for the first time since 1997.

Prediction: Seattle in 6

The Eastern Conference Final

BRANDON WHEAT KINGS (48-18-4-2; beat Edmonton and Moose Jaw) vs. RED DEER REBELS (45-24-1-2; beat Calgary and Regina)

Season Series: These clubs split their four-game season series, each winning twice. Red Deer led with an aggregate score of 15-6 over the four games, including a 10-0 win.
Recent High NHL Picks: Brandon’s Ivan Provorov (2015 7th overall, Philadelphia), John Quenneville (2014 30th overall, New Jersey), Jayce Hawryluk (2014 32nd overall, Florida); Red Deer’s Jake DeBrusk (2015 14th overall, Boston), Haydn Fleury (2014 7th overall, Carolina), Conner Bleackley (2014 23rd overall, Colorado)
Top 2016 Draft Eligibles: Brandon’s Kale Clague (22nd-ranked North American skater)

This series should be a treat. Brandon has the offensive edge, boasting five players scoring at a point-per-game pace (including Nolan Patrick, who’ll go high in next year’s draft) while the Rebels have just two at a point-per-game or better. The defensive groups are roughly even, with Provorov and his group matching evenly with Fleury and his crew. The difference-maker will likely be the goaltending; Jordan Papirny hasn’t been amazing for the Wheaties, allowing 2.65 goals per game (with a .898 save percentage) but he’s been good enough to win. Rylan Toth returned last round for the Rebels and was sharp, taking over for back-up Trevor Martin and earning a series win. If Toth is better than Papirny, the Rebels should be able to score enough goals to eke out a series win. But if the goaltending battle is even (or skews towards Brandon), the Wheat Kings should triumph. In a long series, the Wheat Kings are too deep to shut down completely, and the extra games the Rebels had to endure against Regina may come back to haunt them.

Prediction: Brandon in 7

How We Did In The First Two Rounds: 10 out of 12 series predicted accurately.