2016 WHL Playoff Preview: The Finals

It all comes down to this. The 50th Western Hockey League season – consisting of 792 regular season games, a tie-breaker between Edmonton and Medicine Hat, and 75 playoff games – culminates with a best-of-seven clash of titans. The winning team will hoist the Ed Chenoweth Cup and join the Red Deer Rebels in the Mastercard Memorial Cup.

This year’s championship series features a team that’s never won the WHL crown against a classical league power that hasn’t won it all in 20 years.

The Finals

BRANDON WHEAT KINGS (48-18-4-2; beat Edmonton, Moose Jaw and Red Deer) vs. SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS (45-23-4-0; beat Prince George, Everett and Kelowna)

Season Series: Played once (in October), Seattle beat Brandon 7-2.
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); Seattle’s Matt Barzal (2015 16th overall, NY Islanders), Ryan Gropp (2015 41st overall, NY Rangers)
Top 2016 Draft Eligibles: Brandon’s Kale Clague (22nd-ranked North American skater)

The Wheat Kings are, if you can forgiven the pun, WHL royalty. They joined the league in the ’60s and have been a breeding ground of good professional hockey players. They last won the league title in 1995-96, but they’ve been a strong team for a few seasons and made it to the final series last season before being swept by the Kelowna Rockets. (They even have a Tragically Hip song named after them!)

The Thunderbirds have been in the ‘Dub since the ’70s and have never won the championship. They were last in the final series in 1996-97, losing to Lethbridge, but they’ve quietly been one of the better teams in the Western Conference in recent years.

Seattle has been very strong during this post-season, losing just once in three series. A lot of the credit for that has to go to netminder Landon Bow; he’s allowed just 1.54 goals against per game, and he boasts a dazzling .936 save percentage. The Thunderbirds have played well in front of him, doubling their opposition in scoring with an offense led by Matt Barzal and Ethan Bear, but Bow is their most valuable weapon in this season. If he’s on his game, the Wheaties are done.

Why? The Wheaties do have a tremendous offense, with five different players scoring at a point-per-game pace (or more) during the playoffs – John Quennville, Nolan Patrick, Tim McGauley, Reid Duke and Jayce Hawryluk. Arguably their most valuable player thus far has been Patrick, who’s a shoo-in to be a top-five player in next summer’s NHL Draft. On a team built for the playoffs with a strong veteran presence, Patrick has been the straw that stirs the drink. The big issue for Brandon has been defense.

To put it bluntly? The Wheaties need games to be track meets to be successful. Netminder Jordan Papirny has been okay, allowing 2.89 goals per game with a rather scary .897 save percentage. Papirny and the team’s defense have been just bad enough to keep Brandon’s opponents in games and make life more difficult for Kelly McCrimmon’s club than it really should be.

If Bow can continue his smart play and the Thunderbirds can continue to play smart defensive hockey, this should be an easy Seattle win. I’ve seen enough of the Wheat Kings to think their high-octane offense can steal a game or two, but over a series I just don’t think their team is structurally-sound enough to win.

Prediction: Seattle in six games.