There hasn’t been any lack of flair for the dramatic in this year’s Western Hockey League postseason. In particular, it’s hard to quantify the drama seen around the Kelowna Rockets in these playoffs, who are the defending league champs and runner-up to the Oshawa Generals in last year’s Memorial Cup.
The Rockets finished the regular season with a 48-20-4-0 record for 100 points – good for third in the WHL standings. Despite earning a trip to the Western Conference Finals against the Seattle Thunderbirds, they almost had no business getting out of their first round series, or their second.
Kelowna faced off against the Kamloops Blazers (38-25-5-4) in round one, and narrowly squeaked past their highway rival. The teams exchanged wins in each of the first six games, and Kelowna needed a 2-1 overtime victory in game seven to secure the series. Czech forward Tomas Soustal was the hero, as the 19-year-old netted his third of the series at 7:07 into the extra frame.
In round two, the Rockets had another stiff task in facing the regular-season-champion Victoria Royals (50-16-3-3). The Rockets dropped the first two games on the road before winning three straight. After a game six loss and trailing 2-0 heading into the third period of game seven, Kelowna turned up the drama once again.
Justin Kirkland, a third round pick to the Nashville Predators in 2014, would score his eighth of the playoffs early in the third. He would add his ninth of the playoffs in the third as well to equal the score – with 0.2 seconds left on the clock, and the team’s season a blink from ending. Calvin Thurkauf of Switzerland would go on to score just over five minutes into overtime to give the Rockets a series win.
But for Kelowna, that dramatic win would be their last of the 2015-16 season. After going the distance in series wins against a Blazers team that had won nine straight games heading into the playoffs, and a Royals group that went 24-1-1-0 in their final 26 regular season games, the Rockets didn’t have much gas in the tank to take on another powerful team in the Thunderbirds (45-23-4-0).
After dropping the first three games of the Conference Finals, Kelowna led 4-2 with less than 1:30 remaining in game four on Wednesday. However, Ethan Bear would score at 18:45, before Keegan Kolesar made it 4-4 with only three seconds left. It would take almost 30 minutes before Mathew Wedman scored in double overtime, clinching the series win for Seattle and assuring a new WHL champion in 2016.
The Thunderbirds will now wait for the winner of the Brandon Wheat Kings and the 2016 Memorial Cup host Red Deer Rebels. Brandon leads that series 3-1 heading into Friday.
Lots of Quality Players Among T-Birds, Wheat Kings, Rebels
No WHL team has repeated as league champions since the Blazers in 1994 and 1995. Once again, a new team will take home the Ed Chynoweth Cup as the Western Hockey League’s best – that much is certain. It’s very likely also that the Finals will see a competitive series, headlined by two junior teams loaded with star power.
I’ll start with the Western Conference winning Thunderbirds, a team that is soaring heading into the finals. The T-Birds are 12-1 in these playoffs, with their only loss coming 3-0 to the Everett Silvertips in game one of the second round. The team has won eight straight games and has had two convincing sweeps – most recently coming against that same powerhouse Rockets squad.
Seattle is led by star forward Matt Barzal, who looks like a man among boys on the ice against his WHL peers. Barzal, a 16th overall draft pick to the New York Islanders in 2015, leads all Western Conference players with 19 points in these playoffs (five goals, 14 assists). Bear, meanwhile, leads all WHL blueliners in the postseason with 15 points (six goals, nine assists). Additionally, in goal the T-Birds have received solid performances from Landon Bow night in and night out. He boasts a 1.36 goals-against-average, .936 save-percentage and has all 12 of Seattle’s wins.
To the Wheat Kings, who are in control against Red Deer with a 3-1 series lead after four games. Brandon had an early scare in round one, trailing the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oil Kings 2-0 in their series. They promptly responded, however, with six straight playoff wins – and since their early first-round hole have won 11 of their past 13 games in these playoffs.
The defending Eastern Conference Champs will look to clinch a spot in the finals by continuing to pile on goals. Brandon has scored four or more goals 10 times through 15 games in the postseason, and John Quenneville, Tim McGauley, Reid Duke and Nolan Patrick are the respective two-through-five leading scorers. The Wheat Kings have also received plenty of offense from their blue line – 46 points through 15 games. Ivan Provorov is the team’s rock on the back end; he’s third in scoring among defenseman on Brandon’s blue line (three goals, seven assists), and the Philadelphia Flyers seventh overall pick last spring is a plus-16 in the postseason.
Finally, the Rebels will try to win three straight and earn a spot in the WHL Finals, although they’ll play in the Memorial Cup in May regardless as the host team. Red Deer dismantled the Calgary Hitmen in five games in round one, before barely squeaking by the surprising Regina Pats to earn a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Adam Helewka has been the centerpiece of the Rebels’ scoring all season, with 42 regular season goals and nine tallies through 16 playoff games. Jake DeBrusk, a 14th overall pick to the Boston Bruins last year, has been a point-per-game player in these playoffs, while forwards Luke Philp and Czech rookie Michael Spacek are also in the top-20 in postseason scoring.
The amount of star-power isn’t lacking heading into the final stretch of the WHL playoffs, nor is the quality of teams who will hope to engrave their name on the Ed Chynoweth Cup.