There will be no easing into this year’s Western Hockey League playoffs.
The top seeds will be tested in the opening round, including a couple division winners in Kelowna and Medicine Hat. Moose Jaw and Everett should have it easier, but all four of the 2-versus-3 series could go either way. Expect a few of them to go the distance, with the fans emerging as the real winners.
As for my expectations, I’ll keep it short and sweet with this year’s WHL playoff predictions. The original plan was to incorporate the opinions of Andy Eide, covering the Thunderbirds in Seattle and the U.S. Division, and Ryan Pike, covering the Hitmen in Calgary and the Central Division — thus encompassing three of the four divisions and both conferences, with myself in Kelowna covering the Rockets and the B.C. Division — but time constraints on my end kyboshed that collaboration.
So, instead, you’re only getting my two cents this year and not a full dollar’s worth of insight. Disappointing, I know, but anything is better than nothing, right? Well, here goes nothing . . .
Everett Silvertips (US1) vs. Seattle Thunderbirds (WC2)
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: 6-2-0-2 for Everett, 4-4-2-0 for Seattle
ANALYSIS: One would think the defending WHL champions won’t go down easy — and the T-Birds haven’t been a pushover this season, even without Matt Barzal and Ethan Bear — but this is a mismatch and Carter Hart will close the door for Everett to erase any doubts about his ability as a playoff goaltender.
PREDICTION: Everett in 4.
Carter Hart is too good. He’s a lock for #WHL and #CHL top goaltender. It will be his 3rd WHL top goaltender award. No goalie has ever won 3 top goaltender awards in their respective league. He’s not only the best goaltender but the best player in junior hockey. pic.twitter.com/z1a4c1WApY
— TPEHockey (@TPEHOCKEY) March 15, 2018
Portland Winterhawks (US2) vs. Spokane Chiefs (US3)
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: 5-2-0-1 for Portland, 3-5-0-0 for Spokane
ANALYSIS: Who’s ready for some firewagon hockey? Yes, this should be a barnburner with plenty of offensive talent on both teams. Spokane is deeper, at least up front, but Portland has better goaltending. Last save wins.
PREDICTION: Portland in 7.
Kelowna Rockets (BC1) vs. Tri-City Americans (WC1)
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: Tied 2-1-1-0 (split four games, each winning once in overtime)
ANALYSIS: Speaking of barnburners, here are two teams boasting both high-end talent and depth at forward and on defence. Goaltending is the question mark for both and will likely decide the series. Tri-City is finally healthy and has upset potential, but Kelowna is healthy too and has playoff experience on its side. This could go down as the best series of the entire playoffs — not just the first round — and the winner could go all the way.
PREDICTION: Kelowna in 7.
Victoria Royals (BC2) vs. Vancouver Giants (BC3)
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: 7-3-0-0 for Victoria, 3-4-1-2 for Vancouver
ANALYSIS: A budding rivalry now that Vancouver is relevant again, both these teams were buyers at the trade deadline. Pretty evenly matched on paper, this could be yet another high-scoring series. Victoria has the advantage in depth up front and more playoff experience, but the Royals have looked vulnerable at times down the stretch.
PREDICTION: Victoria in 7.
Moose Jaw Warriors (E1) vs. Prince Albert Raiders (WC2)
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: 5-2-0-1 for Moose Jaw, 3-4-0-1 for Prince Albert
ANALYSIS: The Warriors are loaded, but the Raiders didn’t waive the white flag at the trade deadline. Prince Albert was more buyer than seller and Ian Scott can steal a game in goal. Steal a series against Jadyen Halbgewachs and the Moose Jaw juggernaut? Highly unlikely.
PREDICTION: Moose Jaw in 5.
Overage WHL forward Jayden Halbgewachs scored his 70th goal of the season last night, in his 71th game.
Halbgewachs was never drafted, but got signed to an ELC earlier this season by the San Jose Sharks
— Derek Neumeier (@Derek_N_NHL) March 17, 2018
Swift Current Broncos (E2) vs. Regina Pats (E3)
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: 5-0-1-0 for Swift Current, 1-4-1-0 for Regina
ANALYSIS: The Broncos dominated the season series, but the playoffs are a different beast and the Memorial Cup host Pats will be putting up a desperate fight. This is going to be the marquee series of the first round, between two stacked rosters that both deserve to see the second round (and beyond). Sadly, only one team can advance and this is Stuart Skinner’s time to shine.
PREDICTION: Swift Current in 7.
Medicine Hat Tigers (C1) vs. Brandon Wheat Kings (WC1)
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: 3-0-1-0 for Brandon, 1-0-3-0 for Medicine Hat (all four meetings decided in overtime)
ANALYSIS: Underdogs, the Wheat Kings are not, despite the Tigers having home-ice advantage. That could play a factor, but Brandon still has the better team on paper even after parting with Kale Clague at the deadline. Medicine Hat can score, so the Wheat Kings will need Logan Thompson to be healthy and solid but not spectacular.
PREDICTION: Brandon in 6.
Lethbridge Hurricanes (C2) vs. Red Deer Rebels (C3)
REGULAR-SEASON SERIES: 4-2-0-0 for Lethbridge, 2-2-1-1 for Red Deer
ANALYSIS: Red Deer had a surprisingly strong finishing kick — thanks in large part to Riley Lamb’s goaltending — but Jordy Bellerive and Dylan Cozens are clutch scorers for Lethbridge. This could be another coin flip in a rematch of last year’s seven-game thriller that saw the Hurricanes rally from a 3-1 series deficit to prevail. The Rebels are older and will have a long memory, but the Hurricanes have youthful exuberance working in their favour.
PREDICTION: Lethbridge in 6.
— The WHL (@TheWHL) March 21, 2018
If that’s how the first round shakes down — with Brandon pulling off the only upset in terms of seeding — here’s how the rest of my playoff bracket would play out.
Second Round — Division Finals
Everett Silvertips (US1) vs. Portland Winterhawks (US2)
PREDICTION: Everett in 6.
Kelowna Rockets (BC1) vs. Victoria Royals (BC2)
PREDICTION: Kelowna in 5.
Moose Jaw Warriors (E1) vs. Swift Current Broncos (E2)
PREDICTION: Moose Jaw in 7.
Brandon Wheat Kings (WC1) vs. Lethbridge Hurricanes (C2)
PREDICTION: Brandon in 5.
Third Round — Conference Finals
Everett Silvertips (US1) vs. Kelowna Rockets (BC1)
PREDICTION: Everett in 7.
Moose Jaw Warriors (E1) vs. Brandon Wheat Kings (WC1)
PREDICTION: Moose Jaw in 5.
Fourth Round — League Final, Ed Chynoweth Cup
Moose Jaw Warriors (E1, EC1) vs. Everett Silvertips (US1, WC1)
PREDICTION: Everett in 6.
Playoff MVP: Carter Hart