The first round of the WHL playoffs went pretty much as expected.
With the second round starting Friday, nobody really knows what to expect.
The matchups are intriguing and most of them could go either way, especially since this spring’s Elite Eight features all of the higher seeds from the opening round. That’s right, there were no upsets — none.
So if you played it safe and predicted all of the favourites to advance from the opening round, then you succeeded in going 8-for-8. Personally, I went 7-for-8 and correctly predicted the number of games in three series — nailing Kelowna’s sweep of Tri-City, Calgary’s seven-game battle against Kootenay and Everett’s six-game elimination of Spokane. I had Brandon in six (only took five), Medicine Hat in seven (five), Victoria in six (five) and Portland in seven (six). My big miss was Swift Current upsetting Regina in six, when in fact the Pats swept the Broncos in four straight.
Even those who picked the Pats expected the Broncos to put up a better fight, but they bowed out in a hurry — despite three games essentially being decided by one goal, including an overtime decision and an empty-netter in another contest. That the clincher was a 4-0 shutout in Swift Current, it might turn up the heat on Mark Lamb’s tenure as Broncos GM and head coach. Or perhaps the Pats just had their number this time around and the rest of his brass will accept that fate.
Most of the contenders made it out of the opening round relatively unscathed, with the exception of Calgary. The Hitmen were again pushed to the brink by the Ice. Last year, the Hitmen were heavily favoured but got bounced by Sam Reinhart’s squad. The rematch saw Calgary get out to a 3-1 series lead before Kootenay battled back to force a seventh-and-deciding game at the Saddledome. However, that suspense was shortlived as Connor Rankin netted a natural hat trick in the first period and the Hitmen cruised to a 6-2 victory to prolong their post-season, while Reinhart’s junior career almost certainly is over. He had six goals and nine points in that series and will finish with 133 goals and 221 assists for 354 points in 286 combined games. That equates to 1.24 points-per-game over four-plus seasons in the league. He’ll move on to the show — suiting up for the Buffalo Sabres next season — rather than on to the second round.
Brandon vs. Regina
Season Series: Brandon won 5-2-1-0
Brandon has been a juggernaut all season long, with the Wheat Kings winning the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as regular-season champions and then dethroning the defending WHL and Memorial Cup champion Edmonton Oil Kings in the opening round. The Wheaties had to overcome some adversity in that series too, as Edmonton waltzed into Brandon and won the opener fairly convincingly, 4-1 with a 34-26 advantage in shots. The Oil Kings had arguably the league’s best goaltender in Tristan Jarry and plenty of playoff experience, plus the assurance of three straight home games due to travel logistics. All of the sudden the Wheat Kings were appearing vulnerable, having also been ousted by the Oil Kings in five games in the second round of last year’s playoffs. But full credit to Kelly McCrimmon for rallying his troops and scoring an emphatic 8-1 victory in Game 2 to earn the split at home. The Wheat Kings carried that momentum into Edmonton and won three straight 3-2 decisions, including the double-overtime clincher thanks to New Jersey Devils first-round pick John Quenneville.
So, as impressive as Regina was in sweeping Swift Current and as rested as the Pats will be, the Wheat Kings are coming into this series very battle tested. On paper, Brandon has the “easiest” second-round matchup, but the Pats won’t necessarily be pushovers. Regina will be the decided underdog, playing with nothing to lose and yet riding a wave of confidence from the first round, which makes the Pats a dangerous opponent.
Player To Watch: Morgan Klimchuk, a first-round pick of the Calgary Flames who spent three-plus seasons with Regina before getting dealt to rival Brandon at January’s trade deadline. That is, if Klimchuk is playing. He was hurt in Game 3 of the Edmonton series and sat out the next two contests. He only had one assist and was minus-2 prior to getting injured, but Klimchuk is an impact player at this level and could have a big hand in knocking off his former teammates.
Prediction: Brandon in five.
Calgary vs. Medicine Hat
Season Series: Medicine Hat won 3-2-1-0
This has the potential to be a real barnburner. Both teams have firepower up front, so there could be some high-scoring games. The Hitmen have more recognizable names on their roster, but the Tigers boast two 100-plus point-getters from the regular season in Trevor Cox and Cole Sanford.
With all that offence, it could come down to goaltending. Medicine Hat has the edge there with one of the few remaining imports in the CHL in Marek Langhamer, a product of the Czech Republic and Arizona Coyotes prospect. It is uncertain who Calgary will counter with, as Mack Shields was the winning goalie in Game 7 but Brendan Burke is the de facto starter. Burke, also a Coyotes prospect and the son of Coyotes goaltending coach and former NHL netminder Sean Burke, battled an injury throughout the Kootenay series. He started the other six games, but was replaced by Shields in three of them and ruled himself out for Game 7, which saw Shields only face 13 shots, stopping 11 of them. It’ll be interesting to see if the Hitmen stick with Shields or go back to Burke providing he’s health/healthier.
Home-ice advantage could also play a significant role, considering the contrast between the Saddledome and old Medicine Hat Arena. Due to scheduling conflicts in Calgary, the series will actually start in Medicine Hat, so the Tigers could seize control early. But if the Hitmen “steal” Game 1, then they will take the momentum home for Games 2 and 3 and could build a commanding lead. Either way, expect this to be a longer series.
Player To Watch: Jake Virtanen, the sixth overall pick by the Vancouver Canucks in last year’s NHL draft and a standout for Canada at the world juniors. He was snake-bitten in the first round, failing to score a goal against Kootenay. He did manage seven assists in as many games, but Virtanen is a shoot-first winger who can fill the net if he heats up in the second round.
Prediction: Calgary in seven.
Kelowna vs. Victoria
Season Series: Kelowna won 5-2-1-0
This is another captivating series and won’t be a walk in the park for Kelowna, which battled Brandon for first-place overall throughout the regular season. It will be more like a walk in New York City’s Central Park late at night. Scary, to say the least.
Stylistically, Victoria could be a “bad” matchup for the Rockets. The Royals like it rough-and-tumble and are built for playoff-type wars. Their coach, grizzled former NHL grinder Dave Lowry, would welcome some old-time hockey as it would favour his current club. Kelowna could also be without its two biggest physical presences for the series opener, with Chance Braid serving a one-game suspension and Tyrell Goulbourne having been injured in Game 2 against Tri-City. The latter’s status is unknown, but both would be sorely missed when the Royals try to impose their will by pushing around the Rockets.
Kelowna needs its league-best power play to act as a deterrent to Victoria’s feistiness. The Rockets were only 3-for-17 (17.6 per cent) with the man advantage against Tri-City, down from 26.2 per cent (90-344) during the regular season. If Kelowna can capitalize on power plays early in the series and force Victoria to play a skill game, that should be beneficial to the Rockets.
In saying that, the Royals acquired forwards Greg Chase and Alex Forsberg this season to add skill up front and they delivered in the first-round win over Prince George. If those two could somehow outscore or at least offset Kelowna’s dynamic duo of Rourke Chartier and Nick Merkley, then Victoria would have a fighting chance. Both teams get plenty of offence from their back end, and Kelowna would get a big boost if Josh Morrissey was able to return from a leg injury.
Goaltending will be a big factor here too. Kelowna will likely go back to Jackson Whistle, who was pulled in the clincher against Tri-City but previously had two shutouts and came a minute shy of breaking Kelly Guard’s franchise record of 155 minutes 8 seconds without a goal against in the playoffs. Victoria is riding Coleman Vollrath, who helped the Royals get past the Cougars despite getting outshot in four of the five contests. He posted a 24-save shutout in the other and will enter this series as the more confident of the two masked men, but that can certainly change in a period or two. Vollrath turned 20 in January and Whistle will celebrate the same birthday in June, with both having made 114 career regular-season appearances with similar statistics. Whistle has played behind the better team and boasts a .910 save percentage with a 2.61 goals-against average to Vollrath’s .909 and 2.88. But this series, be it four games or seven, will largely define their WHL tenure as a whole.
Player To Watch: Leon Draisaitl, the third overall pick in 2014 by the Edmonton Oilers. He’s the biggest game-breaker in this series and arguably in this league. He had two goals and four points in the four games against Tri-City, which was a mediocre showing by his lofty standards, albeit against elite goalie Eric Comrie. Draisaitl had 105 points with Prince Albert last season and put up 19 goals and 53 points in only 32 games since joining Kelowna in January. If he can find another gear against Victoria, the Rockets should be unstoppable.
Prediction: Kelowna in six.
Everett vs. Portland
Season Series: Portland won 5-3-1-1
Essentially, the season series was split. Both teams won five games, but Portland won four of the last five meetings, including 7-1 and 6-1 blowouts. Portland is also the four-time defending Western Conference champion and the Winterhawks are firing on all cylinders again after dispatching a stiff challenge from Seattle. Everett didn’t face the same level of competition in Spokane, but Kevin Constantine will have a game plan in place to thwart the Winterhawks’ potent offence. If that plan works and the Silvertips can contain league-leading scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan — easier said than done — then Everett could pull off what would be considered an upset despite having earned home-ice advantage by winning the U.S. Division.
Everett has been getting incredible goaltending from the still 16-year-old Carter Hart, who made 53 saves in the 2-1 triple-overtime clincher against Spokane. He also made 45 stops in a double-OT victory by the same score, but Hart will be hard-pressed to repeat those heroics against 63-goal-man Bjorkstrand, who continued to average two points-per-game in the first round (5-7-12).
At the other end will be another impressive rookie in Adin Hill, an unheralded 18-year-old who supplanted a struggling Burke and was key to righting Portland’s ship after a poor start. Hill has subsequently been a riser for this June’s NHL draft, listed as the fourth best North American goaltending prospect in Central Scouting’s final rankings released Wednesday. But he was a bit hit and miss against Seattle, earning a shutout in Game 2 while allowing 21 goals over the other five games (4.2 GAA).
Player To Watch: Nikita Scherbak is Everett’s X-factor, a first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2014 who is getting his first taste of WHL playoff hockey this spring. Scherbak was limited to one goal and three points against Spokane, so he’ll need to pick up the pace against Portland if Everett stands a chance.
Prediction: Portland in six.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.