So far, so good with my WHL playoff predictions. That said, it’s been a pretty predictable post-season thus far.
Pick the favourites and you’ve been flawless. Well, unless you considered Everett the favourite over Portland, based on regular-season standings. I went with the four-time defending Western Conference champion Winterhawks and they helped me go a perfect 4-for-4 in the second round after a 7-for-8 start in the first round.
The only series I’ve got wrong was Swift Current over Regina, which backfired big-time in a Pats sweep. But I made amends by nailing Brandon over Regina in five games for my fourth bang-on prediction — correct team and number of games.
Overall, I’m 11-for-12 — batting .917 — but now the real bullets are about to fly and all bets are off for the conference finals. This is the final four many predicted from the outset of the season — including our THW panel — and both third-round series should be barnburners for as long as they last.
Brandon Wheat Kings vs. Calgary Hitmen
ANALYSIS: These are two evenly matched teams top to bottom when comparing rosters. That means it really could go either way and will likely come down to which team imposes their will early in the series to set the tone. Brandon has home-ice advantage, which could be a factor, but Calgary is a little older and more experienced. Brandon is winning by committee, strangely not having a single player among the top 20 in playoff scoring. Calgary has two in the top five, including the league leader in Adam Tambellini, a New York Rangers prospect with 9 goals and 21 points in 11 games. More concerning on that front is the fact the Hitmen have six players with more points than Brandon’s leader, Peter Quenneville with just 4 goals and 10 points in 10 games. The Wheat Kings do have a balanced attack and plenty of firepower, so perhaps they have been saving some of their offensive exploits for this stage. Calgary is already firing on all cylinders, also making short work of a tough Medicine Hat Tigers team in just five games. That was telling for me.
PREDICTION: Calgary in 6.
Kelowna Rockets vs. Portland Winterhawks
ANALYSIS: The Rockets rolled through the Victoria Royals in five games, proving to be a mismatch from a skill perspective. Portland, which also eliminated Everett in five, has been Kelowna’s playoff nemesis, knocking out the Rockets in three of the last four years, including a five-game win in last year’s West final. Kelowna is much better equipped for this rematch, thanks to big-name additions Leon Draisaitl and Josh Morrissey. If Morrissey is healthy, which appears to be the case, he could be a real key to this series. Between him and Madison Bowey, the Rockets have a significant edge on defence, much like Portland had over Kelowna last season with Derrick Pouliot and Matt Dumba. Portland has the championship pedigree — guys that know how to win the big games — so that can’t be discounted, but I believe Kelowna’s forwards are slightly better too. That is a matter of debate, no doubt, with Portland boasting a top-six led by the league’s regular-season scoring leader Oliver Bjorkstrand, plus Nic Petan, Chase De Leo, Paul Bittner, Dominic Turgeon and Miles Koules. Kelowna counters with Draisaitl, Rourke Chartier, Nick Merkley, Justin Kirkland, Tyson Baillie and Tyrell Goulbourne. With potent offences like that, it could come down to which goalie allows fewer goals — as in 7-5, not 3-1. Kelowna’s Jackson Whistle and Portland’s Adin Hill have a lot to prove here, and it’s entirely possible one will emerge as a hero and the other as a goat. First-year coaches Dan Lambert (Rockets) and Jamie Kompon (Winterhawks) also seem to be pushing all the right buttons to this point, but something has to give. That’s where I see Kelowna’s defence — especially Morrissey — being the deciding factor this time around, totally turning the tables from last year.
PREDICTION: Kelowna in 5.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.