Your guide to the WHL playoffs
Are we looking at a third straight Portland-Edmonton battle for the Ed Chynoweth Cup? (WHL Photo)
By Tim Pigulski and Andrew Eide
While there is a great deal of excitement locally for the first ever playoff series between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips, the rest of the WHL playoffs should offer just as much excitement. After a play-in game Tuesday between Prince Albert and Red Deer, all the playoff match ups will be set.
Who’s going to win? Who’s the team to beat? Who might be prime to pull off a big upset? Who are some players to watch?
We have all those answers for you here with our guide to the WHL Playoffs. We will take a look at each conference and give you all the information you need to enjoy the 2013-2014 playoffs.
Eastern Conference team to beat
After an up and down year the Edmonton Oil Kings fought off their rivals in Calgary to win the Eastern Conference via tie-breaker. Edmonton is loaded. They feature top players, all NHL draft picks, in guys like Henrik Samuelsson, Curtis Lazar, Mitch Moroz and Griffen Reinhart.
The Oil Kings are experienced, have the goaltending and are looking to make it three finals appearances in a row. Until someone unseats the Oil Kings, they are the team to beat again this year.
Western Conference team to beat
The Western Conference appears to be a two-horse race at this point, and it’s hard to believe that anyone other than the Kelowna Rockets or Portland Winterhawks will emerge as the West’s representative in the WHL Finals.
Out of the two teams, the nod goes to Kelowna, who have been near perfect this season en route to a 57-11-0-4 record. Portland trails slightly at 54-13-2-3, but Kelowna has won all four head-to-head matchups between the two teams, and by no small margin. They’ve outscored the class of the U.S. Division by a substantial 28-10 difference, including 9-3 and 7-2 victories in their two most recent meetings. Kelowna’s longest losing streak this season is a mere two games, demonstrating how difficult it will be to top them in a four-game series.
Eastern Conference dark horse
The Calgary Hitmen will be in the mix but considering they tied Edmonton in points this year, it’s hard for them to qualify as a dark horse. The team that could surprise people are the Medicine Hat Tigers.
The Tigers have been flying under the radar somewhat, especially after they lost Hunter Shinkaruk to injury early in the year. The Tigers haven’t missed Shinkaruk and have one of the best offenses in the East as Curtis Valk, Trevor Cox, and Cole Sanford have picked up the slack. They can play defense and can score with the big boys, keep an eye on them.
Western Conference dark horse
The dark horse in the Western Conference will likely emerge from the victor of the Seattle vs. Everett series. As the fourth and fifth seeds respectively, neither team will be expected to top the two powerhouses, but there is a chance, albeit a small one.
Everett features a stingy “trap” defense, frustrating opponents and making it difficult for them to score goals. As they allowed only 206 opponent scores during the regular season, an average of 2.86 per game, they should be able to remain competitive every night. They’re also one of the hottest teams in the WHL entering the postseason, having a 9-0-0-1 record in their past 10 games.
Seattle, on the other hand, has proven that when they’re on their game and everyone on the roster is playing focused hockey, they are able to skate with the league’s best. The Thunderbirds feature depth that not many teams can match, skating four lines that are more than capable of doing the jobs assigned to them.
Eastern Conference first-round upset alert
While we don’t know who will face Edmonton as the eight seed it won’t matter, Edmonton will move on. But there are some potential upsets waiting in the weeds in the first round.
The Regina Pats are sitting in the two slot out East by virtue of winning their division. They are matched up against the Brandon Wheat Kings, a team that only finished eight points behind the Pats and goes into the playoffs winning three in a row and six in their last ten. Regina went 3-3-2-0 against the Wheat Kings this year so this series is up for grabs. Look for Brandon to pull off the upset of the first round in the East.
Western Conference first-round upset alert
The most likely upset in the first round will be in the Spokane vs. Victoria series. Spokane, the sixth seed, has a 3-1-0-0 record against the third seed Royals. In those four matchups, the Chiefs have outscored their opponent by an 18-10 margin.
With the WHL’s leading scorer in Mitch Holmberg donning Spokane colors and capable of going off on the scoresheet on any given night, a capable goaltender in Eric Williams, and depth that saw nine players score 10 or more goals, the Chiefs have the tools necessary to defeat their first round opponent.
Eastern Conference player to watch
The player who will be the most important for his team is Edmonton’s Tristan Jarry. The Oil King net-minder has had an excellent year, going 44-14-2-1 this year with a goals against of 2.24 and a save percentage of .914. He was a big part in the Oil Kings giving up the fewest goals in the WHL this season.
The big question is, can he do it in the post season? Edmonton has a talented team, with tons of playoff experience under their belt — except Jarry. The goalie spent his first two years in the WHL playing behind all-everything goalie Laurent Brossoit. In Edmonton’s two WHL finals runs Jarry has appeared in one game, playing 27 minutes and making three saves. If he can hold up and be as good in the playoffs as he was in the regular season, Edmonton will be in good shape.
Western Conference player to watch
Portland’s Nic Petan is a big time scorer, having finished second in the WHL with 113 points. His 1.79 points per game surpass league leader Mitch Holmberg, as Petan played in nine fewer games.
The 18-year-old center was a stud postseason last year as well when he scored 28 points in 21 games. It’s hard to imagine that his numbers won’t be even better this year as he is the clear-cut number one option for the offensively gifted Winterhawks. Selected in the second round of last year’s NHL Entry Draft by the Winnipeg Jets, the high-scoring Petan is sure to be hungry to grab the Memorial Cup that barely eluded him last season.
Eastern Conference theme of the playoffs
The big question or theme out East will be whether or not anyone can unseat one of the big Alberta teams. Edmonton and Calgary appear to be heads and shoulders above the rest of the pack and could be looking at another Eastern Conference Finals clash, as they had last season.
Can someone knock off one, or both of them? Will Medicine Hat make a run? Are the Pats for real? Can Prince Albert sneak in on the last day and fulfill the potential they showed in the off season? These are the questions that will be answered over the next couple of months in the Eastern Conference.
Western Conference theme of the playoffs
Does anyone have a realistic shot at beating representing the West other than Kelowna or Portland?
The Rockets feature the Western Conference’s second-highest scoring offense and second stingiest defense. Kelowna plays both ends of the ice extremely well and has both the stars and role players that are present on any great team.
Portland features a more top-heavy lineup than the Rockets with high-flying stars such as Nic Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Brendan Leipsic. They’ve scored the most goals of any team in the entire WHL and have allowed the fourth fewest in the Western Conference. Many players on the roster were also here last season when Portland advanced to the Memorial Cup final, so they certainly have the playoff experience to carry them a long way once again.
Both teams lack major holes that underdogs would be able to exploit in a seven-game series, making it difficult to believe that these two teams won’t meet in the Western Conference Finals.
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