WHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference First Round Preview
It’s that time again! Everything that happened in the regular season is now in the past, and teams in the WHL’s Eastern Conference can turn the page to to a new chapter. While some teams may look like they are severely outmatched, there could be some teams that will catch some of the league’s best off guard in the first round.
(1) Prince Albert Raiders vs. (WC2) Red Deer Rebels
What started out as one what looked like one of the greatest seasons in CHL history, the Raiders sure took a dip in the second half following the New Year. This can be accredited to Team Canada’s Ian Scott and Brett Leason coming back from a World Junior hangover. While Leason still led the team in points with 89, he only scored 25 points in his last 24 games, a far cry from his two-point per game pace he started the first half of the season with. Noah Gregor was able to help pick up the slack offencively while Leason was wearing the Maple Leaf, and finished right behind Leason with 88 points, good for ninth in league scoring. Scott has still been one of the top netminders this season, as he finished second in the league in wins (38), goals-against average (1.83), and save-percentage (.932).
The Rebels really survived the late stages of the regular season to squeak into the final playoff spot in the East. The Rebels enter the postseason on a four-game losing streak, and only won two of their final eight games. The offence lives and dies with Brandon Hagel. The Chicago prospect finished fourth in league scoring with 102 points. The next leading scorer is Cameron Hausinger, who only put up 54 points this season.
The Raiders finished the season winners in five of their final seven games. They will use this series to refocus and retool for a deep run into the postseason. The Raiders just have more scoring throughout the lineup than the Rebels, and Red Deer just does not have the same depth as Prince Albert.
While Prince Albert may not be at their peak like they were earlier this season, they are still having better fortunes than the Rebels, Raiders in five.
(2) Saskatoon Blades vs. (3) Moose Jaw Warriors
Moose Jaw, regardless of their record, have loads of scoring on both ends of the rink. Justin Almeida has been incredible down the middle, with his 111 points third in the WHL in scoring. Tristin Langan has become one of the better two-way forwards in the league. While his 113 points is second in the league, Langan is also sixth in plus/minus with a +43. Rookie Brayden Tracey has been pretty good to say the least, with his 81 points leading all freshman. Jett Woo and Josh Brook have been solid on the back end for the Warriors, both responsible in their own end and exceptional in the offencive zone. Brook’s 75 points was tied for the most among all d-men, while Woo’s 66 points is fifth.
The Blades ended the season on an excellent run. Since February 1st, Saskatoon went 16-2-1, including a nine-game winning streak from February 1st to 16th. Much in large part to their big three. Top prospect Kirby Dach was exceptional in his second season in the league, with 73 points in 62 games. He will have to step up in this series if he wants to increase his draft stock. Max Gerlach was impressive, scoring 42 goals and 32 assists, and ending his season on a five-game point streak. Over-ager Dawson Davidson was one of the best blueliners in the WHL this season, and one of the most offencive as well. Davidson scored 75 points, which was tied with the Warrior’s Brook for the most among defencemen.
Saskatoon was one the hottest team’s in the league, while the Warriors were on cruise control, opening the door for the Blades to snatch second place in the East Division. While statistically Moose Jaw may have the better goaltender in Adam Evanoff, the Blades’ Nolan Maier has been consistent throughout the season, winning 36 games, third most in the league. Home ice may not favour the Warriors in this series, as the Blades won all three games at the Mosaic Place.
Certainly a close series. Even with the offencive stars with the Warriors, the Blades depth will be what helps them in the long run, as they will win the series in seven.
(1) Edmonton Oil Kings vs. (WC1) Medicine Hat Tigers
While Saskatoon was one of the hottest teams in the league, Edmonton was THE hottest team in the WHL. The Oil Kings ended the regular season on an 11 game winning streak, and have only lost once since Valentine’s Day. Much of the credit can go to the incredible season Trey Fix-Wolansky has had. The Columbus draft pick finished the season tied for fourth in league scoring with 102 points, and his 65 assists was second in that category. Another reason the Oil Kings were so good this season was the play of netminder Dyland Myskiw, whose 2.53 GAA was fifth in the league, with a .914 SV% that was ninth.
While Myskiw was the backbone for Edmonton, Medicine Hat’s Mads Sogaard was outstanding this season. No question, he was the best rookie goaltender in the WHL, certainly staking his claim for rookie of the year. Without big-time scoring, the Tigers would not be in the position they are without the play of Danish netminder. That said, goals are needed to win hockey games, and the Tigers will be looking at James Hamblin and Ryan Jevne to produce. Hamblin led the team in goals and assists, with his 77 points a career high. Jevne followed with 68 points in his fourth season with the Tigers.
There were very few signs of the Oil Kings slowing down in the waning days of the regular season. The Tigers had to earn their way into the playoffs, and winning three in a row in the past month helped them achieve that. While Edmonton won five of the six meetings between the two, four of them were decided by one goal, two being decided in overtime and another via shootout.
Good hard battles, and Sogaard will make it tough on Fix-Wolansky and the rest of his teammates, but it’s hard to see the Tigers winning at Rogers Place, Oil Kings in six.
(2) Lethbridge Hurricanes vs. (3) Calgary Hitmen
The Hitmen bounced up and down between a top-three position and Wild Card spot throughout this season. Yet, winning seven out of their last 10 games helped distance themselves from Medicine Hat and Red Deer enough to earn the third seed in the Central Division. Mark Kastelic and James Malm have shared the spotlight in Calgary, both leading the Hitmen with 77 points. Malm lead the team in assists with 43, and Kastelic’s 47 goals third among all WHL goal scorers.
The Hurricanes, despite having a young talent in Dylan Cozens, decided this is a great opportunity to make a run to the Ed Chynoweth Cup Finals, and went out a bought talent. GM Peter Anholt completed a trade with Regina to obtain Nick Henry and Jake Leschyshyn. The move paid dividends, as Henry went on to lead the team in points, and his 97 points ranked him seventh in league scoring. Leschyshyn has been a very balanced player with 81 points, and Jordy Bellerive has been a consistent presence on the power play with 24 points with the man advantage, second on the team. Probable first-rounder Cozens has also been exceptional heading into this summer’s draft, as he is second on the team in scoring with 84 points.
While Hitmen ended the season on a high note, the Hurricanes ended the season on a higher note, winning 11 of their last 12 games. Lethbridge is clicking on all cylinders heading into this series, whereas the Hitmen lost three games to the streaking Oil Kings in the final two weeks of the season. The Hurricanes have Calgary’s number this year, winning five of the six meetings this season, including a 7-4 win just two weeks ago.
Lethbridge is just too good right now for the Hitmen to handle, ‘Canes in five.