WHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference First Round Preview

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.

East Division

(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.

My Pick

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.

My Pick

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.

Central Division

(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.

My Pick

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.

My Pick

Lethbridge is just too good right now for the Hitmen to handle, ‘Canes in five. 

All stats and records found from the WHL and Elite Prospects.

 

WHL Report: Moose Jaw on Fire, Lethbridge Going For it All

The Moose Jaw Warriors have won seven of their last eight games, and have not lost, in regulation, since November 2nd. Their Eastern Conference foe, the Lethbridge Hurricanes have decided to go for broke, and completed a trade which saw them send players and draft picks to the Regina Pats for a pair of highly touted scorers.

THE WARRIORS’ CALL

The Moose Jaw Warriors had plenty of expectations coming into this season. After finishing last season with the best record in the WHL (and second in the CHL behind Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds), they were eliminated in the second round by the Swift Current Broncos, the eventual Ed Chyneworth Cup Champions. Despite losing to top scorers Jayden Halbgewachs and Brayden Burke, there was plenty of hope that the Warriors would return to the top of the standings. However, in the team’s first 12 games, they were only 5-4-3, and struggling to find the back of the net. However, the club seemed to have found their touch, and have reeled off impressive performances in the month of November. After falling to Saskatoon 5-2 on the 2nd, Moose Jaw easily handled the Kootenay Ice the following night. After losing to Central Division-leading Red Deer in overtime on the 10th, the Warriors have won six straight games. It was not like the stretch was a cake walk for the Warriors either. Three wins over Lethbridge, and a big overtime victory over Edmonton sent Moose Jaw from middle of the pack towards the top of the East Division.

Most of this run was completed without star forward Justin Almeida, who was injured in game one of the CIBC Canada/Russia Series. The Pittsburgh Penguins prospect missed four games, but came back in a big way against the Edmonton Oil Kings last Friday. He had a goal and assisted on Tristin Langan’s OT winning goal. Almeida has been one of the most consistent players so far in the WHL. In only two games this season has the Kitimat, BC native been held off the score-sheet.

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LANGAN SAYS HELLO

If there is a player who is need of an impressive season, it is Tristin Langan. The un-drafted overaged forward has steadily improved in his first three seasons with Moose Jaw. Except this year, he has not just improved, he has been on fire for the Warrior offense. He has scored a team-leading 39 points in his first 22 games, just three points less than his 42 than he had all last season. He sits eighth in league scoring, and eighth in goals with 18.

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Moose Jaw has won eight of their last ten games, and they are going to need to carry this momentum into December. They have a few big divisional games coming up, as they are to take on Red Deer tomorrow night, and a back-to-back against Saskatoon next weekend.

LETHBRIDGE ADDS EVEN MORE OFFENCE

The Hurricanes were another team that was expected to come out of the gates strong this season. Last season they waltzed through the first two rounds before meeting Swift Current in the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell to the Broncos in six games. Through the first two months of the season, they were at a respectable 7-4-1-2. Since the start of November, however, they have only been a .500 club. In their last 10 games, they are 4-4-2  and have left the front office wondering what needs to change. At the moment, the Hurricanes are tied for fourth in the league in goals-for with 95. With an offensive attack led by Jordy Bellerive and tier one prospect, Dylan Cozens, it makes sense why the ‘Canes are feared by most defensive units in the WHL. Their true weak spot has been on the other side of the ice. They have given up as many goals as they have scored (95), which puts them sixth-worst in the league in that category. Net-minders, Reece Klassen and Carl Tetachuk have been sub-par to say the least, with both of their GAAs well above three.

So, what did GM Peter Anholt decide was best to help his team get back on track? More scoring. This was confirmed after the Hurricanes completed a trade with the Regina Pats Thursday morning. The Hurricanes acquired top scoring forwards Jake Leschyshyn and Nick Henry. Both forwards were key parts to Regina’s success last season. Henry’s five goals in last spring’s Memorial Cup was tied for most in the tournament. In addition, he is seventh in the WHL in points (40) and assists (25). The Colorado Avalanche prospect has been far and away the best Pat this season, and is leading the Hurricanes in scoring. Henry is truly a great playmaker, with an excellent scoring touch, he will be a perfect winger on Lethbridge’s top line. 

On the other hand, Leschyshyn, a Vegas Golden Knights draft pick, is really starting to blossom as a top centre. The Saskatoon native has scored 40 points in each of the last two seasons. This year, he is on pace for almost 80. A player who can put the puck in the net, just as often as he can dish the puck off, he will only add to the plethora of talent down the middle in Lethbridge.

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The future remains to be foreseen for the ‘Canes, but with the added talent to an already dominant offense, Lethbridge is setting themselves up to be a true contender in the East.

stats from whl.ca