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WHL Playoffs – Second Round Previews

The Western Hockey League’s second round is ready to begin, and Last Word On Sports continues its coverage of the WHL playoffs. The second round kicks off with the Western Conference on Thursday, April 7, as the Kelowna Rockets travel to the island to face the Victoria Royals. Out in the Eastern Conference, the Brandon Wheat Kings will get little rest as they face the Moose Jaw Warriors beginning on Friday, April 8.

For a look at the first round match-ups, be sure to review the Western and Eastern conference previews.

Kelowna Rockets vs. Victoria Royals

The Royals took a huge hit when captain Joe Hicketts went down with an injury in the opening game against the Spokane Chiefs. Victoria would need six games to dispatch the pesky Chiefs, but the loss of Hicketts was evident, both on the scoreboard and in the goaltender statistics. While the WHL does not track ice time, Hicketts jumps over the boards every other shift of each game and that level of ice time and trust cannot be distributed. Luckily for the Royals, Tyler Soy and Jack Walker continued to produce and scored 10 of the 21 goals scored by the Royals.

Kelowna’s offense came from a number of sources among their forwards. Tomas Soustal led the Rockets with three goals and three assists, the biggest of which was the game seven overtime winner that got the Rockets past the Kamloops Blazers. Rodney Southam only had eight goals in 60 regular-season games but posted four against the Blazers. San Jose Sharks prospect Rourke Chartier had five points while Justin Kirkland and Dillon Dube chipped in with four points apiece.

On special teams, the Rockets only converted on two of their 26 power plays and were shorthanded a staggering 32 times against the Blazers in seven games. That is a dangerous cocktail when facing the talented Victoria forwards, even if Hicketts doesn’t play a single game.

Last Word On The Series: Royals in seven games.

Everett Silvertips vs. Seattle Thunderbirds

Both the Silvertips and the Thunderbirds swept their opening round opponents, so both squads have had plenty of rest and preparation time. The I-5 Series features two of the strongest defensive teams from the opening round. Mario Petit played exceptionally well in three wins for the Silvertips while Carter Hart was on the mend with a lower body injury. Hart did return in game four to eliminate the Portland Winterhawks. Everett has to like its chances with either netminder. Landon Bow continued his stellar play since being acquired from the Swift Current Broncos, posting a 1.43 goals against average and a .935 saves percentage in the first round. Bow is familiar with the Tips shooters and boasts a 4-3 record with two shutouts against Everett.

Everett’s top line of Remi Laurencelle, Cason Stadnyk, and captain Dawson Leedhal were a threat every shift of the series and will continue to be a handful for Seattle. Depth forward Brandon Ralph emerged from relative obscurity to net three goals in four games and provided a significant physical presence as well.

Mathew Barzal paced the T-birds with seven points, all of which were assists. Most harmful of all for Seattle is Keegan Kolesar’s suspension for checking Sam Roupp, the length of which has not yet been announced. In losing Kolesar, the two-way line of Donovan Neuls, Nolan Volcan, and Scott Eansor will likely be split up, as well, further disrupting chemistry. With Ryan Gropp out with an injury and Everett playing well on both sides of the puck, it might be too much for the Thunderbirds to overcome.

Last Word On The Series: Everett in seven games.

Moose Jaw Warriors vs. Brandon Wheat Kings

Three of the WHL’s top five scorers are members of the Warriors as they averaged more than four goals per game. Brett Howden, Dryden Hunt, and Brayden Point all had five goals apiece and simply thrashed the Prince Albert Raiders. The play of Moose Jaw netminder Zach Sawchenko has drastically elevated in the playoffs, going 4-1 with a .943 saves percentage and consecutive shutouts in the last two games of the series. If there is an Achilles heel to the squad, it is their defense which wasn’t able to generate much offense. However, the lack of offense is only one issue. Combined with Sawchenko’s performance, the defenders took care of their end of the ice nicely.

The Wheat Kings survived a scare against the Edmonton Oil Kings, who jumped out to a 2-0 series lead on Brandon. The series would then tilt heavily for the Wheat Kings culminating in a 10-3 drubbing in game six for the last of four straight wins. Brandon led the WHL in goals during the regular season, so the scoring explosion was not an outlier performance but a team finally waking up and playing up to their talent. Led by the likely 2017 number one pick Patrick Nolan (102 points in 72 games) and Jayce Hawryluk (106 points in 58 games), Brandon has more than enough firepower for a deep run.

Last Word On The Series: Wheat Kings in six.

Red Deer Rebels vs. Regina Pats

The Rebels leading scorer Ivan Nikolishin only played two games and recorded no points in round one after suffering a major knee injury. His status is unknown at this point, listed as week-to-week. There is an outside chance he could appear in the series, but his effectiveness will likely be limited. Adam Helewka continued to have a marvelous season and is the Rebels’ leading scorer in the playoffs. Defensively, Colton Bobyk and Haydn Fleury combined for only four assists in the first round and the Rebels will need more help from the talented duo.

Regular season scoring champ Adam Brooks again leads the WHL in playoff scoring after the first round with five goals and nine assists in only five games. Sam Steel and Cole Sanford added nine and eight points respectively. The Pats will need to get some additional scoring from other areas of the roster in case Brooks can be contained, which is easier said than done. The goalie matchup of Trevor Martin and Tyler Brown is nearly a wash in terms of statistics. This series is close, but the injury to Nikolishin could tip the scales.

Last Word On The Series: Pats in seven.

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