The WHL’s conference finals are ready to begin, and Last Word On Sports continues its coverage of the WHL playoffs. The third round kicks off with both series starting on Friday, April 22.
WHL Conference Finals: Red Deer Rebels vs. Brandon Wheat Kings
The Rebels and Wheat Kings played four times in the regular season with each team winning two games. Red Deer’s two wins both came via Rylan Toth shutouts, including a 10-0 drubbing of the Wheat Kings on January 3.
The Wheat Kings road to the Eastern Conference finals got off to a bumpy started when the Edmonton Oil Kings won the first two games. Since that wake-up call, Brandon has won eight of their last nine games, with Moose Jaw winning only a single game in their second round matchup. The Wheat Kings have been scoring at will, and the scoring depth of the Wheat Kings will be difficult for Red Deer to contain. Five players have 12 or more points, with John Quenneville and Reid Duke tied for the team lead with 16 points apiece. Nolan Patrick continued his impressive year and has 13 points in the playoffs, further solidifying his status as the top 2017 NHL draft prospect. Overage forward Tim McGauley had a disappointing regular season but is back on track in the postseason. Brandon is averaging 4.55 goals per game, the best in the WHL.
Red Deer also features a balanced, but decidedly less explosive, offensive attack led by San Jose Sharks prospect Adam Helewka and his eight goals and four assists. Forward Jake DeBrusk has matched Helewka’s 12 points and will be counted on to continue the offensive support. Ivan Nikolishin, the Rebels leading scorer in the regular season, still has not returned from injury. His absence has been overcome through team defense and spreading the scoring around. But even with the success the team has enjoyed in Nikolishin’s absence, the talented Russian will be especially missed against the Wheat Kings. Defensively, Haydn Fleury and Colton Bobyk have played solidly, but will need to produce more offense against the Wheat Kings.
Brandon generates a large chunk of offense from the blueline. Kale Clague leads the defense with four goals and five assists. Macoy Erkamps and Ivan Provorov are right behind Clague with two goals and six assists apiece and Provorov’s +12 is tied for the team lead. The Wheat Kings have a team save percentage of only .898, easily the lowest of the four remaining teams. As a counterpoint, WHLstats.ca estimates the Wheat Kings Fenwick Close percentage at 61.51%, giving them a chance in every game with such dominate puck possession numbers.
Despite the strange scores in the series, Red Deer has proven to be a handful for the Wheat Kings. Toth has been playing consistent hockey all post season. Despite allowing less than 26 shots per game, if there is an issue with the Wheat Kings it is in net. The Rebels have shown a resiliency to adversity and have kept to their system despite being behind in a game or series. It will be a hard-fought Eastern Conference final.
Last Word on the Series: Wheat Kings in six games.
WHL Conference Finals Preview: Seattle Thunderbirds vs. Kelowna Rockets
Seattle continues its white-hot play and has lost only two games since February 20. Seattle only needed nine games to get to the third round, whereas Kelowna has been battle-tested and survived two Game 7 overtimes to get to this point. The two teams split the season series 2-2 with both the Seattle wins on shutouts by backup netminder Logan Flodell.
Justin Kirkland was one of the heroes that helped the Rockets get to the Western Conference Finals. His goal with 0.2 seconds left in the third period tied game 7 at 2-2, which the Rockets ultimately won in overtime. It was his eighth goal of the playoffs which also leads the team and he is providing the offensive leadership. Tomas Soustal and Rourke Chartier both have eleven points in the WHL playoffs, and scoring depth has been a reliable factor for the Rockets postseason run. Tyson Baillie has still not found his rhythm in the playoffs but has managed to chip in with seven points in 14 games. The Rockets will need Baillie to replicate his regular season production to provide additional scoring depth.
Defensively, Cal Foote is making a name for himself even though he isn’t eligible for the draft until 2017. His mature play and significant playing minutes has been part of the success of the Rockets. Michael Herringer has continued his stellar play with a .928 save percentage and 2.34 goals against average but will need to be even better against a Seattle squad that thus far rolled through the playoffs.
The Thunderbirds have won games as they did in the regular season with timely goals and stellar goaltending. Matthew Barzal again leads the Seattle attack with two goals and ten assists in nine games. Keegan Kolesar was suspended for two games in the Everett series but has potted five goals in seven games to lead the T-birds. Scoring has come from all parts of the lineup for Seattle with 12 different skaters having registered goals in the postseason.
Ethan Bear’s breakout season has continued in the playoffs with three goals, six assists, and a +10 rating. The defense has been solid as a group, and Barzal is one of the top players in the WHL and playing like it. Kelowna could take away the top line, and Seattle’s scoring depth could keep the pressure on the Rockets. Herringer did not fair well in three starts against the T-birds, surrendering 12 goals in those three contests. Factoring in the .936 save percentage of Landon Bow and goals could prove difficult for the Rockets
Overall, the scoring depth of Seattle and the stellar play of Bow – despite not playing against the Rockets in his time with the Thunderbirds- will likely be too much for the spunky Rockets to handle. The Rockets have some scorers, but Seattle has the strongest defense in the WHL playoffs, allowing a paltry 23 shots against per game. There will be some tight contests, but the result of the WHL Conference Finals should not be in doubt.
Last Word on the Series: Seattle in five games.