The 2016 WHL Championship Series is ready to begin between the Seattle Thunderbirds and the Brandon Wheat Kings. The final round will determine which of these two teams will represent the WHL at the Memorial Cup. The Memorial Cup tournament starts on Friday, May 6 in Red Deer, Alberta.
Seattle Thunderbirds vs. Brandon Wheat Kings
The WHL’s hottest team since February 10th is squaring off against the offensive juggernaut from the east. Seattle and Brandon only played each other once this season, with the Wheat Kings losing in Seattle on October 27 by a 7-2 score. A single game played long ago, does not give fans much to go on, but both teams statistics appear incredibly evenly matched.
|Team||Shots For||Shots Against||Goal Diff||PDO||Est. Fenwick Close%|
Stats courtesy of WHLStats
Where the two squads couldn’t be more different is the approach to the game. The Wheat Kings offensively have had no equal in the playoffs. The Wheat Kings 71 goals lead the WHL but have allowed 46 on the sometimes suspect goaltending of Jordan Pipirny. On their way to the WHL finals, Brandon is rolled three lines, each of which is a scoring threat and allowed Brandon to outgun the opposition and dare them to try to keep up. Unsurprisingly, four of the five top scorers in the WHL playoffs skate for the Wheat Kings as well.
The Wheat Kings defense features three excellent players in Ivan Provorov, Kale Clague and team captain Macoy Erkamps. Provorov, the 2015 Philadelphia Flyers first round selection, has continued his outstanding play for the Wheat Kings and was named the WHL’s best defenseman and have continued his steady defensive play while adding 10 points. Kale Clague, a 2016 NHL draft prospect, has continued his offensive play which he is known for and will create match-up issues activating from the blueline. Erkamps has continued the two-way play that earned him a contract with the Ottawa Senators. The captain is leading by example with 12 points and a playoff leading +19 rating.
Offensively, five players have 20 or more points for the Wheat Kings. John Quenneville and Nolan Patrick are tied for the team and WHL scoring lead with 24 points apiece. Reid Duke, Jayce Hawryluk, Tim McGauley are all part of excellent scoring depth that provides a key advantage to the Wheat Kings as well. All three of the forward lines are contributing, and Brandon’s offensive attack comes in literal waves.
Seattle, on the other hand, has scored twice as many goals (42) as they have allowed (21) and leaned on the phenomenal goaltending of Landon Bow. Bow was acquired from the Swift Current Broncos in early January and have not looked back, allowing l1.76 goals per game in the regular season which Bow has improved upon in the postseason, with just over 1.5 goals per game given up. Due in part to his incredible post season, Bow was recently named the WHL’s goaltender of the month.
— The WHL (@TheWHL) May 3, 2016
The white-hot play of Seattle is well known. The Thunderbirds have lost only two games, including the playoffs, since February 20. Seattle has only needed 13 games to get to the third round, and it took a Cart Hart shutout for the Everett Silvertips to tag the Thunderbirds with their only playoff loss. Confidence in their game has been earned and even facing long odds Seattle simply finds ways to win. Down 4-2 in Game 4 against Kelowna, Seattle scored two goals in the last 75 seconds of play to force overtime before a Matthew Wedman won the game and series.
Matthew Barzal has continued to build on his reputation as one of the best players in the WHL with five goals and 14 assists, often in clutch situations. Keegan Kolesar and Scott Eansor both have added 10 points as well. If there is an area of concern for Seattle, it is how the Thunderbirds secondary scoring will be able to create sustained pressure against the Wheat Kings forward depth. Ryan Gropp, who returned from an upper-body injury midway through the Everett series, will be counted on to help provide some of that help on the scoresheet after finishing with 70 points in the regular season.
Defenseman Ethan Bear’s playoff output has been exceptional, with six goals and nine assists. Captain Jerret Smith leads the team in the playoffs with a +15 rating and chipped in with five assists as well. Overall, the defense relies on steady, team focused play on the blueline with a healthy dose of Landon Bow. The Thunderbirds defense is not flashy, but it has worked hard as a unit. The strategy has worked well for Seattle all year, and there is no reason to change that now.
Overall, this has the making of a hard fought and exciting series with two very different styles of play squaring off. The Wheat Kings will fight and claw and get their licks in, but the team defense, timely scoring and the consistently great goaltending of Landon Bow should have the Thunderbirds playing for the Memorial Cup in Red Deer.
Last Word on the Series: Seattle in seven games.