The opening weekend of the Western Hockey League playoffs was dominated by overtime thrillers, hat tricks and WHL playoff firsts. Detroit Red Wings prospects Michael Rasmussen and Dennis Cholowski both put on a show for their respective teams. Carolina Hurricanes prospect Morgan Geekie blew the roof off the Tri-City Americans weekend wins. It’s all in a day’s work for the NHL’s future.
NHL Prospects Star in WHL Playoffs
Western Conference Playoff Highlights
The playoff format in the WHL is designed to foster divisional rivalries that often carry over from the regular season. One of the biggest surprises has already emerged from Kelowna, B.C. The Tri-City Americans now lead the Kelowna Rockets 2-0. The series heads to Kennewick on Wednesday. I should also mention that the Americans qualified for playoffs as the first Western Conference wild card. The Rockets are the 2018 B.C. Division Champions.
Tri-City Americans vs. Kelowna Rockets
Thursday, March 22: Tri-City Americans 5, Kelowna Rockets 0
There was at least one sign the Americans might have a big opening weekend. Goaltender Patrick Dea was named the WHL’s Goaltender of the Week for the week ending March 18. He made 39 saves in the first game against the Rockets. With 19 saves in the first period alone, Dea paved the way for the Americans scoring rush. They led by two goals after 40 minutes. The third period sealed the deal. Americans forward Morgan Geekie scored his first goal of the playoffs. Michael Rasmussen added two more goals to finish it off.
To say that Dea was flawless would be an understatement. The win marked the first playoff shutout by a Tri-City Americans goaltender since Ty Rimmer stopped all 23 shots from the Everett Silvertips on March 27, 2012.
Rockets goalie James Porter made his WHL playoff debut by stopping 27 of 32 shots. Forward Kole Lind led the Rockets with six shots.
Saturday, March 24: Tri-City Americans 9, Kelowna Rockets 7
Game Summary: How do you top a shutout on the opening night of the WHL playoffs? With a 9-7 win over the B.C. Division Champions. Choosing the Three Stars of the Night in this game was a good problem to have. Tri-City Americans winger and Third Star Nolan Yaremko had a hat trick, including the empty-netter at 19:11 in the third period. Second Star Michael Rasmussen kept on rolling with two goals and two assists. Ditto for Morgan Geekie and Isaac Johnson, whose two goals and two assists included the game-winner. Kelowna Rockets defender Cal Foote earned the First Star honours with one goal and three assists.
Overtime Thrillers Keep Things Interesting
Saturday, March 24 – Sunday March 25
Spokane Chiefs vs. Portland Winterhawks
Spokane Chiefs 4, Portland Winterhawks 3 in OT. (Saturday).
Portland Winterhawks 4, Spokane Chiefs 3 (Sunday).
Detroit Red Wings prospect Dennis Cholowski was the centrepiece of a nine-player deal at the WHL trade deadline between Portland and the Prince George Cougars. His NHL club influenced the deal. They wanted him to go to a playoff contender. Cholowski, known as “Cholo” to Detroit fans, nearly had a hat trick on Saturday night with two goals. I blame the fan sitting next to me. She kept shouting “hat trick” the rest of the night after Cholowski’s second goal tied up the game. We all know you don’t say “shutout” out loud. The same goes for hat tricks.
Edmonton Oilers first rounder Kailer Yamamoto is back in action. I’m keeping my eye on his linemate Jaret Anderson-Dolan (Los Angeles Kings), who led the Chiefs in points this season. Anderson-Dolan was also named to the Western Conference First Team All-Stars. The series moves to Spokane on Wednesday night.
Everett Silvertips vs. Seattle Thunderbirds
Everett Silvertips 4, Seattle Thunderbirds 1 (Friday).
Seattle Thunderbirds 5, Everett Silvertips 4 in OT (Saturday).
The Everett Silvertips entered playoffs as the U.S. Division Champions. The Seattle Thunderbirds qualified for the WHL playoffs as the second Western Conference wild card. On paper, this series might look like a done deal. But looks can be deceiving.
Washington Capitals prospect Garret Pilon had a hat trick for the Silvertips on Saturday night, including the game-tying goal in the final minute of regulation. But it was quality over quantity for Seattle. Zack Andrusiak maneuvered past two defenders for the overtime winner. Getting past Silvertips goaltender Carter Hart (Philadelphia Flyers) is the hockey equivalent of successfully robbing a bank. Andrusiak’s OT winner cracked the carefully guarded safe to keep things interesting. The series moves to Seattle on Tuesday, March 27.
Eastern Conference Playoff Highlights
Big shutouts dominated the headlines in the Eastern Conference this weekend. Memorial Cup host the Regina Pats got shut out in their playoff opener. They rebounded with a 2-1 win over the Swift Current Broncos on Saturday. Meanwhile, in Lethbridge, the Hurricanes shut out the Red Deer Rebels 6-0 on Friday. Finally, the Medicine Hat Tigers new signature move is scoring seven games in a playoff game.
Medicine Hat Tigers vs. Brandon Wheat Kings
Friday, March 23: Medicine Hat Tigers 7, Brandon Wheat Kings 2.
Sunday, March 25: Medicine Hat Tigers 7, Brandon Wheat Kings 3.
Saturday highlights: The Tigers set the tone for this series in the opening game. The goals came from seven different players. Captain Mark Rassell is leading the way into playoffs. He started with a goal and three points in Saturday’s opener.
Sunday highlights: It didn’t take long for the Tigers to strike first. Four minutes and 48 seconds, to be exact. Ryan Chyzowski triggered a three-goal explosion. It continued with goals from David Quenneville at 11:19 and Rassell at 12:06.
The Wheat Kings tried their best with an early second-period goal from Marcus Sekundiak. It only took Rassell 19 seconds to respond with the game-tying goal. Tigers centre Elijah Brown scored the insurance goal on the power play at 16:53 in the second period. The Wheat Kings made a final push in the third period with goals from Ty Lewis and Sekundiak. Tigers Jaeger White and Josh Williams struck in the third period, ending the Wheat Kings’ hope of a comeback.
Brandon Wheat Kings: Draft-eligible players include Ty Ettinger, Cole Reinhardt, Marcus Sekundiak, Rylen Bettens and Caiden Daley.
Open and Shut Case
Shutouts made headlines in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Friday, March 23: Swift Current Broncos 3, Regina Pats 0
Swift Current Broncos goalie Stuart Skinner was all business in a 3-0 shutout of the Regina Pats. It marked the first time Skinner has gotten a shutout in the playoffs.
The Regina Pats came back on Saturday with a 2-1 win. The series is now tied 1-1.
Friday, March 23: Lethbridge Hurricanes 6, Red Deer Rebels 0
Skinner’s former team the Lethbridge Hurricanes also got some truly spectacular goaltending from Logan Flodell. He stopped all 30 of the Rebels’ shots. It’s no surprise he earned the First Star of the Night. Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Jordy Bellerive was one of five players to record a goal and an assist. Bellerive was the Second Star of the Night. The Hurricanes now lead the series 2-0 after another huge 8-3 win on Saturday.
Main Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images