March 20, 2014
The Edmonton Oil Kings just won’t go away. They captured their third straight Central Division title this year despite losing New Rangers prospect Michael St. Croix, overage snipers T.J. Foster and Dylan Wruck and top blueliners Keegan Lowe and Martin Gernat in the offseason. Moreover, they seem to be yet again the odds-on favourite to represent the Eastern Conference in the league finals.
The Calgary Hitmen are no longer a step behind the Oil Kings, though. They are now neck and neck with their division rivals and a contender for the Ed Chynoweth Cup. The two Alberta clubs separated themselves from the rest of their conference opponents by finishing 11 points ahead of the next team in line, the Medicine Hat Tigers. Therefore, all signs points to an Oil Kings vs. Hitmen matchup in the Eastern Conference finals.
The WHL playoffs kick off tonight (March 20) as the Hitmen host the Kootenay Ice. Here is a look at a preview of each series.
(4) Medicine Hat Tigers (44-24-3-1, 92 points) vs. (5) Swift Current Broncos (38-25-3-6, 85 points)
Season series: tie 2-2-0-0. Odds favour: Medicine Hat 69 per cent. Most mathematically likely outcome: Medicine Hat in 5. Prediction: Swift Current in 7.
Why the Broncos should win: Swift Current tied the Pats for the East Division lead in points with 85, but were edged for the title because the Queen City Kids captured one more win. So they lucked out of having the cushy second seed in the conference.
Ultimately, the Broncos are a dark horse to come out of the Eastern Conference because they have enough star power at both ends of the ice to pull off an upset or two. New Jersey Devils prospect Graham Black has had an incredible 19-year-old season by potting 34 goals and 97 points in 67 games. In addition, Nathan Burns, Coda Gordon and Colby Cave all scored 70 points or better. Meanwhile, they have one of the best back-end trios in the league in Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Dillon Heatherington, Julius Honka and Brycen Martin.
The play of Eetu Laurikainen, who posted a .914 save percentage and 2.90 average in 54 games, is key to the Broncos knocking off the Tigers. It's crucial that the 20-year-old Finland native finds consistency in his game and he may need to steal a win on his own.
How the Tigers could win: Even though they lost team captain Hunter Shinkaruk for the remainder of the season in December because of a hip injury, the Tigers managed to claim a home-ice advantage playoff spot with the fourth seed. That said, the Tigers are a team that can be underestimated at times. Just ask the Saskatoon Blades for evidence of that as they swept them last year despite coming into the series as the major underdog.
It goes without saying that the Tigers’ big three offensive guns – Curtis Valk, Trevor Cox and Cole Sanford – need to be on their game. If they perform in the series as they have in the regular-season, combining for 243 points, Medicine Hat will at the very least win two games.
Somewhat of a question mark going into the series is how 19-year-old Marek Langhamer will fair in between the pipes. The Phoenix Coyotes prospect is coming into the second season with only 38 minutes of playoff experience because Cam Lanigan stole the top spot from him last year. It, however, does seem the Czech Republic native will be able to hold his own based on the .913 save percentage he posted throughout 40 games this year.
(3) Calgary Hitmen (48-17-3-4, 103 points) vs. (6) Kootenay Ice (39-28-2-3, 83 points)
Season series: tie 4-4-0-0. Odds favour: Calgary 71 per cent. Most mathematically likely outcome: Calgary in 5. Prediction: Calgary in 6.
Why Calgary should win: The Hitmen went all in at the trade deadline by acquiring the rights to Rangers prospect Adam Tambellini from the Portland Winterhawks and 19-year-old centre Connor Rankin from the Tri-City Americans. GM Mike Moore knows his team has the tools to win it all this year while next season has some uncertainties with them poised to lose leading goal-scorer Brady Brassart, star blueliners Alex Roach and Jaynen Rissling and possibly Ottawa Senators goalie prospect Chris Driedger to the pros.
Offensively, the Hitmen have four dominant forwards in Brassart, Tambellini, Jake Virtanen and Edmonton Oilers prospect Greg Chase. But what makes Calgary even more dangerous is their superb depth. Import Pavel Padakin, who scored 27 goals and 54 points in 66 matches, Rankin, who potted 20 goals and 48 points in 64 games, and Dallas Stars second-rounder Mike Winther round out a solid set of seven snipers.
That said, Calgary’s back end and Driedger don’t need to steal the show because of their superb offensive arsenal. The blueline just needs to keep Kootenay to the outside while Driedger, who posted a .918 save percentage and 2.64 average in 50 games, plays as he has all year long.
How Kootenay could win: In two words – Sam Reinhart. The 6-foot-1, 183-pound centre’s 36 goals and 105 points in 60 games make a strong argument for him as the top forward in the league. He has the talent to singlehandedly steal a game or two for the Ice. He also likely has some extra motivation because the odds are in his favour to play in the NHL next year.
With Montreal Canadiens prospect Tim Bozon in the hospital with meningitis, Jaedon Descheneau, who notched 44 goals and 98 points in 70 games, and Luke Philip, who potted 31 goals and 77 points in 70 games, will be counted on to lift some weight off Reinhart’s shoulders. Kootenay needs them to elevate their games to keep up with the Hitmen’s high-flying offense.
Rangers puck-stopper prospect Mackenzie Skapski will not only need to hold his own, but he also may have to steal one for the Ice. So he clearly needs to erase his last two games against Calgary, where he let in seven goals on 28 shots, out of his mind.
(2) Regina Pats (39-26-4-3, 85 points) vs. (7) Brandon Wheat Kings (34-29-6-3, 77 points)
Season series: Brandon (5-3-0-0). Odds favour: Regina 52 per cent. Most mathematically likely outcome: Regina in 7. Prediction: Regina in 7.
Why Regina should win: There’s no shortage of question marks that surround the Pats. Does Dyson Stevenson, who scored 38 goals and 76 points in 66 games, have a hand injury? And will Dawson MacAuley or Daniel Wapple, who has also reportedly had injury issues, get the start in net? The answers to both of those questions could heavily dictate how this series goes.
Nevertheless, this series appears to be the Pats for the taking even though it’s much closer than the second seed vs. seventh seed implies. Regina clearly has the best offensive duo in the series in Calgary Flames first-rounder Morgan Klimchuk and Washington Capitals prospect Chandler Stephenson. Overagers Boston Leier and Stevenson also potted 70-plus points this year. Not to mention, the role Malcolm Cameron played in leading the Pats to a division title can’t be underestimated. He has his entire team rolling in the right direction in his first year as head coach.
How Brandon could win: It’s hard to bet against a team coached by Kelly McCrimmon. He’s without question one of the smartest and hardest working coaches in the league. He doesn’t, however, have the calibre of horses this year as he has in the past such as Philadelphia Flyers forward Brayden Schenn, Dallas Stars first-rounder Scott Glennie and Blue Jackets winger Matt Calvert.
The Wheat Kings do have one of the top one-two punches on their back end, though. New York Islanders first-rounder Ryan Pulock and 17-year-old Ryan Pilon are stars at both ends of the ice. They have the skating ability, hockey sense and composure to control the play. In addition, 18-year-old centre Jayce Hawryluk blossomed into a star this year by leading Brandon in scoring with 24 goals and 64 points in 59 contests.
The play of 17-year-old goalie Jordan Papirny, who posted a .900 save percentage and 3.28 average in 40 games this year, could make or break the Wheaties. Outperforming whoever plays in net for the Pats could be enough for Brandon to take the series. Moreover, a poor series would likely mean just the opposite.
(1) Edmonton Oil Kings (50-19-2-1, 103 points) vs. (8) Prince Albert Raiders (35-32-3-2, 75 points)
Season series: Edmonton (2-1-0-0). Odds favour: Edmonton 91 per cent. Most mathematically likely outcome: Edmonton in 5. Prediction: Edmonton in 5.
Why Edmonton should win: The Oil Kings simply can’t overlook their first-round opponent. If they don’t go on autopilot, this series should be wrapped up by Game 5.
On paper, Edmonton doesn’t look as scary as they have in the past two years. Their back end doesn’t have as much star power and they don’t have quite the offensive depth as last year; nonetheless, they only finished with five-less points this year than last season. Therefore, they seem to have a handful of players somewhat flying under the radar. Brett Pollock and Aaron Iriving, both in their 17-year-old seasons, are two young guns that could solidify themselves as top-notch second-pairing players in the post-season.
The Oil Kings are essentially built on four players: Senators first-rounder Curtis Lazar, Coyotes first-rounder Henrik Samuelsson, Islanders first-rounder Griffin Reinhart and Pittsburgh Penguins second-rounder Tristan Jarry. This exceptional quartet alone should plant Edmonton into the Eastern Conference finals, let alone the second round.
How Prince Albert could win: The Raiders need a miracle to beat the Oil Kings. But not even a miracle could hurdle them over Edmonton if their top two talents – German superstar Leon Draisaitl and Winnipeg Jets defensive prospect Josh Morrissey – don’t bring their “A-game” every night. It’s crucial that these two superstars, especially Draisaitl since he’s had some consistency issues, make a major dent on the score sheet and control the pace of the game while on the ice.
It will take a solid team performance for the Raiders to have any shot of pulling off the upset, though. Trade deadline acquisition and overager Collin Valcourt will be looked upon to elevate his game in his last major junior hurrah. Meanwhile, the biggest “must” for the Raiders is strong play in net. Assuming they stick with Nick McBride over Cole Cheveldave, the 16-year-old will need to make all of the easy saves as well as most of the hard ones.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen