Oil Kings vs. Tigers, Hitmen vs. Rebels in an Alberta showdown: WHL Eastern Conference semi-final preview

The first round of the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference playoffs entailed a surprise or two to say the least.

The MasterCard Memorial Cup hosts, the Saskatoon Blades, were expected to end their playoff woes against the seventh-place Medicine Hat Tigers, who swept the Bridge City Boys in 2012 and 2006. Instead, the Tigers mopped the floor with the Blades in a sweep.

Fortunately for the Blades, they didn’t have to actually make an effort in the second season to go on to compete for the Memorial Cup. But as noted by BTN bloggers Neate Sager and Cam Charron, the worth of the Memorial Cup is somewhat tainted because of its short tournament format, and that one of the four teams who competes receives a free ride. So even if the Blades pull off a major upset to win the tourney, it seems they will be remembered as the team who couldn’t win a playoff game, but a short tournament, rather than the class of the CHL.

The writing was somewhat on the wall for a hard-fought series between the fourth-place Red Deer Rebels and fifth-place Prince Albert Raiders. But the Brent Sutter-coached Rebels controlled the series, winning four straight.

The key to the Rebels’ success was puck-stopper Patrik Bartosak. The Czech Republic native stood on his head, maintaining a 1.25 average and a .962 save percentage.

Every game was as close as they come, but in the end, the third-place Calgary Hitmen knocked off the sixth-place Swift Current Broncos in five contests.

Except for game 1, which ended in a 6-5 win for the Hitmen, the series was a goaltending duel between Chris Driedger and Eetu Laurikainen. Driedger bested his Finnish opponent, posting a 1.91 average and a .942 save percentage.

The Edmonton Oil Kings ran over the Kootenay Ice in five games. As most top-seed vs. eighth-seed series are, it was a mismatch. The Oil Kings are poised to take a run at the Memorial Cup, while the Ice needed a 13-7-0-0 finish to the season to sneak into the playoffs. But hats off to the Ice, most counted them out after their poor 3-10-0-0 start to the season. The Cranbrook-based team really came together after Christmas and worked hard for their playoff spot.

Here is a look at a preview of the Eastern Conference’s semi-final matchups.

(3) Calgary Hitmen (46-21-1-4, 97 points, beat Swift Current 4-1) vs. (4) Red Deer Rebels (39-26-5-2, 85 points, beat Prince Albert 4-0)

Season series: Hitmen 4-1-1-0.Odds favour: Hitmen 70 percent. Prediction: Hitmen in 6.

Why the Hitmen should win:Their offense clearly stands ahead of the Rebels as they scored 58 more goals in the regular-season. In addition, the Rebels’ top goal scorer, Rhyse Dieno, who scored 27 goals and 59 points, would sit fourth on Calgary’s stats sheet, behind Cody Sylvester (41G-49A), Brooks Macek (32G-48A), and Brady Brassart (35G-43A). That’s not even mentioning Carolina Hurricanes second-rounder Victor Rask, 2012 top bantam pick Jake Virtanen and 2013 NHL draft prospect Greg Chase for the Hitmen.

Not to say Driedger doesn’t have to be at his best to win the series, but there is less pressure on him than Bartosak because of the Hitmen’s offensive advantage. So if he plays as he did against the Broncos, and Calgary’s offense outperforms Red Deer’s as expected, all signs point to the Hitmen advancing to the third round.

Throughout the regular-season, Calgary was the better team on the road. They captured 24 wins in other team’s rinks, seven more than Red Deer. Therefore, if it comes down to game 7, the Scotiabank Saddledome could be a difference maker.

How the Rebels could win: Two words for why Red Deer could pull off the upset: Patrik Bartosak. The 6-foot-1, 188-pound goaltender has been a brick wall all year long, posting a 2.26 average and a .935 save percentage. The 19-year-old could singlehandedly win the series if he is at his best.

It appears getting ahead early is crucial to the Rebels' hopeful success. This year, Red Deer was 19-1-2-1 when leading after the first frame and 24-0-0-0 after the second. To add to that, the Hitmen are almost just as successful when getting a jump start to a game. They are 27-4-1-1 when ahead after the opening period and 35-0-1-0 after 40 minutes.

To match the Hitmen’s superb offensive depth, Red Deer needs players such as midseason trade acquisition Dominik Volek, rookie Conner Bleackley, and overage forward Jordan DePape to step up. Throughout the first round, they only combined for one goal and one assist.

But even with depth forwards raising their games, Red Deer still needs offensive production from their back end. This starts and ends with Minnesota Wild first-rounder Mathew Dumba. The Calgary native not only has to help shutdown the Hitmen’s top scorers, but he also has to lead the man advantage and transition the puck out of his own zone smoothly.

(1) Edmonton Oil Kings (51-15-2-4, 108 points, beat Kootenay 4-1) vs. (7) Medicine Hat Tigers (36-33-2-1, 75 points, beat Saskatoon 4-0)

Season series: Oil Kings 5-1-0-0.Odds favour: Oil Kings 89 percent. Prediction: Oil Kings in 5.

Why the Oil Kings should win: Edmonton is simply the team to beat out of the Eastern Conference. Their overall skill and depth is second to none.

Laurent Brossoit was unbelievable against the Ice in the first round. The Calgary Flames prospect only let four pucks get past him in the five-game series, maintaining a .76 average and a .968 save percentage. Although his numbers are practically unprecedented, one shouldn’t be too surprised by Brossoit’s strong performance. After all, he did maintain a 2.04 average and a .933 save percentage in the Oil Kings’ Ed Chynoweth run last year.

Led by New York Islanders first-rounder Griffin Reinhart, the Oil Kings’ defence outmatches the Tigers by a country mile. This depth will make it tough for Tigers head coach Shaun Clouston to match up his dynamic 1-2 scoring punch -Hunter Shinkaruk and Curtis Valk - against a “soft pairing.”

Up front, it’s essentially no different from the blueline, the Oil Kings’ depth towers over the Tigers. Through the first round, Stephane Legault (4G-6A), New York Rangers prospect Michael St. Croix (4G-3A) and Trevor Cheek (3G-4A) led Edmonton on the score sheet.

Last year the Medicine Hat swept Saskatoon in the first round and went to lose four straight to the Moose Jaw Warriors in the semi-finals. Therefore, it seems just because the Tigers pulled off a sweep in the first round over the Blades, who are notoriously known for struggling in the playoffs, this year, doesn’t necessarily set the tone for a long playoff run.

How the Tigers could win: Medicine Hat made it look easy against the Blades, but Edmonton is a whole new ball game.

It’s tough to believe Cam Lanigan hit the waiver wire in the offseason after his phenomenal showing against the Bridge City Boys. He only let four pucks by him, posting a 1.00 average and a .976 average. If he can steal a couple games against the Oil Kings, it should open the series right up.

Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal will be gunning to shutdown Shinkaruk and Valk, who scored two goals and two assists apiece against Saskatoon. But despite his expected efforts, it seems it’s a near-impossible challenge to contain the 1-2 punch. The bigger the game, the better performance both snipers put out. It goes without saying that they need to be the two best forwards in the series to match the Oil Kings' complete offense.

Shinkaruk and Valk won’t be able to do all the scoring on their own, though. They will need some help from Medicine Hat’s secondary scorers, especially Elgin Pearce, Miles Koules, Logan McVeigh, and Boston Leier.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen

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