Eastern Conference 1st Round: Goalies Beware
The WHL playoffs open up Thursday with the Kelowna Rockets hosting the Tri-City Americans. Then on Friday all 4 Eastern Conference matchups get underway. Here is a preview for all 4 series.
- Moose Jaw vs 2WC Prince Albert
Head to head: Moose Jaw won the first 4 games against the Raiders this season. But since then, PA has taken 3 of 4. PA: 3-4-1 MJ: 4-3-1
This series isn’t as lopsided as people might think. Of course, the Moose Jaw Warriors are the #2 team in the country and finished the regular season with a league best 52 wins and 109 points. Up front they are one of the deepest teams in the league, Jayden Halbgewachs (SJ) had 70 goals and Brayden Burke (ARI) had 82 assists. Draft eligible Justin Almeida increased his point totals from 28 in 2016-17 to 98 this year. They also have 2 really good 2-way forwards in Brett Howden (NYR) and Tanner Jeannot who both had well over a point per game.
On the back end, Kale Clague has only scored once but has 24 points in 26 games after coming over from Brandon at the trade deadline, the defense is rounded out by Josh Brook (MTL), Jett Woo (2018 eligible) and Dmitriy Zaitsev (WSH). The biggest question for the Warriors is in goal. Brody Willms had an underwhelming .898 save percentage and has never started a playoff game.
The Prince Albert Raiders went on a 9-game winning streak in February to make the playoffs. They paid a hefty price to get Kody McDonald from Prince George who had 30 points in 33 games, and also added a 3rd 20 year old in Regan Nagy. They are led by 20-year-old Jordy Stallard who had 92 points, Parker Kelly (Ott) had 29 goals, and draft eligible Cole Fonstad may have been the biggest surprise with 73 points as he’s climbed up the draft rankings this year.
Defensively is where PA might struggle to matchup. The top 3 of Vojtech Budik (BUF), Brayden Pachal and Max Martin will have their hands full. In net Prince Albert has a slight advantage, Ian Scott had the same save percentage as Willms .897 but was on a team that struggled for the first 3 months of the season.
Prediction: Moose Jaw in 6
- Swift Current vs 3. Regina
Head to head: Swift Current took 5/6 vs the Pats this season. Regina’s only win came in the 2nd last game of the season which was meaningless at that point.
It’s hard to get a read on this series because nobody knows what the Regina Pats are. They are the Memorial Cup hosts and that seems to put pressure on most teams to make a deal, and from the start of the year Regina has 11 new faces on their roster. Many people (including me) say Regina had a much better team last year. Sam Steel (ANA) returned and was affected by playing with weaker players, Matt Bradley and Cam Hebig both had over 37 goals as overagers (Hebig was a deadline acquisition). Jesse Gabrielle (BOS) only had 19 points in 29 games after being sent back from the AHL.
Josh Mahura (ANA) was a late cut from the world junior team and had 47 points. Libor Hajek (NYR) and Cale Fleury (MTL) will need to be an effective shutdown pairing and play big minutes. In net, Ryan Kubic only played 12 games as he was out with injury, Max Paddock played 33 so who knows what the Pats do in net.
Swift Current is a similar team to Moose Jaw, led by a 20-year-old, has a guy with 80+ assists and another guy with over 40 goals. Glenn Gawdin (CGY) had 125 points, Alekski Heponiemi (FLA) had 90 asists and 118 points. Tyler Steenbergen cooled off after his unbelievable start, although it was probably fatigue from injuries and world juniors etc. He still had 47 goals. Matteo Gennaro and Giorgio Estephan both were midseason pick-ups as 20-year olds, and both are capable offensively.
On the back-end Colby Sissions (NJD) had 71 points and is a good puck mover. Savhan Khaira and Josh Anderson may be the 2 defensemen that are key in this series to shutting down Sam Steel and company. In net Stuart Skinner (EDM) took a step forward this year and had a .914 save percentage.
Prediction: Swift Current in 6 and Regina has a long lay-off until the middle of May.
- Medicine Hat vs 1WC Brandon
Head to head: All 4 games went into overtime and Brandon took 3/4
There was a point after the trade deadline where I thought the Wheat Kings would miss the playoffs. After being mentioned in the CHL top 10 Brandon management realized they needed to prepare for the future and didn’t have the tools to compete with Moose Jaw and Swift Current. Brandon traded away Captain Tanner Kaspick and top Defensemen Kale Clague for young players like Luka Burzan and Chase Hartje. They are led by 2 players, Ty Lewis (COL) had 100 points, Stelio Mattheos (CAR) had 43 goals.
On the back end the Wheat Kings have a committee approach with James Shearer, Zach Wytinch, Schael Higson and 16-year-old Braden Schneider. In net, Logan Thompson was hurt in the last week of the season and his health will be something worth following in this series.
Medicine Hat traded 30 goal scorer Max Gerlach at the deadline but still finished 1st in a very weak Central division. The Tigers have a 50 goal scorer Mark Rassell and an 80 points dman David Quenneville (NYI), James Hamblin had a nice year with 64 points but that is about it.
The biggest story in this series is the health of Mason Shaw (MIN) he has yet to play this year after tearing his ACL but he is expected to play at some point in this series. He had 94 points last year and would be a difference maker. In net the Tigers split Jordan Hollett and Mike Bullion. They had a combined .893 save percentage.
Prediction: If Shaw plays 5 or more games- Tigers in 6. If Shaw plays less, Brandon in 7.
- Lethbridge vs. 3 Red Deer.
Head to head: Lethbridge took 3/5 against Red Deer but lost the last 2.
Well first off, Red Deer shouldn’t be in the playoffs (read more here https://worldhockeyreport.wordpress.com/2018/03/19/whl-playoff-format-gets-exposed/) but here they are. They got hot after the trade deadline and wound up with the 3rd spot in the Central. They boast 2 30 goal scorers, Mason McCarty and Kristian Reichel. Brandon Hagel missed 16 games but had 59 points.
On the back end Alexander Alexeyev is a potential 1st round pick this year and is an X factor in this series. In net the Rebels were solid, Ethan Anders and Riley Lamb split time and both had low .900 save percentage numbers.
Lethbridge did what Brandon did, saw they probably weren’t quite good enough and made a deal for futures when they traded Estephan and Skinner for Logan Flodell and 16 year old Logan Barlage . Offensively they are led by Jordy Bellerive (PIT) who had 46 goals and 92 points, overage forward Brad Morrison had 40 points in 32 games after a mid season trade.
On defense they have 2018 potential 1st round pick Calen Addison. After that though the Hurricanes are pretty thin, they’ll need to rely on Bellerive and Morrison to carry the load offensively. In goal Logan Flodell is capable of stealing games and his play will determine this series.
Prediction: Lethbridge in 6