But first, let’s go back a couple of days:
1 - TIEBREAKER - Where were you Tuesday night? If you weren’t at your computer, smart phone, tablet, etc. watching the WHL’s first tiebreaker since 2016 you missed out. The arena in Kamloops was packed to the rafters as the Blazers knocked off the visiting Kelowna Rockets to earn the final berth in the 2019 playoffs. Listening to Blazers’ broadcaster Jon Keen call the third period was a treat. What a scene!
2 - SAS (2) vs MJ (3) - This series will be a lot of fun. There is plenty of animosity built up between these two provincial rivals and that could spill over into an emotional opening-round series.
The Warriors boast the best line in junior hockey. The trio of 20-year-old Tristin Langan, 19-year-old (now 20) Justin Almeida, and 17-year-old rookie scoring leader Brayden Tracey combined for 122 goals and 305 points. The talend drops off significantly after that but they do boast a talented back end led by the Eastern Conference defenceman-of-the-year and Montreal Canadian’s prospect Josh Brook.
On the other side, the surging Blades are loaded with depth. Up front, five players recorded at least 65 points and 10 had at least 30. Former Medicine Hat Tiger Gary Haden along with former Portland sniper Ryan Hugues each hit the 30-goal mark while former Tiger Max Gerlach lead the team with 42. Kirby Dach may be ready to make a final statement before the upcoming NHL entry draft after a season in which the top prospect registered 73 points in 62 games. The back end has been retooled to add veteran leadership with the top-four being made up of Dawson Davidson (20), Nolan Kneen (19), Brandon Schuldhaus (20), and Reece Harsch (19). Davidson matched Brook for the lead in WHL defensive scoring with 75 points, leading the Blades.
I’ll take the Blades in four, but, make no mistake, this will be a battle.
3 - PA (1) vs RD (WC2) - The Raiders are good. They can score, play hard and physical defensively, and Ian Scott is among the best goaltenders in the country. In a season in which Prince Albert captured the Scotty Munroe trophy as regular season champions, they also won three of four meetings with the Rebels.
The Rebels have a chance at the upset if they improve their power play (just 1/12 in the season series) and continue to stay out of the penalty box (PA had just seven chances in the four games). Brandon Hagel registered 41 goals and 102 points to lead the Rebels and must be a factor in this series. Reese Johnson is also one of the best faceoff men in the league, a skill very important this time of year.
Red Deer will win one at home, but ultimately the Raiders will be take it in five.
4 - LET (2) vs CGY (3) - This series will be a lot of fun! Lethbridge went 5-1-0-0 in the season series including the last five. The Hurricanes are led by a pair of former Regina Pats’ stars in Nick Henry (94 points) and Jake Leschyshyn (40 goals). Highly-touted draft prospect Dylan Cozens finished second on the team with 84 points while 20-year-old Jake Elmer finished the season on an 18-game point streak (19g, 16a). Watch out for 21-year-old Taylor Ross. The Kronau, SK native recorded 69 points in 68 games and was magical last spring, posting 22 points in 16 games as the Canes made their way to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Calgary Hitmen were written off early in the season but stormed back in a big way to make the postseason. They are dynamite on the powerplay at 27.9% overall and even better on the road (34.5%). Up front, James Malm is a wizard with the puck on his stick and Mark Kastelic led all WHL players with 24 powerplay goals. Both led the team with 77 points.
My x-factor in the series could be 18-year-old (now 19) goaltender Carl Stankowski. Remember him? He led the Seattle Thunderbirds to a WHL Championship as a 16-year-old but has been battling injuries ever since. He’s back and healthy and could use that experience to fuel the Hitmen.
Flip a coin because I think it will go the distance. In the end, Lethbridge will continue their quest to appear in a third-straight conference final.
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5 - EDM (1) vs MH (WC1) - The Oil Kings went 5-0-0-1 in the season series and enter the playoffs having won 11-in-a-row. Trey Fix-Wolansky turned in a phenomenal regular season registering 37 goals and 102 points to lead the Oil Kings while Medicine Hat boasts three 30-goal scorers.
In goal, 19-year-old (now 20) Dylan Myskiw played in all six meetings with the Tigers putting up a 1.79 goals-against-average and a sparkling .940 save percentage. On the other side, former Regina Pats’ goaltender Jordan Hollett, and import goaltender Mads Sogaard split time in the crease. But, it was the Aalborg, Denmark product Soogard who put up the more impressive numbers. The 2019 draft prospect recorded 19 wins in 37 appearances, a 2.64 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage.
The Tigers will be a handful but ultimately I see Edmonton moving on in six.
6 - VIC (2) vs KAM (3) - The Blazers, fresh off over half a dozen must-win games down the stretch including the tiebreaker just to get into the playoffs, meet the Victoria Royals in the opening round and that seems like a good place to start.
The Royals took five of the nine meetings this season but Kamloops won the last three including an 8-0 win just eight days ago. The Blazers’ 17-year-old Connor Zary of Saskatoon may be one to watch. He’s riding a six-game point streak including multi-point games in each of the last three (1g, 1a in the tiebreaker). For Victoria, their success will be dependent on the play of 20-year-old goaltender Griffen Outhouse. The Likely, BC product has 20-games of playoff experience and, after playing 60+ games in each of the last two seasons, appeared in just 49 games this season.
Take the red hot Blazers in 6.
7 - VAN (1) vs SEA (WC2) - Let’s stay out west and turn our attention to Vancouver and Seattle. These two were separated by a whopping 31 points in the standings but split the season series. Both of these teams have been hot down the stretch but the nationally-ranked Giants are deep. Nine players recorded at least 35 points led by 20-year-old Davis Koch with 78. Defenceman Bowen Byram might be the top draft prospect in the country and was third on the team with 26 goals and second with 71 points. Leading the way for Seattle is 19-year-old Matthew Wedman who joined the 40-goal club and lead the team with 77 points. Nolan Volcan provides leadership and was a part of the 2017 WHL Champion T-Birds. He has 49-games of playoff experience.
In the season series (split 2-2), both teams won their games on the road. Still, I like the Giants in five.
8 - SPO (2) vs POR (3) - Separated by just a single point in the standings and splitting the season series, this has the potential to be one of the best opening-round series in a while.
Spokane had seven players reach 50-points compared to five for Portland. But the Winterhawks boast the league’s leading scorer in 20-year-old San Jose Sharks’ prospect Joachim Blichfeld who had a whopping 114 points and 53 goals. Right behind him is 19-year-old Vegas Golden Knights’ first-round draft pick Cody Glass who put up 69-points in just 38 games. Riley Woods will be someone to watch for the Chiefs. The 20-year-old from Regina lead the team in scoring and put up 14-points (4g, 10a) in the six game season series.
The edge for the Chiefs may be on special teams. They boast the league’s top-ranked power play unit at 29.1% and were over 35% in the season series.
Still, I’ll give Portland the edge in a hard-fought seven-game series.
9 - EVT (1) vs TC (WC1) - In the eight-game season series Everett won five times including the last three. The Silvertips finished with 99-points while the Americans limped into the postseason having dropped their last five games and nine of their last 10.
Minnesota Wild prospect Connor Dewar put up 81 points in 59 games to lead the way for Everett but their edge comes in goal… big surprise. In his first full season as a starter, 17-year-old Dustin Wolf played in 61 of the Tips’ 68 games and was sensational, setting a new franchise mark with 41 wins. Along the way he put up a league-best 1.69 goals-against-average and .936 save percentage. Oh, and he had seven shutouts too.
Beck Warm might be the equalizer for Tri-City though. The 19-year-old played in all eight games against the Silvertips and recorded a .941 save percentage.
I’ll take Everett in four.
10 - LOTTERY BALLS - The WHL held its annual draft lottery on Wednesday morning and it was the Winnipeg Ice who won it. They’ll have the first overall selection in this May’s bantam draft. The top picks look like this:
1 - Winnipeg Ice
2 - Prince George Cougars (acquired from Swift Current)
3 - Saskatoon Blades (acquired from Regina)
4 - Prince George Cougars
5 - Kelowna Rockets
6 - Brandon Wheat Kings
That’s it for today. Get some rest and get ready for the playoffs! Talk to you next week
(Follow Darren on Twitter at @darrendupont)