Sunday WHL playoff preview: Rebels vs. Hitmen

Travis Sanheim of the Calgary Hitmen (Brad Watson/Calgary Hitmen)

Game 2 of Sportsnet’s CHL playoff package takes place in Calgary, where the Hitmen host the Red Deer Rebels in Game 3 of their first-round divisional series. The Rebels finished the season one point shy of Lethbridge for first place in the Central Division, which would’ve meant a first-round date with Regina. Instead, it’s an interprovincial battle between two rivals located about an hour and half from one another.

Watch Live: Game 3 of Red Rebels vs. Calgary Hitmen playoff series Sunday at 4 p.m. MT/6 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 360

The Rebels have all the pressure in the world upon them. It’s always the goal of the MasterCard Memorial Cup host team to enter the tournament through the front door. That has not happened since 2008 when Kitchener defeated Belleville to win the OHL championship before hosting the Cup. To make matters worse, the last time the Cup was hosted by the WHL, the Saskatoon Blades were swept out of the 2013 playoffs by Medicine Hat in Round 1.

Red Deer Rebels

Red Deer is a different team than when we last saw them on Sportsnet in mid-December. Starting goalie Rylan Toth has been out since mid-February with an injury, while the additions of Luke Philp, Boston first-rounder Jake DeBrusk and San Jose Sharks prospect Adam Helewka, have all been added. Colorado first-rounder Conner Bleackley, whose NHL rights were dealt to Arizona at the trade deadline, is also injured and his return to the post-season is unlikely, although there is hope he may return for the MasterCard Memorial Cup.

For the start of the playoffs, the Rebels will lean on goaltender Trevor Martin, who was acquired from Saskatoon at the trade deadline in 2015. He has proven to be a valuable insurance policy in the absence of Toth. Reports indicate Toth has started skating, but he will have to go through the progression of wearing equipment, taking shots and getting back up to game speed, which will take some time.

Defence is a strength for Red Deer. There’s experience, toughness, puck-moving ability and depth. Haydn Fleury represented Canada at the world juniors. Kayle Doetzel is a five-year player for Red Deer and a throwback in every sense. Nelson Nogier is well respected by his teammates and brings MasterCard Memorial Cup hosting experience to the table as a member of the Saskatoon Blades in 2013. Josh Mahura was injured in Game 2 of the season, but returned for Game 1 Friday night. The post-season will be important for the highly-touted Mahura, who scouts are anxious to see play. Colton Bobyk has a bomb of a shot and there’s no one who takes more pride in being a Rebel, as he grew up in Red Deer.

Up front, there is no shortage of firepower, and it starts with the in-season acquisitions. DeBrusk’s goal total was half of what it was last year, but he’s not the go-to guy as he was in Swift Current. DeBrusk is as dangerous as anyone in the league, especially within 15 feet of the net. Helewka is a beast. He put up 42 goals despite starting the season in the AHL and having been traded from Spokane. Philp was on pace for another big season, but he was derailed by injury that didn’t allow him into Red Deer’s lineup until a month after being acquired from Kootenay.

The import duo of Ivan Nikolishin and Michael Spacek make up the fourth-best producing tandem in the CHL. Rookie Brandon Hagel has been a great find, particularly for his versatility. Red Deer’s depth is impressive and that should aid in filling in for the injured Bleackley. Evan Polei, Grayson Pawlenchuk and St. Louis prospect Adam Musil all play the game hard and have had success in the goal-scoring department.

Red Deer Rebels 22-10-0-0 (11-4-0-0 Home) 1W, T1st Central Division, T1st Eastern Conference
Individual Stats
Top Scorers GP G A PTS Note
Ivan Nikolishin 72 31 51 82 15th WHL Pts
Adam Helewka 53 42 32 74
Jake DeBrusk 61 21 44 65
Michael Spacek 61 18 36 54 5th WHL Rookies
Colton Bobyk 72 20 27 47
In Goal
Trevor Martin (18-8-1-1, 2.63, .911%)
Team Stats Rank
PP 61/271=22.5% 7th
PK 65/283=77% 18th
GF/gm 3.61 5th
GA/gm 2.85 5th

NHL Drafted/Signed Players
Haydn Fleury -- Carolina, 7th in 2014
Jake DeBrusk -- Boston, 13th in 2015
Conner Bleackley -- Colorado, 23rd in 2014
Adam Musil -- St. Louis, 94th in 2015
Nelson Nogier -- Winnipeg, 101st in 2014
Adam Helewka -- San Jose, 106th in 2015
Michael Spacek -- Winnipeg, 108th in 2015

NHL Central Scouting Mid-Term Rankings
Jeffrey de Wit -- No. 98
Brandon Hagel -- No. 114
Josh Mahura*

*indicates limited viewing

Under The Radar
Brandon Hagel was discovered by Shaun Sutter in the Alberta junior league. He’s been a great find and is a perfect fit for a Brent Sutter coached team. He plays with grit yet has enough stick skill to play all over the lineup.

Calgary Hitmen

As for the Hitmen, ho-hum, just another playoff appearance for a franchise that has only missed once since coming into the league in 1997. Since that time, the Hitmen have won two league titles, most recently in 2010. Calgary has played in the conference final or better in six of the last eight seasons in which they’ve made the post-season.

Calgary lost 11 of its first 20 games before reeling off points in 12 of 13 to get back on track. The Hitmen won six of seven games down the stretch to finish third in the division under second-year head coach Mark French.

Both of Calgary’s goalies started the season elsewhere as Cody Porter was acquired from Vancouver, while Nik Amundrud was brought in from Saskatoon. Porter started the series for Calgary, but based on games played at the end of the regular season it wouldn’t be out of the question for Amundrud to get some time. The save percentages are not impressive, but keep in mind Calgary finished second in shots allowed, giving up just under 27 per game.

Defensively, the Hitmen have the offensive duo of Philadelphia first-rounder Travis Sanheim and draft-eligible Jake Bean, which combined for 38 goals and 131 points. Bean is not unlike Sanheim, who rocketed up the draft rankings to make it into the first round. Other than that, man mountain Keegan Kanzig was a gift from the Calgary Flames after starting the season in the AHL. He’s gone from raw project to legit prospect. Michael Zipp and Colby Harmsworth have similar production and PIMs.

Four additions made by general manager Mike Moore throughout the season resulted in almost 30 per cent of Calgary’s goal total. Jakob Stukel accounted for 34 of those goals, while Jackson Houck, Matteo Gennaro and Tyler Mrkonjic combined for another 34. Calgary features a pair of Russians in Radel Fazleev, who leads the Hitmen with 70 points. Fazleev’s a pass-first player, while Pavel Karnaukhov can put up points and play with some edge on occasion. Jordy Stallard, Carsen Twarynski and Beck Malenstyn represent the future but are solid players for the Hitmen in the present. All three are durable, secondary scoring threats.

Calgary Hitmen 41-26-2-2 (22-11-2-0 Home) 2W, 3rd Central Division, 4th Eastern Conference
Individual Stats
Top Scorers GP G A PTS Note
Radel Fazleev 58 19 51 70
Travis Sanheim 51 14 53 67 4th WHL D Pts
Jake Bean 68 24 40 64 5th WHL D Pts
Jakob Stukel 68 35 23 58
Jackson Houck 55 20 31 51
In Goal
Cody Porter (25-11-1-1, 3.01, .887%)
Team Stats Rank
PP 18/79 6th
PK 57/308=81.5% 4th
GF/gm 3.38 7th
GA/gm 3.01 6th

NHL Drafted/Signed Players
Travis Sanheim -- Philadelphia, 17th in 2014
Keegan Kanzig -- Calgary, 67th in 2013
Jackson Houck -- Edmonton, 94th in 2013
Pavel Karnaukhov -- Calgary, 136th in 2015
Radel Fazleev -- Philadelphia, 168th in 2014
Matteo Gennaro -- Winnipeg, 203rd in 2015

NHL Central Scouting Mid-Term Rankings
Jake Bean -- No. 13
Jordy Stallard -- No. 84
Carsen Twarynski -- No. 95
Jakob Stukel -- No. 113
Beck Malenstyn -- No. 124
Cody Porter -- No. 18 (goalies)

Under The Radar
Andrew Fyten is a local product that honed his skills at the Edge School. He’s a late birthday and is well on his way to being an pesky power forward.