The first round of the WHL playoffs concluded Tuesday night with two gripping thrillers. The Portland Winterhawks and Everett Silvertips advanced with overtime wins and will now face each other in the second round. With that settled, Round 2 is set to begin Friday with some intriguing matchups.
Here is a preview, and some fearless predictions, on how the WHL’s second round will play out:
Brandon Wheat Kings (1st seed Eastern Division) vs. Regina Pats (2nd seed Eastern Division)
The Regina Pats got past the Swift Current Broncos with relative ease, but will find the going tougher now that they have to take on the WHL’s best. The Wheat Kings dropped the first game of their opening-round series with Edmonton then won the next four to advance. Brandon is loaded up front with scorers such as Tim McGauley, former Pat Morgan Klimchuk, Peter Quenneville and four more point-per-game players. The Pats will have their hands full.
Both teams have young rosters, so experience shouldn’t be a factor. Brandon upset Regina in the first round last year and the Pats would love to return the favour this season. Regina can’t match the scoring but former Wheat King Jesse Gabrielle was a pest against Swift Current and would love to be the same against the team that traded him. If Regina goalie Daniel Wapple can steal a game or two the Pats might have a chance.
Prediction: Brandon in six. The Wheat Kings offence will end up being too much for the young Pats.
Calgary Hitmen (1st seed Central Division) vs. Medicine Hat Tigers (2nd seed Central Division)
Calgary bested Medicine Hat by one point this season and this should be the series to watch in the Eastern Conference. Both teams play similar styles and were among the stingiest defences in the regular season. The Hitmen’s defence was leaky in the first round however, allowing 3.7 goals per game to Kootenay in seven contests. Calgary coach Mark French rotated goalies throughout the series and never settled on one. Brendan Burke was injured and not dressed for Game 7 against Kootenay so Mack Shields could get the nod against Medicine Hat.
The Tigers have no issues in net as Marek Langhamer has been solid all year and was good against Red Deer in the opening round. An offensive series could favour Calgary with red hot guys like Adam Tambellini and Connor Rankin but the Tigers have some firepower as well. Trevor Cox and Cole Sanford were among the league leaders in scoring all year and can match the Hitmen’s big guns.
Prediction: Medicine Hat in seven. Goaltending is the difference.
Kelowna Rockets (1st seed B.C. Division) vs. Victoria Royals (2nd seed B.C. Division)
All year Kelowna and Victoria have been one and two in the B.C. Division and a matchup in the second round seemed like a foregone conclusion. These two know each other well, there is some bad blood and this will be an interesting series. The high-flying Rockets have the offence, led by Leon Draisaitl, Rourke Chartier, Madison Bowey and Nick Merkely. The Royals can score too and like to bang and agitate with players like Greg Chase and Brandon Magee. Look for the Royals to hit the Rockets at every turn in an attempt to wear them down. That strategy didn’t pay off too well in the regular season where Kelowna took five of the eight games the two played.
The Rockets have been without Josh Morrissey since late February, but he has been practising with the team and might be back at some point during the series. In goal, Kelowna goalie Jackson Whistle will be tested more than he was in the first round against Tri City; Victoria's goalie Coleman Vollrath will have his hands full with the second best offence in the WHL.
Prediction: Kelowna in five. The Royals spend too much effort chasing in this one.
Everett Silvertips (1st seed U.S. Division) vs. Portland Winterhawks (2nd seed U.S. Division)
Both Portland and Everett needed six games to advance to the second round and set up an interesting series from a style standpoint. On one hand you have the grind-it-out Silvertips. On the other, the wide-open Winterhawks. Which will prevail? Portland averaged over four goals-per-game against a good defensive club in Seattle in the first round. Everett was the top defensive club in the West during the season but will need to find a way to stop Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan. Easy right? The two are on fire and over their last three games—all wins—the two have combined for seven markers and eight assists.
Everett will need rookie goalie Carter Hart to continue his fine play and Nikita Scherbak will have to show up. Outside of Game 4 against Spokane—when he had a goal and an assist—the Montreal prospect has been silenced in his first playoff experience. That can’t continue if the Silvertips want to beat Portland. Another potentially huge problem facing Everett is health. The Silvertips lost two defenceman in their Game 6 clincher in Spokane. Noah Juulsen and Tristen Pfeifer both left the game and did not return. Their status is unknown but against a high-powered Portland club, the Silvertips will need all the defensive help they can get.
Prediction: Portland in six. Their firepower wears down Everett.