MasterCard Memorial Cup preview: Brandon

The 2010 MasterCard Memorial Cup gets underway on May 14 in Brandon, Manitoba. The host team along with Calgary, Windsor and Moncton will compete for junior hockey supremacy and SPORTSNET.CA columnist Patrick King previews the four teams and runs down the strengths and weaknesses of each team ahead of the tournament.

BRANDON WHEAT KINGS
Regular season record: 50-18-1-3 (104 points)
League regular season ranking: Second overall, second in Eastern Conference
Combined regular season and playoff home record: 31-10-0-2
Regular season goal differential: 321-204
Playoff goal differential: 56-51
Playoff record: 9-6
Memorial Cup appearances: Three (1979, 1995 and 1996)
Memorial Cup championships: None
League championships: Two (1979 and 1996)

Wheat Kings’ Memorial Cup schedule:
Brandon vs. Windsor, Friday, May 14 – 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT
Brandon vs. Moncton, Sunday, May 16 – 3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT
Brandon vs. Calgary, Wednesday, May 19 – 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT
Tie-breaker (if necessary), teams TBD, Thursday, May 20 – 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT
Semi-final: teams TBD, Friday, May 21 – 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT
Championship: teams TBD, Sunday, May 23 – 3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT

The Brandon Wheat Kings are hoping history will be on its side in this tournament. The previous two host teams from the Western Hockey League failed to win the league title, but went on to capture the MasterCard Memorial Cup in front of its home fans.

Brandon was eliminated in five games by the eventual champion Calgary Hitmen in the Eastern Conference final. The series was much closer than the outcome would suggest and the turning point came in overtime of Game 2. The Wheat Kings took two undisciplined penalties early in the extra period and the ensuing two-man power-play helped Calgary tie the series. Had the Wheat Kings won both games in Calgary, the series could have been much different.

It was the second consecutive year in which the Hitmen eliminated the Wheat Kings in the Eastern Conference final. Last year, Calgary swept Brandon.

The Wheat Kings swept the Swift Current Broncos in the opening round, and then defeated the Saskatoon Blades in six games in the second round. They finished with just three fewer points than the Hitmen in the regular season standings, and have the talent capable of capturing the Memorial Cup on home ice.

Brandon made several trades in advance of the deadline, but none were bigger than the acquisition of local product, defenceman Travis Hamonic. He was leading the WHL in scoring by a defenceman prior to leaving the Moose Jaw Warriors for the world juniors, where he suffered a separated shoulder in the dying moments of Canada’s semifinal win over the Swiss.

The injury became a blessing in disguise for the Wheat Kings, as the Warriors felt more inclined to trade him after discovering he would miss the majority of the stretch run. Hamonic was worth the wait for the Wheat Kings when he finally returned to action in late February.

Brandon tinkered with its lineup throughout the season, but the other major move that could determine its fate was for a goaltender. The Wheat Kings added Jacob De Serres in a trade with Seattle in October, but De Serres hasn’t given the team the dependable goaltending it needed.


Watch every game live on Sportsnet, or via live stream on sportsnet.ca, beginning Friday, May 14.



Strengths:
Brandon is led by an impressive core of forwards and has the offensive firepower to compete with every team in the tournament. The offence, however, doesn’t start with the biggest names. Overage captain Matt Calvert is the team’s most dependable and hardest working forward. Calvert made headlines earlier in the season when he turned down a contract from the Columbus Blue Jackets to return to Brandon for a chance to win the Memorial Cup in front of friends and family. He single-handedly lifted his team in Game 3 against Calgary when he became the first player in WHL history to score three short-handed goals in one period in the playoffs.

The Wheat Kings are also led by two top-10 picks from the 2009 National Hockey League draft: Brayden Schenn and Scott Glennie. Including Calvert, the trio has played together since its rookie seasons three years ago and has great chemistry. Schenn brings a physical dimension to the game and has a soft touch around the net, while Glennie creates turnovers and scoring chances with his hard work.

Its top two lines are solid offensively with players such as Toni Rajala, Aaron Lewadniuk and Jay Fehr in a supporting cast role. The Wheat Kings’ top three defenders — Hamonic, Colby Robak and Alexander Urbom — provide a little of everything and transition quickly. This team has a lot of top-end talent and has the ingredients in the lineup to compete for the national championship.

Weaknesses:
The glaring weakness is in goal, where De Serres and Andrew Hayes have failed to give the Wheat Kings much confidence. De Serres started the majority of the playoff games and left something to be desired with his performance. He plays with a hunched over style and is strong down low, but gets beat too often on high, rising shots.

He comes out and challenges shooters, but will often make the first move by going down and giving up the top half of the net. De Serres is also known for giving up soft goals at crucial times that can cripple his team’s confidence. Brandon’s fate in this tournament might be directly linked to its goaltender’s performance.

Keys to victory:
The Wheat Kings can be hard to stop when its offence is clicking and they’re creating quickly on transitions. its offence has the ability to win playing in a wide-open style, but they will need to play tighter defensively than they did against Calgary in the playoffs. Brandon will need its goaltender to make all the saves he should make, and some that he shouldn’t. Avoiding a soft goal will be crucial to its success.

Noteworthy:
The previous WHL team to both host and win the Memorial Cup in the same year was the Kamloops Blazers in 1995. The Wheat Kings participated in that Memorial Cup after losing to the Blazers in the WHL final. Brandon lost to the Detroit Jr. Red Wings (now Plymouth Whalers) in the semifinal in 1995 … Brandon lost to the Peterborough Petes in the 1979 Memorial Cup final … A WHL team has won two of the past three Memorial Cup championships … A WHL team has won the Memorial Cup the past seven times it was hosted by that league … The Wheat Kings were ranked sixth in the final CHL Top 10 rankings …18 WHL teams have won the Memorial Cup since 1972, when the tournament format originally included all three leagues.

NHL Drafted Wheat Kings:
Colby Robak, 2nd round in 2008 (Florida Panthers); Travis Hamonic, 2nd round in 2008 (New York Islanders); Jacob De Serres, 3rd round in 2008 (Philadelphia Flyers); Matt Calvert, 5th round in 2008 (Columbus Blue Jackets); Brayden Schenn, 1st round in 2009 (Los Angeles Kings); Scott Glennie, 1st round in 2009 (Dallas Stars); Alexander Urbom, 3rd round in 2009 (New Jersey Devils); Toni Rajala, 4th round in 2009 (Edmonton Oilers);

2010 NHL Draft Eligible Players:
Mark Stone, RW; Brenden Walker, RW; Michael Ferland, LW


PREVIEWS: BRANDON WHEAT KINGS | WINDSOR SPITFIRES | MONCTON WILDCATS | CALGARY HITMEN

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