WHL conference final preview: Pats, T-Birds have home ice in rematches

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Mathew Barzal (Marissa Baecker/Getty)

The opening shot has already been fired, at least in one conference final.

Since each series involves a rematch, there was scarce reason to worry about an extended icebreaker period in the Lethbridge Hurricanes-Regina Pats and Kelowna Rockets-Seattle Thunderbirds matchups. Just for good measure, on Wednesday, Pats coach John Paddock tweaked Lethbridge captain Tyler Wong, the co-scoring leader in the playoffs, telling a Regina radio station, “He jumps a couple feet in the air when he hits guys, doesn’t get called.”

Wong, of course, caused a significant portion of southern Alberta to jump for joy on Tuesday when he scored the Game 7 short-handed overtime winner to vault Lethbridge over the Medicine Hat Tigers.

The Eastern final matches two teams whose second-round series went the distance, as Regina had to surmount a 3-1 deficit against the Swift Current Broncos. On the Western Conference side, Kelowna and Seattle each had a good long breather after five- and four-game wins.

Each series begins Friday.

Eastern Conference

Lethbridge Hurricanes vs. Regina Pats

Series in a sentence (or two)
Both the CHL’s No. 1-ranked team and Lethbridge, with a stitched-together lineup, have to climb down from the emotional high of a seven-game series and regroup. Regina is less worse for wear, even without Adam Brooks (TOR).

Star power
Wong had 12 points in the series against Medicine Hat; Giorgio Estephan (BUF) has also carried the offence by times. For Regina, Sam Steel (ANA) is taking on extra work in Brooks’ absence, while Connor Hobbs (WSH) is the WHL’s leading defenceman scorer in these playoffs.

The last time they played
2016, first round; Regina won 4-1, with Pats goalie Tyler Brown recording two shutouts.

Why Regina should win
The Pats, no slight intended to the Swift Current Broncos who won a moral victory by extending the East Division final to seven games, have not been badly outplayed yet in the playoffs. The way that Hobbs and fellow playmaking defenceman Josh Mahura get involved in the offence should lend itself to creating pressure on Lethbridge and inducing turnovers that can be converted into Grade A chances.

It seems like Brooks is unlikely to play in the series, but wings Filip Ahl (OTT) and Austin Wagner (LA) have helped Regina re-stock its scoring lines. As long as Regina relies on what has worked on all season, it will always be in a good position to win.

There isn’t necessarily carryover with special-teams performance from series to series. That said, how it plays out with the Pats’ lethal power play against Lethbridge’s spotty penalty kill (71.4 per cent) could be rather interesting. When a team is shy regulars, the PK often takes the hit.

Brown has settled into the role of a No. 1 goalie, with a 1.90 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.

How Lethbridge could win
One common playoff trope is a team that survives a long series, defying most prognostication (present company included), can sometimes be spent for the next round. Lethbridge rates some benefit of the doubt after pulling through to defeat Medicine Hat despite having five regulars sidelined, including overage forwards Matt Alfaro and Zak Zborosky. Only 11 skaters have been healthy for all 14 games, although rookie D-man Calen Addison provided a lift when he returned two games back.

Yet here they are, which speaks well for the team culture under coach Brent Kisio and GM Peter Anholt, along with a willingness to stick with a skilled game despite being short on healthy bodies. Shocking Regina would require having a steady source of scoring beyond Wong, Estephan and Egor Babenko, who have combined for 59 points. Draft-eligible goalie Stuart Skinner, who made a stupendous stop late in Game 7 that made it possible for midget call-up Dylan Cozens to get the equalizer, will once again have to thrive under a heavy volume of activity. The 18-year-old Skinner has handled 37 shots per game in the playoffs, and his rate stats (3.03 GAA, .918 SV%) likely don’t reflect how much time the ‘Canes spend playing short-handed.

Western Conference

Kelowna Rockets vs. Seattle Thunderbirds

Series in a sentence (or two)
Plenty of faces have changed since last season’s conference final — mainly on the back end for the Rockets and up front among in the T-Birds — but it should take little time to renew some old scores.

Star power
Keegan Kolesar (CLB) has a team-high 17 points in eight playoff games; Mathew Barzal (NYI) had seven during Seattle’s four-game sweep against Everett. Kelowna has the series’ other two confirmed NHL first-rounders with Lucas Johansen (WSH) and Nick Merkley (ARI), while defenceman Cal Foote is likely to become one in about two months’ time.

The last time they played
2016, Western Conference final: Seattle swept 4-0, but with three one-goal wins.

Why Seattle should win
The survey says take the team from the U.S. Division, which has typically been deeper than the B.C. Division in recent years. Seattle, over the run of the whole season, has also been less reliant on the power play for its goal production — 24 per cent of their goals have been with the extra skater(s) as opposed to 29 per cent for the Rockets. That’s important, since the looser officiating standards in the playoffs makes it more imperative to generate chances at even strength. The Thunderbirds, with a varied attack led by the likes of Barzal, Kolesar and Ryan Gropp (NYR), have the capacity to attack in waves. Nine players had at least two goals during the back-to-back sweeps.

Seattle is in good stead defensively, what with the first defence pairing of Ethan Bear (EDM) and fellow 19-year-old Turner Ottenbreit and draft-year defenceman Jarret Tyszka. Rookie goalie Carl Stankowski hasn’t flinched so far in the playoffs, allowing more than three goals only once.

How Kelowna could win
Strike first, strike hard. As a team with a lot of natural offence with the likes of playoff co-points leader Reid Gardiner, Merkley, Dillon Dubé (CGY) and Calvin Thurkauf, Kelowna has been a strong starter throughout the playoffs, scoring first in nine-of-11 games. Getting a shot of confidence early might be essential for a team whose discipline is known to fray occasionally.

Overage goalie Michael Herringer (2.18 GAA, .924 SV%) has had a solid post-season. Defensively, though, Kelowna will be going from trying to shut down a young Portland Winterhawks crew to stopping sufficiently more seasoned Seattle. It’s fair to wonder how much Johansen and Foote, et al., have been tested. That said, Kelowna has not won 28 of 40 games since the WHL trade deadline by accident.

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