The Brandon Wheat Kings want to finish what they started last spring, when they were disappointingly swept by the Western Conference’s top team, the Kelowna Rockets, in the Western Hockey League Final. A first-round rematch with the Edmonton Oil Kings saw the Wheat Kings defeat their opponents fairly quickly for the second consecutive year, setting up a second-round series against their division rival Moose Jaw Warriors.
Led by Brayden Point, Dryden Hunt and Brett Howden, the Warriors clinched a playoff spot this year for the first time since the 2011-12 season, when they made it all the way to the conference final.
Hunt finished second in WHL scoring this year, notching 58 goals and 58 assists in a full 72-game season and earning himself an NHL contract with the Florida Panthers as a result. His future cross-state rival, Brayden Point – a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect – missed significant time this season but still managed to score 88 points in 48 games.
But the few stars up front for Moose Jaw clearly cannot compete with the incredible depth of their Manitoba opponent in the second round. Up 3-1 in the series, Brandon has a chance to clinch a spot in the Eastern Conference Final for the second straight year.
This is essentially the current core’s last chance at winning a WHL title, with key players like John Quenneville, Reid Duke, Jayce Hawryluk and Tim McGauley about to graduate to the NHL (and top defenseman Ivan Provorov a strong candidate for grabbing a roster spot with the Philadelphia Flyers in the fall as well).
A two-goal performance by Quenneville sparked Brandon’s 5-3 victory in the series opener against Moose Jaw, while Game 2 also featured five goals – scored by five different players – by the Wheat Kings en route to a second straight home win.
Game 3 in Moose Jaw was a bit disheartening for the Manitoba club, though, as the Warriors defeated the Wheat Kings by a score of 7-1, featuring a Jayden Halbgewachs hat trick.
WHEAT KINGS WIN! WHEAT KINGS WIN! The #BWK take a 3-1 series lead back to Brandon Friday night! #GoldRush #BdnMB pic.twitter.com/UYG0Kkxgz2
— Brandon Wheat Kings (@bdnwheatkings) April 14, 2016
But the Wheat Kings came to play in Game 4, winning by a decisive score of 6-2 on the heels of a two-goal performance by Nolan Patrick and a three-point outing by Duke.
“We really turned our game around,” Quenneville told The Brandon Sun after Game 4. “Obviously last night wasn’t the way we wanted to play. Give our team a lot of credit. After a bad bounce for us and giving up a goal right off the hop, that can crush a lot of teams but we got right back to work and got a few goals for ourselves.
“And our second period was as good a period as I’ve seen in the playoffs… It’s a great game for us and we’re going to build off of it.”
Patrick, the favorite to go first overall in next year’s 2017 NHL Draft, scored his two goals in the dominant second period Quenneville spoke of. A second-year WHL forward, Patrick’s major junior eligibility is a rare case, as he will have played three seasons in Brandon before being eligible for the NHL draft.
The Winnipeg native finished second in Brandon scoring and fifth in league scoring with 102 points, including a team-high 61 assists. Leading the charge for the first-seed in the Eastern Conference as a 17-year-old certainly exceeds expectations, but the forward is now expected to go above and beyond in the postseason.
Patrick has scored five goals and six assists in 10 playoff games, while Quenneville, Duke and Hawryluk have scored 15, 14 and 12 points, respectively. Even 2016 NHL Draft prospect Kale Clague, criticized for his lack of offense throughout the 2015-16 season, has gotten on the board from the back end often, scoring nine points in 10 games in the postseason.
In an elimination Game 5 on Friday night in Brandon, the home team is expected to advance to the conference final once again, looking to change history as the sting of being swept there last year still remains.