The WHL Conference Final matchups are set, and while there were some major upsets in the first few rounds, we don’t think the top seeds are safe just yet.
Brandon Wheat Kings (1) vs. Red Deer Rebels (3)
The Brandon Wheat Kings haven’t faced a task nearly this tall so far in the 2016 playoffs, as the Red Deer Rebels will be the ultimate test of the Manitoba club’s dominance in the Western Hockey League.
Led by big-name players like Jake DeBrusk, Adam Helewka, Michael Spacek, Haydn Fleury and several others, the Rebels are in a unique situation where even if they don’t make it to the final round of the WHL playoffs, they will still clinch a spot in the Memorial Cup tournament (they are hosting it this year, which gives them a guaranteed spot in the four-team, round-robin contest).
But every team in the WHL wants to win it all, and the Rebels have the best odds to do it. Only problem is that their current Western Conference final opponents came within three wins of the WHL title last year, and with pretty much the same cast returning this year. They are clearly the team to beat in the league.
Plus, Red Deer has had trouble at both ends of the ice; they have not been the most offensive team through the first two rounds (their top two scorers have scored 12 points in 12 games, but the rest of the team has underwhelmed). And they have also had difficulty keeping the puck out of the net — three of their four wins in the second round were narrow, one-goal games.
Brandon also struggled a bit in their own second-round series, getting blown-out by a score of 7-1 in their lone loss to Moose Jaw. But they have had far more success than troubles. John Quenneville and Reid Duke have each scored 16 points in 11 games, the celebrity cast of forwards behind them have been clicking, and they have gotten plenty of offensive production from the back-end (especially from Ivan Provorov and Kale Clague).
The Rebels are going to put up a good fight against the Wheat Kings, but the latter is bound to emerge victorious.
Prediction: Brandon wins in 6
Kelowna Rockets (2) vs. Seattle Thunderbirds (3)
Last year’s WHL champions, the Kelowna Rockets, put up quite the inspiring fight Tuesday night. Down 2-1 to the Victoria Royals in an away Game 7, Justin Kirkland scored to pull the Rockets even with a remarkable 0.2 second left in the third.
Then, in the overtime period, Calvin Thurkauf scored the series-clinching goal, silencing the obviously disappointed home crowd. Clearly, they will be riding a wave of confidence heading into the third round against the Seattle Thunderbirds, and it may even garner them the first win of the series.
Fans of the Washington state club need not worry though, with Kelowna mostly a shell of its former 2015 champion self. Nick Merkley is done for the year with a knee injury and the graduation of Leon Draisaitl, Josh Morrissey and Madison Bowey (key cogs to the club last season) has had a tremendous impact on the team this year.
The Thunderbirds — led by Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar on offense and Ethan Bear on defense — may not be the deepest team in the league, but they surely have more firepower at the top of their lineup and a fairly formidable defense. In fact, Seattle has only lost one game through two rounds, so there’s a pretty good chance they will be coming out of this series victorious.
Seattle will need Barzal to break-out in this round. Though 12 points in nine games is pretty impressive, the 88-point scorer in the regular season clearly has another level he has yet to reach in the postseason. If he gets hot, the Thunderbirds will have no problem defeating the reigning WHL champs.
Prediction: Seattle wins in 6