Spring is here and that means playoff hockey action has come alive. The Western Hockey League begins their battle towards crowing a champion this week. The race to skate away with the Ed Chynoweth Cup is a long and sometimes grueling process but one every young man dreams about. The hours of practice, the long road trips in and out of barn after barn and the ups and downs of a season are all worth it when you get your moment to hoist the WHL championship trophy and know you are on your way to the Memorial Cup, the Canadian Hockey League's year end tournament to crown the number 1 junior team in North America.
Last year, the WHL finally broke through and scored a Memorial Cup title after a long drought of 5 years. Ok 5 years may not seem that long but remember, the Memorial Cup is only a 4 team tournament with the champions of the WHL, OHL and QMJHL receiving an invite along with the host team. In those 5 years, twice the WHL had a 50% chance of taking home the title with being the host league....both times they came up short (2010, Brandon and 2013, Saskatoon). Worth noting, in those same 5 years the WHL did claim the runner-up position 3 times, more than any other league. But 2013-2014 was a different story. The WHL Champion Edmonton Oil Kings returned to the Memorial Cup looking to revenge their previous appearance only two years prior. Considered underdogs against the favored OHL teams London and host Guelph, the Oil Kings defied the odds going 1-2 in the round robin, winning a triple OT semi-final gave vs QMJHL Champion Val d'Or and then defeating the host Storm 6-3 to win the title. Could we see a WHL repeat this year in Quebec City? The WHL is loaded with talent and I would not be surprised.
A note on the playoff format change this year. The WHL has adopted the NHL playoff format where the top three teams in each division automatically qualify for the playoffs with the two remaining wild card spots going to the two best remaining teams. In the NHL I like the format but in a smaller league like the WHL I am not as much a fan. This year, as has been the case for the past few years, we have seen one division in both conferences (Central Divison - Eastern Conference & U.S. Division - Western Conference) to be head and toe above their competition. Sure we still saw 5 teams from both of the traditional power conferences make the playoffs this year but, with the new format, seeding has placed teams at more of a disadvantage. The defending champion Oil Kings, for instance, enter as the second wildcard team (last playoff team) in the Eastern Conference even though their point total is higher than the Swift Current Broncos, the 3rd place team in the Eastern division. As a result, Edmonton has to travel to Brandon for the opening round rather than play Calgary, whom they would have played under the old format. I don't know about you but an Edmonton - Calgary opening round playoff series sounds more exciting....plus the travel to Brandon does put the defending champs at a major disadvantage. But hey....I suppose at the end of the day you play the games in front of you and, if you play your style of game and beat your opponent, it doesn't matter who or when.
Few short comments as we head into the playoff picks:
- Entering the season, I posted a blog with my predictions on how the season would unfold. For a little memory refresher, visit HERE. I'd say I did a pretty good job, accurately predicting all 16 playoff teams. In fact, I had the East Division and B.C. Division nailed perfectly (at least for playoffs). My only real miss was how much I undervalued Everett this season. I had them as the second wild card team....they ended up winning the U.S. Division. Interesting though, I had Edmonton beating Brandon for the Eastern Conference Championship, instead they will meet in the opening round of the playoffs.
- Throughout the season everyone talked about Brandon and Kelowna being the talk of the league...and sure enough they were. The Wheat Kings and Rockets rolled through the regular season will relative ease and should be the heavy favorites. Kelowna will not be pushed in the opening round but a possible second round match up with a much improved Victoria squad and then a Western Final match up with the team surviving the US Division route is not as easy one. Brandon is going to have to survive Edmonton to start and, if they do, should get the easiest second round match up battling the Regina/Swift Current winner. But then they would need to deal with the survivor of Calgary/Medicine Hat/Red Deer (sorry Kootenay fans, it's not happening for you). Basically, no easy path for any team this year.
- In keeping with the #BracketBuster theme, if you are looking for a team to really surprise you this year, take a look at Victoria. The Royals are going to be a tough team to knock off. Should they win their opening series, a possible match up with Kelowna would be the class of the second round series. Victoria is not scared to tackle the favorite Rockets and have played them strong all season. With the U.S. Division a bit weak in comparison to year's past, the Royals could surprise the Rockets and ride the momentum all the way to the WHL final.
Let's get onto the opening round picks for the 2014-2015 WHL Playoffs shall we....
Brandon Wheat Kings vs. Edmonton Oil Kings
These teams have met in the playoffs the past few seasons with Oil being the stronger King over Wheat. However, in those past series, Edmonton was the higher seed and the favored team. Not the case this year. Finally Brandon enters the playoffs as the favorites and the top overall seed in the league, winning the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy on the last day of the season. Last year, Edmonton laid claim to that trophy. Wouldn't Brandon love to follow in the same steps as the Oil Kings last year? This has the potential to be the best series in the opening round. The Wheat Kings set records for goal scored and are one of the most explosive teams the WHL has seen in recent years. The Oil Kings saw major turnover, in players and coaching staff, in the off season but still have put together a solid season, anchored by Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Tristan Jarry between the pipes. If Jarry can find his playoff mojo from last year, an upset could happen here. This series will adopt the 2-3-2 playoff format due to the long travel distance between Edmonton and Brandon. I think this format actually favors the Oil Kings. If they can get the split in Brandon (Ed. Note: The Oil Kings did just win game 1 in Brandon tonight), they have the advantage of 3 games played in Edmonton where they can take a strangle hold (or even finish) the series on home ice. But Brandon is the top overall seed for a reason and can win just as easy on the road as they have at home. Get ready for a high-octane match up here folks...
#TwineTime pick: Brandon over Edmonton in 7 games
Calgary Hitmen vs. Kootenay Ice
A bit of history repeating once again. We have ourselves another playoff rematch from a year ago. One I think the Hitmen would like to forget. Last season everyone was ready for an Oil Kings vs Hitmen Eastern final, but the Ice ended up pulling off the opening series upset and sending Calgary home way earlier than anyone expected. Enter this year, Calgary once again is the heavily favored team. The Hitmen looked destined for finishing second place in the Central division but late in the season found a second groove, took advantage of a slumping Medicine Hat Tigers team and pulled out another division championship. The Hitmen will be fired up for this rematch and the opportunity to extract some revenge. The Ice enter the playoffs feeling fortunate to hold off Edmonton and avoid Brandon in the opening round. This is a better match up for them without a doubt. I still think they will be unable to keep up with the offense Calgary will throw at them. If Sam Reinhart can find the magic like he did last season and take advantage of arguably the weakest part of the Calgary game, goaltending, the Ice have a shot at the upset once again. Interesting to note, these two teams played a home-and-home series to end the regular series, swept by Calgary which solidified this playoff pairing.
#TwineTime pick: Calgary over Kootenay in 5 games
Medicine Hat Tigers vs. Red Deer Rebels
Oh what could have been for the Tigers. On paper the Tigers are the better team and, honestly, probably should have won the Central Division this year. But this late season collapse, coupled with the terrific run of rival Calgary, may play a bit of a mind game with these boys. This series will be decided by Trevor Cox and Cole Sanford. Both finishing in the Top 5 in points this season, if they can light the lamp early and often, Red Deer is in trouble. If the Rebels can find a way to slow the pace and keep Cox and Sanford frustrated, they could get the upset. The difference could also come down to home ice. This is the final year for Medicine Hat arena, a storied and historic building among the hockey world. The Tigers are not going to want to close the building down with an opening round playoff loss.
#TwineTime pick: Medicine Hat over Red Deer in 6 games
Regina Pats vs. Swift Current Broncos
Well after talking about back-to-back Alberta provincial rivalry series, welcome to an all-Saskatchewan match up. And what a series this will be. These two teams DO NOT like one another. I was lucky enough to be in Regina over the Christmas holidays and take in a game between these two clubs...there were more fights in the opening period than goals. The Pats are a bit of an enigma this year. They started the season on fire and have been locked into this playoff position basically from the start, nobody expected them to catch Brandon. But, mid-way through the season it almost felt like Pats front office staff held a firing sale, dealing away many top players for draft picks and with the hope of building for the future. Sure, this could work in the long run but what about this year? Many fans saw this as the team cashing in on this year with the hope of building a championship calibre team in 2 to 3 years. Can this team still find the muster to be relevant in this year's playoffs? Speedy Creek enter the playoffs just barely holding off Moose Jaw to solidify their playoff spot. The Broncos must be loving the new playoff format. Under the old format, they would have drawn Brandon in the opening round. Instead they have a more winnable series with their provincial rivals. Swift Current did win the season series as well. This one could go either way...but maybe call this a bit of a homer pick I suppose....
#TwineTime pick: Regina over Swift Current in 7 games
Kelowna Rockets vs. Tri-City Americans
Should we just sweep right through this preview? Ok sure, the Rockets have looked more vulnerable the past month. Yes, the Americans looked better at the end of the season in victories over Portand and Spokane but come on...let's be real here. This is a David vs Goliath match up where David really has no chance. If Tri-City can win one game this series I would consider that a success. The Rockets will probably miss Josh Morrissey all series but I don't think they need him anyways here. Expect at least 2 blowout victories for Kelowna, maybe a one-goal victory in Tri-City but overall, business as usual. The Rockets will want to end this series early because their real playoffs begin in the second round.
#TwineTime pick: Kelowna over Tri-City in 4 games
Everett Silvertips vs. Spokane Chiefs
Well Everett, you were the surprise of the season for me. I knew you would be a playoff team but did not see that U.S. division championship coming your way. Great job! It's interesting to note that the higher seeded Silvertips are probably more in a playoff mindframe than the Chiefs. Spokane has been sitting in the number one wild card spot for quite some time now. They were never going to catch Seattle or Portland and seemed to be content with just holding off Tri-City. Everett, on the other hand, was holding off Portland the final month of the season to win the division. Each game was like a playoff game as both Everett and Portland were hoping to avoid Seattle and draw Spokane in the opening round. Advantage Silvertips! Similar to Kelowna above, the Silvertips could be challenged for a game or two but should comfortable advance. The earlier the better though because look who awaits in round two...
#TwineTime pick: Everett over Spokane in 5 games
Portland Winterhawks vs. Seattle T-Birds
This is the class pairing of the Western Conference opening round. The Winterhawks are in their Drive for 5 year. They are the 4-time defending Western Conference Champions, yet only have produced 1 WHL championship out of those appearances. Many believe the best times in Portland are a thing of the past now. WHL scoring leader Oliver Bjorkstrand may have something to say about that. The past two months have been all about Oli. There is not too much he hasn't done. 63 goals scored and 118 point in 59 games played is quite impressive. But after Oli and the Winterhawks top line, what's left? In the past few years, Portland produced a full offensive package, not as much this year. And Seattle seems fully ready to end the streak. The T-Birds won the season series, winning 7 of the 12 games played. Ok, sure two of those wins were in a shootout and most of those games played were earlier in the season when Portland was struggling but still, mental advantage to Seattle. I actually really like this Seattle team and think they could surprise many this year. Does the Drive for 5 continue or will we see the end of the PDX era?
#TwineTime pick: Seattle over Portland in 7 games
Victoria Royals vs. Prince George Cougars
Welcome back to the playoff Prince George. And thank you for making me look oh so smart in predicting at the start of the season that you would be right here in this scenario. This will be the Cougars first playoff series since 2011. And it will be a short one unfortunately. Similar to the Kelowna series, this one should be over early. Victoria is just too fast, too strong, too explosive and too confident for the Cougars to keep up with. The only hiccup for Victoria might be getting caught looking ahead to the powerhouse second round match up with Kelowna. Prince George should be able to pull out a win at home but other than that, expect a quick and routine opening series win for the Royals.
#TwineTime pick: Victoria over Prince George in 5 games
So there you have it. I think we will see some highly competitive series in the Eastern Conference and some relative blowout routine wins for the favorites in the Western Conference. At least for the opening round anyways.
Let me know your thoughts on here or on twitter. Being born in Regina, I was raised on the WHL and have been a fan of this league since I was a little boy. I love it and get right behind it every season. I expect nothing short of outstanding playoff hockey action. If you are in any of the cities hosting playoff games, I highly recommend you check out a game or two. The price is perfect, the atmosphere is family friendly and the action on the ice is comparable, if not at most times way better, than what you will see on a regular night of NHL action. For a complete run down of the playoff schedule, and to find out how to buy tickets, visit the WHL website HERE.
Enjoy the opening round action. #TwineTime will be back with second round playoff predictions and thoughts on the opening series after they are all wrapped up.