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Tuesday, 12 May 2015

And The Champs Are?
CHL crowns it's annual champions

60 turned to 48 which became 12 and now sits at 6.  6 teams vying for 3 spots in the 2015 Memorial Cup.  Ok, this year is a bit different as 2 of the final 6 teams already know they will be playing in the Memorial Cup but more on that later.

#TwineTime had a successful prediction round last time we checked in.....in fact I went a perfect 100% in my picks.  Accurate on both series in all 3 leagues.  How many people pulled that off?  Combine my perfect record last round with my opening round picks and here is where I sit:

WHL: 12 - 2 (86%)
OHL:  6 - 0 (100%)
QMJHL:  5 - 1 (83%)
 
CHL Overall:  21 - 3 (88%)

The Championship Round is often the most difficult to call though.  These are usually the two best teams in the league and teams who have proven success throughout the playoffs.  This year might actually produce the 3 strongest championship series we have ever seen.  All 3 league finals have match ups of teams where there are strong arguments for either team to lay claim to the championship trophy.

For this blog, in addition to the regular CHL picks, I am also going to offer up my thoughts on the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Cup, happening right now in Portage, MB.  Stay tuned for that at the end of this blog.

Let's find out if #TwineTime can continue along the winning path...

WHL

(East Champion) Brandon Wheat Kings vs (West Champion) Kelowna Rockets

The battle for the Ed Chynoweth Cup could not have been scripted any better.  The two best teams in the league all season have brushed aside their competition and have earned the right to be here.  Brandon won the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as the regular season champion, finished with 114 points.  Only two points back however was the Kelowna Rockets.  The argument could be made Brandon won based on playing in a weaker conference overall and being able to beat up on weaker teams like Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Lethbridge.  Regardless, Brandon will have home ice advantage for this series.  Interesting note though for the WHL final, rather than the normal series schedule of 2-2-1-1-1, this final will see a 2-3-2 format.

Props to Kelowna for finally ending the Portland stranglehold on the Western Championship.  They kicked a monkey off their own backs in eliminating the 4-time Western Champs in 6 games last round.  Brandon, on the other hand, has seen little competition on their path.  They breezed by Calgary in 5 games.  In fact, Brandon has won all 3 of their playoff series in 5 games.  With the opening 2 games in Brandon, Kelowna would be wise to win at least 1 game on the road to open the series if they want to have any luck taking home the hardware.

This final should provide the offense hockey fans love to see.  Both of these teams have the offensive capabilities to light the lamp...and light it often, average more than 4 goals per game.  Brandon has dropped 8 goals on their opposition three times (including the final two games to wrap up the series vs. Calgary).  Impressed?  Well how about this: Brandon also light up the Hitmen for 9 goals in the series opener.  If Kelowna can hold the Wheaties to 3 goals or less per game, they should be able to pick up the victory.  But what about the Rockets?  Well they dropped an 8 pack on Portland in the series clincher at the Moda Centre and added a few 7 goal and 6 goal games on their road to the final.

The offensive output on the ice to watch will be a battle between Leon Draisaitl and Tyson Baillie of the Rockets vs. the Bro Code of Peter and John Quenneville reppin' the Wheaties Black and Yellow.  All 4 of these players are the one's to watch in this series.  Whichever duo can stay hot should help propel their team to victory.

The final format I think favors the stronger team, Kelowna.  I have felt all season Kelowna was the best team in the CHL and I am sticking by my thought process.  I think the Rockets can at least split the opening 2 games and, coming home for 3 straight games, should be able to have a 3-2 series lead (at worst) after 5 games.  If they can get that far, I like their odds to pull off another road win for the championship.  If they can take 2 of 3 at the Moda Centre in Portland, arguably the loudest barn in the WHL, I am confident they can do the same in Brandon.  We already know they can win at home too.

#TwineTime pick:  Kelowna over Brandon in 5 games
 
OHL

(East Champion) Oshawa Generals vs (West Champion) Erie Otters

Ok let's be honest, the J. Ross Robertson Cup will go through Connor McDavid.  Either the Otters forward will hoist the cup or he will watch in disbelief (as will most of the country) when the Generals skate away with the automatic Memorial Cup berth.  McDavid has found the back of the net often in these playoffs and as of press time sits with 20 goals in 18 games with 45 points.  The next closest player in the playoff scoring leaderboard is Michael Dal Colle with 28 points.  And of course what team does Dal Colle play for?  The Oshawa Generals. 

While the hockey world seems focused on McDavid and his Otters, they enter the OHL final as the lower seed and without home ice advantage.  The Generals may not be getting lots of love throughout the playoffs but that doesn't mean they are not a high quality team capable of breaking the little McHearts of hockey fans across the nation.  The key to an Oshawa win will rest on the shoulders of goalie Ken Appleby.  Appleby has been a brick wall on consistency throughout the playoffs.  A 0.926 save percentage and a goals against of 2.12 are hard numbers not be impressed by.

So basically it will come down to McDavid vs. Appleby right?  For the most part yes, but there are other factors to consider.  The Generals will need to contain McDavid but they cannot just worry about him.  The Otters can attack from a few different points, with Dylan Strome and Nicholas Baptiste proving to be a threat when teams focus solely on McDavid.  Ok, let's say the Generals can contain McDavid for a few games in this series, can they find the back of the net themselves?  Well, overall they may not have the highest profile names leading their attack, combine Dal Colle with Cole Cassels and Oshawa presents a strong double threat.

Heading into the conference championships, many (myself included) really doubted whether Oshawa could challenge either West team.  After paying closer attention to both series last round, I think I stand corrected.  I actually can see Oshawa making this a very close series....closer than many want or expect.  Think about it, if the Generals just take care of business at home (where they are 8-1 entering this series), they win the title.  Can McDavid and the Otters swim away with at least 1 road win this series?

#TwineTime pick:  Erie over Oshawa in 7 games 

QMJHL

(1) Rimouski Oceanic vs (4) Quebec Remparts

The President's Cup final many expected to see will take place.  Ok maybe when the playoffs were set people doubted Quebec would be in this position.  Sure they are the #4 seed but they finished well back of the top 3 teams in the league.  In fact, they finished second in their division (16 points back) to the team they will now see on the other side of the ice.  The Rimouski Oceanic have been considered the class of the league this year, winning the Jean Rougeau Trophy as regular season champions (99 points).  It is a bit crazy to see a regular season champion not break the 100 point barrier though isn't it?  That stat tells a compelling story though, the Q was a tight league this year.

The real story here involves a thank you from the Oceanic.  With the Remparts hosting the Memorial Cup and already earning an automatic berth, once the Oceanic quickly swept away Val d'Or and watched Quebec do the same to Moncton, they were also awarded the Q auto berth.  Both of these teams will be in Quebec playing for the national championship, regardless of who wins the league.  Hmm sound a bit familiar?  The last time a Q team hosted the Memorial Cup (Shawinigan, 2012), the host Cataractes didn't win the league title but went through a tiebreaker, semi and championship final to hoist the Memorial Cup.  Perhaps the Remparts are wise to save some energy in this final and follow the Shawinigan model (although Shawinigan did lose in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs).

These Eastern Division rivals are quite familiar with one another and nothing will come as a surprise in this final.  This final will really come down to a dog fight on who wants it more.  Just because both teams have the Memorial Cup spots locked up, don't expect a weak or less than normal physical series. 

Entering this series, Rimouski has lost 1 game (to Gatineau in the quarterfinal round).  They have been VERY impressive and enter on an 8-game winning streak.  To say the Oceanic have been consistent is an understatement.  They won't cause the red light to burn out anytime soon as they are quite happy with the lower scoring games and finding the back of the net 3 to 4 times per game.  The defense is what makes them so strong.  Scoring 3 goals a game during a playoff series does not seem to give you a fairly good chance at winning yet here they are.  In fact, in the Q playoff scoring race, they have 1 player in the top 10, Alexis Loiseau sitting in 10th.  A smothering D backstopped by the #1 goalie in the Q playoffs, Louis-Philip Guindon, could be all they need.  Guindon is a perfect 9-0 in the playoffs, with a save percentage of 0.951 and a goals against of 1.12.  Score 3 + Allow 1 = Winning!  A team with few big name all-star players but a team capable of grinding out wins as a collective unit can be just as dangerous, if not more.

The Remparts won't be as easy as previous opponents for the Oceanic though.  Remember, the playoff seeds Rimouski has eliminated include 16, 14 and 6.  Not exactly the most challenging of playoff teams.  The Remparts have eliminated 13, 9 and 2.  They also enter the series on a winning streak...a 9-game winning streak.  They have not lost a game since falling in game 6 to Cape Breton in the opening round.  Back to back sweeps over Maritime teams Charlottetown and Moncton will provide a lot of confidence.  This is the team with the star power: Adam Erne, Anthony Duclair, Kurt Etchegary and of course Zachary Fucale between the pipes.  They have the offense going, they have the strong defense and are backstopped by a top goalie.  Fucale is 11-2 in the playoffs right now with a .920 save percentage and goals against of 2.23.  If Fucale is on his game and Erne/Duclair/Etchegary continue to light the lamp, the Remparts auto berth in the Memorial Cup will be a distant memory because they will have technically qualified the proper way...as QMJHL Champs!  But can they actually beat a team not from the Maritimes in these playoffs?

#TwineTime pick:  Quebec over Rimouski in 6 games


RBC Cup

The Royal Bank Cup (RBC Cup) is an annual tournament set to crown the Canadian Junior A Champion.  The 5 teams will play a round robin format with the top 4 advancing to the semi finals (1 vs 4, 2 vs 3).  Here is just a few quick banking notes on this tournament:
  •  The RBC Cup started in 1996 but the tournament itself has been around since 1971 (known then as the Centennial Cup)
  • British Columbia has produced the most champions (12) with Saskatchewan next (10).  New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and <surprisingly> Quebec have yet to produce a winner
  • The RBC Cup tournament now consists of teams winning regional tournaments: Fred Page Cup (Eastern Champ), Dudley Hewitt Cup (Central Champ) and Western Canada Cup (Western Champ).  These 3 winners are joined by the rotating annual host and the Western runner-up.
  • This is known to be one of the hardest trophies to win in hockey.  Only 2 teams have ever repeated and are oddly enough from the same city: Vernon Vipers (2009/2010) and Vernon Lakers (1990/1991).  There will be no repeat this year as last year's champion, Yorkton Terriers, were eliminated in SJHL playoff action.
 A quick preview of the 2015 RBC Cup teams:

Portage Terriers (Hosts) - Finished with only 3 regulation losses all season and have been the #1 team in the country all season.  They did not lose a game during the MJHL playoffs but struggled at the Western Canada Cup, finished in second place.  Playing back on home ice, they will be considered the strong favorites given how they have played all season.

Penticton Vees (Western) - Finished 1st in the BCHL, also only suffering 3 regulation losses.  They were pushed to 7 games in a playoff series with Vernon but found their way through and have looked unstoppable since.  They won the Western Canada Cup, defeating the favorite Portage Terriers in both the round robin game and the championship final.  The Vees could be considered co-favorites and have the confidence of knocking off the top team in the country already...twice!

Melfort Mustangs (Western Runner-Up) - The SJHL champions technically finished 3rd at the Western Canada Cup but with Portage having the automatic berth, the Mustangs live to skate another day.  Melfort breezed through the SJHL playoffs, losing only 2 games, and were the class of the league all season.  They struggled at the Western Canada Cup though against Penticton and Portage and will need to turn those results around to have a shot.

Soo Thunderbirds (Dudley Hewitt Champs) - Representing the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League (NOJHL), the Thunderbirds will try to become the first NOJHL champs to win the RBC Cup.  Finishing top of the league, they suffered only 7 regulation losses all season, only 2 losses in the playoffs and dominated the Dudley Hewitt Cup.  A longshot though to win against this competition.

Carleton Place Canadians (Fred Page Champs) - From the Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL), the Canadians are no stranger to this tournament.  Last year they finished the round robin in 4th place, barely making the playoffs.  They upset the top seed and favorites Dauphin Kings in the semifinal before losing a heartbreaking final to Yorkton in overtime.  The familiarity of being here last year and the sting of a tough championship final loss should only help this team.  Carleton Place should be considered the dark horse pick to win it all.

#TwineTime Projected Final Standings

1. Portage Terriers
2. Penticton Vees
3. Melfort Mustangs
4. Carleton Place Canadians
5. Soo Thunderbirds

Semi finals:  Portage def. Carleton Place
                     Penticton def. Melfort

RBC Cup Championship:  Penticton Vees def. Portage Terriers

Ok puck heads, there you have it!  I know this was a long blog post but lots of great playoff hockey going on right now.  Enjoy the action on the ice and share your thoughts with me here or on twitter anytime.

Gotta love hockey playoff time of the year right?