Coincidental Minors WHL Conference Finals Preview

By: Scott Rennie, Managing Editor
@scott_rennie

Can they do it again? (gbishop/Flickr)

EASTERN CONFERENCE
(1)Edmonton Oil Kings (50-15-7, 1st in Central) vs. (2) Moose Jaw Warriors (45-19-8, 1st in East)

DRAFTED PLAYERS
– OIL KINGS
2011
D Keegan Lowe (Carolina, 73rd overall), C Travis Ewanyk (Edmonton, 74rd overall), C Michael St.Croix (New York Rangers 2011, 106th overall), D Martin Gernat (Edmonton, 122nd overall) G Laurent Brossoit (Calgary, 164th overall)
2010
D Mark Pysyk (Buffalo – 23rd overall), LW Kristians Pelss (Edmonton, 181 overall)

– WARRIORS
2011
D Joel Edmundson (St.Louis, 46th overall)
2010
D Dylan McIlrath (New York Rangers, 10th overall), LW Quinton Howden (Florida, 25th overall), RW Cody Beach (St.Louis, 134th overall), D Kendall McFaull (Atlanta, 155th overall)

HOW THEY GOT HERE
Both squads are on eight-game playoff winning streaks. The Oil Kings swept both the Kootenay Ice and the Brandon Wheat Kings to get through the first two rounds. The Warriors lost the opening match of their first-round series against the Regina Pats, then knocked them off in five games. In the second round, the Tribe didn’t have much trouble with the Medicine Hat Tigers, holding ‘Dub leading goal-scorer Emerson Etem and the rest of his teammates to just seven goals in a four-game sweep.

WHO WE’RE WATCHING
For Moose Jaw fans, a lot of the buzz surrounds 1996-born C Brayden Point. A first-round pick of the Tribe in the 2011 WHL draft, Point scored 41 points in 32 games as a 15-year-old with the AAA Calgary Buffaloes this season. The Warriors made him a spring-call up, and his contribution to the playoff run has been pretty much a fairytale. The diminutive Point (he’s listed at 5’8”, but most aren’t buying it) has five goals and three assists in nine playoff games, including overtime winners against Regina in Game 4, and the series-winner over Medicine Hat. Not NHL draft eligible until 2014, Point has played himself onto Warriors’ coach Mike Stothers’ top line, alongside Quinton Howden and James Henry.

With just one scorer in the playoff top-20, the Oil Kings have been buoyed by the goaltending of 18-year-old Brossoit — he’s got a save percentage of 0.941 through eight games, and a GAA of just a buck-fifty. But Brossoit is aided by a young and deep defense corps — 19-year-old Psysk is the veteran on the blueline that has allowed an average of only 25 shots a game. Highly ranked NHL prospect Griffin Reinhart is a +8 in the postseason.

STORYLINES, ETC.
The Warriors brain trust has eyed a deep run in these playoffs ever since taking Howden (1st overall), McIlrath (46th) and McFaull (72nd) in the 2007 ‘Dub draft. And because those three players, plus the rough and tumble Beach (who led the league in PIM) are likely to move onto their professional organizations this year, there’s a sense of now or never. And to win this year, Tribe director of hockey operations Al Millar mortgaged a bit of the Tribe’s short-term future by dealing a first- and second-rounder to the Lethbridge Hurricanes for 41-goal scorer C Cam Braes and two early selections to the Vancouver Giants for LW James Henry.

And to their credit, the Warriors boast a top-six that can score in bunches and a bottom-six that can grind and muck, creating scoring chances in their own right. And they’ll likely be sparked by the return of D Morgan Rielly, an odds-on top-ten pick in the June draft, who missed the balance of the season with an ACL injury.

However, the Oil Kings are the Warriors biggest test so far. And aside their deep scoring and defense, the Oil Kings will also have home-ice advantage this series. The Warriors had the Eastern Conference’s best home record in Moose Jaw’s brand-new Mosaic Place, posting a 30-3-3 record. Away from the Friendly City, however, its a different story … just 35 points in 36 games. And Edmonton? They had the second-best home record in the conference, and were one of the best ‘Dub road teams.  And Brossoit’s sparkling stat line isn’t that far off to his conference-leading GAA during the regular season. Both teams are playing at their best, so this could come down to special times, or maybe just weird and lucky bounces.

CM’S BEST GUESS
In a series so even, I’ll bet the goalie every time. As good as Warriors G Luke Siemens has been this year, Brossoit’s been better, and he’s had a busier postseason — Oil Kings in seven.

WESTERN CONFERENCE
(1)Tri-City Americans (50-18-4, 1st in U.S.) vs. (3) Portland Winterhawks (49-19-4, 2nd in U.S.)

Managing Editor Scott Rennie has the Winterhawks winning the series over Tri-City in seven games.

DRAFTED PLAYERS
– AMERICANS
2011
D Zach Yuen (Winnipeg, 119th overall)
2010
RW Patrick Holland (Calgary, 193rd overall)

– WINTERHAWKS
2011
LW Sven Bartschi (Calgary, 13th overall),D Joe Morrow (Pittsburgh, 23rd overall), RW Ty Rattie (St.Louis, 32nd overall), D Tyler Wotherspoon (Calgary, 57th overall), LW Marcel Noebels (Philadelphia, 118th overall)
2010
LW Brad Ross (Toronto, 43rd overall), G Mac Carruth (Chicago, 119th overall), D Troy Rutkowski (Colorado, 137th overall).

HOW THEY GOT HERE
Tri-City made short work of the Everett Silvertips, opening the playoffs with a sweep. In the second round, the Americans went back and forth with the Spokane Chiefs, and needed seven games to move on the conference final. The Americans’ 20-year-old C Brendan Shinnimin, who led the ‘Dub with 134 points in the regular season, once again paces his squad with 18 points in just 11 games.

Portland also swept their first-round opponent, the Kelowna Rockets. In the record round, the Winterhawks opened up a 3-0 lead against the Kamloops Blazers, only to see them come back and tie the series. Carruth stopped all 39 shots he faced in the ‘Hawks 2-0 Game 7 victory. Rattie leads all postseason scorers with 23 points in 11 games, with Bartschi right behind, at 21.

WHO WE’RE WATCHING
Brandon Shinnimin is Tri-City’s stud, there’s no doubt. But the Americans are getting contributions from all over the roster. As Annie Fowler of the Tri-City Herald says, 16-year-old rookie Brian Williams made things tough for Spokane’s top players in the semifinal. And LW Adam Hughesman, an undrafted 20-year-old, has followed a monster regular season with a strong playoff. He’ll be signed as an free agent by someone, and a berth to the league finals will have more suitors lining up for his services.

Rattie took his Canadian world junior snub in stride, finishing the season second in goals, with 57, one off of Shinnimin’s league-high. The sniper had playoff 22 points last season, as the Winterhawks went to the championship final, losing against Kootenay. Bartschi had 27 points in that run, and if you throw in Ross, you’re looking at three guys hungry to redeem last year’s disappointment  and — as all are likely to jump to their professional clubs in 2012-13 — hoping to end their major junior careers in the best way imaginable.

STORYLINES, ETC.
Just as there is an air of destiny to the Warriors playoff run, the pressure is also on Portland to win this year, as they could lose their five top scorers to the NHL or AHL next season. So much of winning championships is just hitting the jackpot on your best players peaking at the same time, and while Portland scratched the surface last season, their deep core of NHL prospects might have enough to break through this year.

That being said, Tri-City G Ty Rimmer was the WHL’s best ‘keeper in 2011-12 and has yet to lose in regulation time in the playoffs. As I’ve said above, we can’t under estimate the impact a goalie can have on a series. But hell, Portland’s Carruth has played like a guy with an NHL future as well. Just as in the Edmonton vs. Moose Jaw series, these teams are the toast of their conferences — there’s no reason to expect this series won’t be extremely tight.

CM’S BEST GUESS
The season series favoured the Americans at 6-4, but the ‘Hawks took four of the last five games. I’m not sure what to make of that, besides that maybe Portland’s coaching staff finally saw something in Tri-City’s game they could take advantage of. And I can’t discount Portland’s will to win before they break up the band — Winterhawks in six.

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