2014 WHL PLAYOFF PREVIEW: Western Conference

CALGARY, AB – The 2014 WHL Playoffs, presented by Kal Tire, open this week as the quest for the Ed Chynoweth Cup and a spot in the 2014 MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament in London, ON, begins on Thursday, March 20th.

In the WHL Western Conference, the Kelowna Rockets led the way during the regular season, posting a franchise-record 57 wins and 118 points en route to their second straight B.C. Division title and first Scotty Munro Memorial trophy since 2003-04.  How will the regular-season champions fare against Eric Comrie and the Tri-City Americans in the first round?

Meanwhile, the defending WHL Champion Portland Winterhawks enjoyed yet another terrific season, storming their way to their second straight U.S. Division title and 50-win campaign.  Will the Hawks’ potent offense be able to find a way through Brett Kulak and the Vancouver Giants in their opening-round clash?

Here’s a look at the first-round WHL Western Conference Round 1 match-ups:



2013-14 regular-season record:
Kelowna:           57-11-0-4, 118pts (L10: 8-2-0-0)
Tri-City:             29-33-4-6, 68pts (L10: 2-5-1-2)

2013-14 head-to-head record: 
Kelowna:           4-0-0-0, 8pts
Tri-City:             0-3-0-1, 1pts 

2013-14 head-to-head top scorers:
Rourke Chartier             4gp-2g-4a-6pts
Nick Merkley                 4gp-2g-4a-6pts

Brian Williams               4gp-2g-1a-3pts
Parker Bowles               3gp-0g-3a-3pts

The Kelowna Rockets and Tri-City Americans meet up in the WHL playoffs for the first time since the 2009-10 season.  Kruise Reddick and the Americans defeated Tyler Myers and the Rockets four games to one in the second round of the 2010 playoffs.

The Rockets were the best team in the WHL during the regular season, posting 57 wins and 118 points while finishing five points ahead of their nearest competitor in the overall WHL standings.  Kelowna boasts great depth up front with six players who topped the 20-goal mark and 11 players who had at least 35 points.  The League’s third-best defensive team, Kelowna allowed just 182 goals against while goaltender Jordon Cooke posted 39 wins and a 2.29 goals-against average in 51 games.  Myles Bell led the Rockets with 42 goals while their defense corps combined for 56 goals and 227 points.

The Americans failed to hit the 40-win mark for the first time in eight seasons, but made the WHL playoffs for an 11th consecutive year.  Brian Williams led the way with 36 goals and 56 points for the Ams this season but Beau McCue was the only other player to reach 20 goals on a team that finished 20th in the WHL in offensive production.  Defensively, the Americans will rely heavily on goaltender Eric Comrie to give them a chance at defeating the high-powered Rockets.  Comrie faced the second-most shots of any goaltender in the WHL this season, and boasted an impressive .925 save percentage in 60 games.

Series Schedule (All Start Times Local)

#1 – Tri-City @ Kelowna; Saturday, March 22 (7:05pm)
#2 – Tri-City @ Kelowna; Sunday, March 23 (5:05pm)
#3 – Kelowna @ Tri-City; Tuesday, March 25 (7:05pm)
#4 – Kelowna @ Tri-City; Wednesday, March 26 (7:05pm)
#5 – Tri-City @ Kelowna; Friday, March 28 (7:05pm) **
#6 – Kelowna @ Tri-City; Saturday, March 29 (7:05pm) **
#7 – Tri-City @ Kelowna; Tuesday, April 1 (7:05pm) **
** If Necessary


2013-14 regular-season record:
Portland:           54-13-2-3, 113pts (L10: 9-1-0-0)
Vancouver:       32-29-7-4, 75pts (L10: 3-6-0-1)

2013-14 head-to-head record: 
Portland:           4-0-0-0, 8pts
Vancouver:       0-3-0-1, 1pts

2013-14 head-to-head top scorers:
Brendan Leipsic            4gp-3g-5a-8pts
Oliver Bjorkstrand          4gp-1g-7a-8pts

Dominik Volek              4gp-2g-1a-3pts
Joel Hamilton                4gp-1g-2a-3pts

The Portland Winterhawks meet the Vancouver Giants in the WHL playoffs for the first time since the 2009-10 season.  Craig Cunningham and the Giants defeated Ryan Johansen and the Winterhawks four games to two in the second round of the 2010 WHL playoffs.

The Winterhawks come into the 2014 WHL playoffs looking to defend their WHL championship from a year ago, and as three-time defending Western Conference champions.  Another strong season saw the Winterhawks hit the 50-win mark for a second year in a row while also leading the WHL in offensive production.  High-scoring forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand – a 50-goal man this year – and Nicolas Petan highlight an offense that boasts five players who scored at least 35 goals and nine players with 40 or more points.  Goaltender Brendan Burke gets his chance to lead the Hawks into the post-season after backing up Mac Carruth in each of the last two years.

The Giants are back in the playoffs after having missed the post-season last year for the first time since their expansion season in 2001-02.  Forwards Jackson Houck and Cain Franson lead an offense that ranked seventh in the Western Conference during the regular season.  Both Franson and Houck hit the 30-goal mark, while trade deadline acquisition Dominik Volek is the only other Giants player to score at least 20 goals.  Brett Kulak heads up a defense corps that allowed 51 fewer goals than they did last season.  Goaltender Payton Lee faced Portland four times during the regular season, posting a 4.63 GAA and an .874 save percentage.  He’ll need to be at his best to stop the high-scoring Winterhawks.

Series Schedule

#1 – Vancouver @ Portland; Friday, March 21 (7:00pm) Moda Center
#2 – Vancouver @ Portland; Saturday, March 22 (7:00pm) Moda Center
#3 – Portland @ Vancouver; Tuesday, March 25 (7:00pm)
#4 – Portland @ Vancouver; Wednesday, March 26 (7:00pm)
#5 – Vancouver @ Portland; Friday, March 28 (7:00pm)** Moda Center
#6 – Portland @ Vancouver; Sunday, March 30 (2:00pm)**
#7 – Vancouver @ Portland; Tuesday, April 1 (7:00pm)** Moda Center
** If Necessary


2013-14 regular-season record:
Victoria:            48-20-1-3, 100pts (L10: 6-4-0-0)
Spokane:          40-26-3-3, 86pts (L10: 5-5-0-0)

2013-14 head-to-head record: 
Victoria:            1-3-0-0, 2pts
Spokane:          3-1-0-0, 6pts

2013-14 head-to-head top scorers: 
Brandon Fushimi           4gp-3g-0a-3pts
Logan Fisher                 4gp-1g-2a-3pts

Mitch Holmberg             4gp-5g-7a-12pts
Mike Aviani                   4gp-5g-5a-10pts

The Victoria Royals and Spokane Chiefs meet up for a playoff series for the second time in the history of both franchises.  Tyler Johnson and the Chiefs defeated Ryan Howse and the Chilliwack Bruins four games to one in the first round of the 2011 WHL playoffs.

The Royals come into the playoffs on the back of their best regular-season performance in franchise history, having smashed Club records for wins and points in a season.  Brandon Magee and Austin Carroll head up a balanced Victoria offense that boasts six players who hit the 20-goal mark and nine players who posted at least 30 points.  Defensively, only the Edmonton Oil Kings were better than the Royals this season.  Despite their strong defensive record, the Royals struggled to contain Chiefs’ forward and WHL scoring champion Mitch Holmberg.  Patrik Polivka and Coleman Vollrath provide the Royals with the best goaltending tandem in the WHL.  Whoever draws the starting job in the post-season will have to step up to stop the Chiefs’ 60-goal man.

The Chiefs finished with 40 or more wins for the sixth time over the last seven seasons, and come into the post-season as the sixth-ranked Club in the conference, having slipped from fifth place on the last weekend of the season.  The offensive dominance of veterans Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani has been a huge reason for the Chiefs’ success this season, with the pair combining for 100 goals and 199 points this season.  Holmberg and Aviani also combined for 10 goals and 22 points in four meetings versus the stingy Royals.  The Chiefs owned the fifth-best defense in the conference this season, allowing just 213 goals.  Veteran goaltender Eric Williams has 24 games of playoff experience to draw upon.

Series Schedule

#1 – Spokane @ Victoria; Saturday, March 22 (7:05pm)
#2 – Spokane @ Victoria; Sunday, March 23 (5:05pm)
#3 – Victoria @ Spokane; Wednesday, March 26 (7:05pm)
#4 – Victoria @ Spokane; Thursday, March 27 (7:05pm)
#5 – Spokane @ Victoria, Saturday, March 29 (7:05pm)**
#6 – Victoria @ Spokane; Monday, March 31 (7:05pm)**
#7 – Spokane @ Victoria; Wednesday, April 2 (7:05pm)**
** If Necessary 


2013-14 regular-season record:
Seattle:             41-25-2-4, 88pts (L10: 4-6-0-0)
Everett:             39-23-7-3, 88pts (L10: 9-0-0-1) 

2013-14 head-to-head record: 
Seattle:             5-4-1-0, 11pts
Everett:             5-4-1-0, 11pts

2013-14 head-to-head top scorers:
Justin Hickman              9gp-4g-4a-8pts
Ryan Gropp                  10gp-3g-5a-8pts

Josh Winquist               8gp-8g-1a-9pts
Ivan Nikolishin               10gp-3g-6a-9pts

The Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips meet up for their first ever WHL playoff series.

The Thunderbirds have enjoyed their best campaign since 2007-08.  Led by the WHL’s top-scoring defenceman, Shea Theodore, the T-Birds finished tied for fourth in the Western Conference in offensive production.  Five T-Birds scored at least 20 goals while impressive rookies Mathew Barzal and Ryan Gropp combined for 32 goals and 96 points.  Theodore leads a blue line that cut their goals-against by 37 from last season.  The T-Birds’ defense corps will have to focus on Silvertips’ top scorer Josh Winquist, who netted eight goals in eight head-to-head meetings this season.  Trade deadline acquisition Taran Kozun has provided superb netminding, twice being named the CHL Goalie of the Week since coming to the T-Birds. 

The Silvertips enter the post-season as the hottest team in the Western Conference, having posted a 13-0-0-2 record over their last 15 games of the season, including three wins over the Thunderbirds.  Josh Winquist set a new franchise record with 47 goals this season and tied another record with 93 points.  Offensive depth is there with players such as Carson Stadnyk and rookies Ivan Nikolishin and Juhjar Khaira able to contribute.  The third-best defensive team in the Western Conference, the Silvertips look to veteran Matt Pufahl and San Jose Sharks prospect Mirco Mueller to keep the T-Birds’ offense in check.  Netminder Austin Lotz posted a 3-2-0 record with a 2.01 GAA and a .914 save percentage in five games versus Seattle this season.

Series Schedule

#1 – Everett @ Seattle; Saturday, March 22 (7:05pm)
#2 – Seattle @ Everett; Sunday, March 23 (4:05pm)
#3 – Everett @ Seattle; Tuesday, March 25 (7:05pm)
#4 – Seattle @ Everett; Friday, March 28 (7:35pm)
#5 – Everett @ Seattle; Saturday, March 29 (7:05pm)**
#6 – Seattle @ Everett; Monday, March 31 (7:05pm)**
#7 – Everett @ Seattle; Wednesday, April 2 (7:05pm)**
** If Necessary


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