It is somewhat déjà vu in the first round of the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference playoffs. For the second consecutive year, the Saskatoon Blades meet the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Edmonton Oil Kings take on the Kootenay Ice.
But the other two series are different stories. Although the Calgary Hitmen finished in third spot for second straight year, their first-round opponent – the Swift Current Broncos – are jumping back into the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The fourth-seeded Red Deer Rebels and the fifth-seeded Prince Albert Raiders are also returning to the second season after off years.
The Eastern Conference’s post-season opens up on Thursday when Swift Current takes on Calgary and Medicine Hat squares off against Saskatoon. The other series start Friday.
(4) Red Deer Rebels (39-26-5-2, 85 points) vs. (5) Prince Albert Raiders (37-28-3-4, 81 points)
Season Series: Prince Albert 2-2-0-0. Odds favour: Red Deer 67 percent. Prediction: Prince Albert in 7.
Why Prince Albert should win: The Raiders didn’t exactly end their season on a bright note with a 2-5-1-0 record in the month of March. But that was then and this is now. Prince Albert possesses hard-nosed players built for the second season such as Chicago Blackhawks first-rounder Mark McNeill and Phoenix Coyotes second-rounder Harrison Ruopp. Not to mention, their three overagers – Anthony Bardaro, Luke Siemens, and Davis Vandane – have a lot of experience under their belts and are undoubtedly hungry to end their major junior careers on a high.
Bedsides their grizzled veterans, rookie German sensation Leon Draisaitl and 2013 defensive draft prospect Josh Morrissey will be getting their first taste of the post-season. The two youngsters are arguably the most talented players in the series. As long as they can squash the butterflies, it will be tough for the Rebels to contain their elusiveness and uncanny skill.
The Raiders will need Siemens to have a better showing in the blue paint this year than he did last post-season with the Moose Jaw Warriors, posting a 2.71 average and a .883 save percentage throughout 12 games. If Siemens falters, it will be tough for the Raiders to pull off a series win with red-hot puck-stopper Patrick Bartosak in the Rebels’ net. But taking into account Siemens proved throughout this season that he’s not the same goalie as last year, one can expect the Delta, B.C., native to hold his own in between the pipes.
How Red Deer could win: As mentioned above, Bartosak is coming off an outstanding sophomore season, posting a 2.26 average and a .935 save percentage in 55 games. If the Czech Republic native lives up to his potential, he could singlehandedly win this series for the Rebels.
If the Raiders knock the wind out of the Rebels, Red Deer has Minnesota Wild first-rounder Mathew Dumba in their back pocket to shift the momentum back in their favour with a big hit or an end-to-end rush. That being said, Dumba has to play his game, but he can’t risk giving the Raiders an odd-man-rush in a time where the Rebels need to play it safe.
To match the Raiders’ high-end offensive players, leading goal-scorers Rhyse Dieno and Turner Elson have to at their best, but depth forwards such as Czech Republic native Dominik Volek and rookie Conner Bleackley need to step up.
The Rebels outperformed the Raiders on the power play (17 percent to 15.4 percent) and the penalty kill (84 percent to 80 percent) in the regular-season. If Red Deer continues to outmatch Prince Albert on special teams in the second season, this could be the difference maker in the closely matched series.
(3) Calgary Hitmen (46-21-1-4, 97 points) vs. (6) Swift Current Broncos (36-29-3-4, 79 points)
Season series: Swift Current 3-1-0-0 Odds favour: Calgary 74 percent. Prediction: Calgary in 6.
Why Calgary should win: The Hitmen got a taste of the playoffs last year, falling to the Brandon Wheat Kings in five games in the first round. The second time around Calgary is no longer the team that is just happy to be there; they are now ready to make some noise.
The Hitmen’s offense is undoubtedly a step ahead of the Broncos, scoring 60 more goals this year. Calgary's leading goal-scorer Cody Sylvester only scored two more points (41 goals, 90 points) than Swift Current’s top-scorer Adam Lowry (45 goals, 88 points). But their next two scorers – Brooks Macek (32 goals, 80 points) and Brady Brassart (35 goals, 78 points) – outscored the Broncos’ next pair in line by 48 points. Not to mention, the Hitmen also have 2013 draft prospect Greg Chase, first overall 2011 bantam pick Jake Virtanen, and Carolina Hurricanes second-rounder Victor Rask.
In between the pipes, Ottawa Senators prospect Chris Driedger he been consistent throughout his third major junior season, posting a 2.51 average and a .915 save percentage.
How Swift Current could win: Look no further than Eetu Laurikainen for a reason why the Broncos could pull of an upset. The Finland native stood on his head in his rookie season in the Dub, maintaining a 2.39 average and a .922 save percentage. Swift Current only won six games without the 19-year-old in their blue paint.
On the back end, 6-foot-5, 231-pound Richard Nedomlel and 6-foot-4, 196-pound Dillion Heatherington are vital to containing the Hitmen’s top scorers. They have been outstanding in Southern Saskatchewan this year, racking up a combined 11 goals, 55 points, and 185 penalty minutes.
Although one has to keep in mind Graham Black has been struggling with an illness, the Broncos need the New Jersey Devils prospect, Calgary Flames prospect Coda Gordon, and trade-deadline acquisition Jay Merkley to step up after their subpar sophomore seasons. Without them lifting some weight off Lowry’s shoulders, it seems the Broncos’ offense will be in trouble.
(2) Saskatoon Blades (44-22-2-4, 94 points) vs. (7) Medicine Hat Tigers (36-33-2-1, 75 points)
Season series: Saskatoon 4-0-0-0. Odds favour: Saskatoon 75 percent. Prediction: Saskatoon in 5.
Why Saskatoon should win: After the Tigers embarrassed the Blades in the playoffs last year in a four-game sweep, the Memorial Cup hosts are looking for revenge the second time around. Their pride and determination to prove they are a strong enough team to play in the Memorial Cup should help lift them over Medicine Hat.
This group of Bridge City Boys is a much stronger team than last year. Blades GM-head coach Lorne Molleken brought in veterans with swagger such as team captain Brenden Walker, New York Rangers prospect Shane McColgan, Calgary Flames prospect Michael Ferland, and 19-year-old Nathan Burns in the offseason and during the year.
Although they appeared to struggle at the start of the year, the Blades still have a solid blueline led by Colorado Avalanche first-rounder Duncan Siemens and Montreal Canadiens prospects Dalton Thrower and Darren Dietz.
Andrey Makarov is the key to the Blades’ hopeful success. The 6-foot-1, 193-pound goaltender has been red hot at times, posting a 1.85 average and a .948 save percentage in 15 February games. On the other hand, the Russian native isn’t exactly consistent, maintaining a 4.45 average and a .877 save percentage in his last seven contests. If he is at his best, this series should be a cakewalk. But if he struggles, it could go either way.
How Medicine Hat could win: As mentioned above, unraveling Makarov is vital to the Tigers pulling off an upset. If they pepper him right off the bat and get in his head, they could head to round two.
Hunter Shinkaruk doesn’t have his partner in crime this year with Emerson Etem moving on to the Anaheim Ducks organization. But the 2013 draft prospect does have Curtis Valk, who broke out in his 19-year-old season by potting 46 goals and 91 points in 71 games. This one-two punch needs to put the Tigers’ offense on their shoulders with the Blades easily outmatching their club's offensive depth.
Overage puck-stopper Cam Lanigan can’t expect himself to outperform Makarov or match Tyler Bunz’s playoff showing last year. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder just needs make all of the easy saves and keep his team in the game.
(1) Edmonton Oil Kings (51-15-2-4, 108 points) vs. (8) Kootenay Ic
e (35-35-2-0, 72 points)
Season series: Edmonton 3-2-0-1. Odds favour: Edmonton 88 percent. Prediction: Edmonton in 4.
Why Edmonton should win: It seems the Oil Kings are the clear-cut favourites to walk out on top of the Eastern Conference. Even though they won the Ed Chynoweth Cup last year, one could argue they are built for this season.
They don’t have a hole in their roster. Their offense is stacked, consisting of New York Rangers prospect Michael St. Croix, Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder Henrik Samuelsson, top 2013 draft prospect Curtis Lazar, and overage forwards T.J. Foster and Dylan Wruck. Their back end is no different, led by New York Islanders first-rounder Griffin Reinhart, Carolina Hurricanes prospect Keegan Lowe, and Edmonton Oilers prospects Martin Gernat and David Musil. Last but not least, Calgary Flames prospect Laurent Brossoit proved in last year’s playoffs that he’s definitely a top-3 goaltender in the Dub.
How Kootenay could win: Not many expected the Ice to make the playoffs after their poor 3-10-0-0 start. But Kootenay proved the majority wrong by ending their season with a 13-7-0-0 record in their last 20 games.
The Ice need to carry over their momentum from their strong regular-season finish and also have to keep in mind they beat the Oil Kings three times this year.
No longer having his brother Max by his side, Sam Reinhart is the man for Kootenay. It seem it is impossible for the 17-year-old to match Edmonton’s uncanny offense, but he will have to be the best player in the series for the Cranbrook, B.C., based team to pull off an upset.
Jaedon Descheneau, 18, has a prime opportunity against his hometown’s WHL club to show NHL scouts why they should draft him. The 5-foot-8, 177-pound centre blossomed into a star this year, notching 30 goals and 78 points in 69 games.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen