(1) Kelowna Rockets (53-13-5-1, 112 pts.) vs. (2) Victoria Royals (39-29-3-1, 82 pts.)
Season series: Rockets 5-2-1, Victoria 3-5. Final Dynamic Dozen rankings: Rockets eighth, Royals 31st. Prediction: Rockets in 6
Series in a sentence: Royals finally get their shot to nab B.C. crown from the Rockets.
Kelowna and Victoria are locations with rich histories in the WHL, but the cities have never faced off in a postseason series. After being denied by Portland of a chance to take down the Rockets last season, the Royals are now getting an opportunity to shock the junior hockey world.
The Rockets should win, but as the Kelowna Daily Courier’s Doyle Potenteau noted, “the swagger, the brashness isn’t there. Not yet anyway.”
That’s partially because the Tri-City Americans didn’t provide much too much resistance in a four-game sweep, failing to score in two games in Kelowna. The Rockets fell behind 4-1 in Game 4, but rallied to win 5-4 in overtime when their 71st shot of the game found the back of the net.
Now, the Rockets have to contend with a Victoria club that hopes it can wear them down with physical play and good forward depth.
Kelowna owns the flashier talent, with the likes of Leon Draisaitl, Nick Merkley and Rourke Chartier. Defenceman Josh Morrissey, who’s been out since late February, is back to practicing and could play in the series.
Nine Rockets had at least three points in four games in the first round, with depth guys like Dillon Dube and Gage Quinney (who scored the series winner in Kennewick) chipping in to help alleviate the absence of injured forward Justin Kirkland, who may also be ready to go this weekend.
If the Royals are going to take down their mainland rivals, it would help if overage captain Brandon Magee continued his hot run. Magee scored six times in five games against Prince George in the first round as the Royals handled a series many thought could go closer to the full distance. Greg Chase chipped in with five goals as that pair combined to outscore the rest of the team.
Those two probably can’t do it on their own, but continued good showings from rising NHL draft prospect Tyler Soy and one-time top bantam pick Alex Forsberg (six points each against Prince George) will help.
Overager Austin Carroll, who led the Royals with 38 goals and 77 points in the regular season, was held to just two assists by the Cougars, and he’ll likely need to find his scoring touch again.
Kelowna goalie Jackson Whistle handled himself well against Eric Comrie in the first round, and the Rockets probably have the slight advantage in net this series. Coleman Vollrath was decent for the Royals against the Cougars, but it’s been an up-and-down year for him after he led the league in save percentage last season.
Last year, the Royals bowed out of the playoffs with a bang, racking up a $10,000 fine for undisciplined play in the last game in Portland (Magee earned a 12-game suspension for his actions in that contest). Victoria coach Dave Lowry surely wants his team to try to push the Rockets around, but they’ll need to toe the line without stepping over. Otherwise, the league’s top power play will send Victoria to another second-round exit.
(1) Everett Silvertips (43-20-3-6, 95 pts.) vs. (2) Portland Winterhawks (43-23-2-4, 92 pts.)
Season series: 5-5 (Everett 2 OT wins, Portland 1 OT win). Final Dynamic Dozen rankings: Silvertips 14th, Winterhawks fifth. Prediction: Winterhawks in 6
Series in a sentence: Banged-up Tips hope they have enough left in the tank to take down four-time conference champs.
The Silvertips have proven over and over again this season that they were worthy champions of the U.S. Division, yet they’re still plagued by the notion that they don’t look like a team that should be this good.
Everett Herald writer Nick Patterson noted that the team got zero recognition when the WHL’s all-star teams and other league awards were announced. Nobody seems to know how seriously to take the Tips, even though they continue to perform.
The Tips will have to embrace the underdog role again versus Portland, even though they split 10 meetings with the Winterhawks this season and have home-ice advantage for this series.
Largely, that’s because of mounting issues in Everett’s defensive group, which is likely to start the series without top cog Noah Juulsen, who was injured in the series-deciding Game 6 against Spokane. The Tips are also going to be without regular blueliner Tristen Pfeifer for the whole series, and overager Ben Betker missed some time against the Chiefs and may not be at full strength.
Coach Kevin Constantine said Juulsen “could return at some point” in the series, but the potential first-round NHL pick’s absence leaves a giant hole as the Tips try to slow Portland’s formidable front line.
Nikita Scherbak had just one goal in the first round as the Tips’ scoring load was carried mostly by Carson Stadnyk and Brayden Low, who scored four goals each. Low, a 20-year-old, was released by the Winterhawks earlier in his career and should be motivated to stick it to the team that cast him aside.
Beating Portland, of course, mostly means trying to shut down Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan, who each scored five times in the Winterhawks’ six-game victory over Seattle in the first round.
Despite stretches where it seemed that Bjorkstrand was having trouble finding room to operate, he still compiled 12 points in the series. Chase De Leo, who was scoreless through three games as the Thunderbirds had a 2-1 advantage, had six points in the last three.
Offense won’t be the issue for the Winterhawks, who will instead be looking to limit mistakes that allowed Seattle to be successful in transition. The Silvertips are disciplined, but tend not to generate a lot of shots on goal. If Portland can get the edge in shots, the Hawks will feel good about their skill shining through.
The X-factor, as always, is goaltending, and 16-year-old Carter Hart has nabbed the starting role for Everett from veteran Austin Lotz. Hart’s .947 save percentage in the first round led the league, and easily outpaced Portland counterpart Adin Hill, a rookie in his own right who needed a big Game 6 to get to .900 against Seattle.
Hart was the difference in two overtimes in Spokane, stopping 98 of 100 shots in 2-1 victories in Games 3 and 6 (the latter a triple-OT battle).
Lotz has a history of breaking hearts in Portland, as he stole two games for the overmatched Silvertips against the Winterhawks in the 2013 playoffs. He might not even move from the bench this series, though, if Hart continues to excel.