WHL Eastern Conference final preview: Memorial Cup hosts in tough against Wheat Kings

Kelly Friesen
Ivan Provorov and the Wheat Kings take on the Rebels in the WHL's Eastern Conference final. (Wheat Kings)
Ivan Provorov and the Wheat Kings take on the Rebels in the WHL's Eastern Conference final. (Wheat Kings)

As expected, the Brandon Wheat Kings and Red Deer Rebels are set to square off in the WHL’s Eastern Conference final. The Wheaties were the top team in the conference this year while the Rebels loaded up at the trade deadline and host the upcoming Memorial Cup.

After knocking the Edmonton Oil Kings out in two games, the Wheat Kings were on their game in the second round. They ousted the Brayden Point-led Moose Jaw Warriors in five matches.

The Rebels squeaked by the Regina Pats in an exciting seven-game series following their first round battle with the Calgary Hitmen. They took Game 7 at home in a close 2-1 affair.

Brandon hosts Games 1 tonight at the Keystone Centre. Here is a preview of the series.

(1) Brandon Wheat Kings (48-18-4-2, 102 pts) vs. (3) Red Deer Rebels (45-24-1-2, 93 pts)

Season series: Tie 2-2-0-0. Prediction: Wheat Kings in 6.

Series in a sentence: Memorial Cup favourites square off against the Memorial Cup hosts.

Here are some questions to ponder about in the series.

How much gas will the Rebels have in Games 1 and 2? It seems it will be tough for Red Deer to come out strong straight out of the gate. They just wrapped up their series with the Pats on Tuesday and had to travel over 1,000 km to Brandon. The Wheat Kings had a seven-day break in between their series.

That said, the pressure is on Red Deer to split the first two games. It appears it will be tough for them to come back from a two-game deficit.

Who has the edge in net? This is one of the toughest questions in the series. Rebels puck-stopper Rylan Toth and Wheaties goalie Jordan Papirny both have arguments to suggest they have a leg up on each other.

Papirny, 19, has more post-season experience, as he’s suited up in 20 more playoff games than Toth. However, even though Brandon took the series in five games, he had a so-so series against the Warriors. He posted a .872 save percentage and let seven pucks get by him in Game 3.

Toth looked anything but rusty when he returned from his upper-body injury in Game 4 of Red Deer’s series against Regina. The Saskatoon, Sk., native posted a .929 save percentage and stopped 32 of 33 shots in Game 7.

Will Brandon’s offensive powerhouse be too much for Red Deer to handle? The Wheat Kings clearly have the better offense in the series. They outscored the Rebels 183 to 147 in the regular-season and 50 to 38 so far in the second season.

On top of that, Brandon had five players score north of 70 points: Florida Panthers second-rounder Jayce Hawryluk (47G-59A), top 2017 draft prospect Nolan Patrick (41G-61A), New Jersey Devils first-rounder John Quenneville (31G-42A), Philadelphia Flyers first-rounder Ivan Provorov (21G-52A) and team captain Macoy Erkamps (13G-58A). Ivan Nikolishin (31G-51) and San Jose Sharks pick Adam Helewka (42G-34A) were the only Rebels to hit the 70-point plateau.

How much pressure sits on the shoulders of Red Deer’s first-round NHL picks? Since Brandon clearly has the advantage in depth, there’s a lot of pressure on Red Deer’s top guns to perform. Boston Bruins prized pick Jake DeBrusk and Carolina Hurricanes top prospect Haydn Fleury stand out in front among the Rebels’ star power.

DeBrusk, along with Helewka, was on his game in the first two series, scoring at a point-per-game pace with five markers and 12 points in 12 matches. Fleury, on the other hand, has made his presence felt, but hasn’t quite made the impact expected of a seventh overall selection. He’s only produced one goal and three helpers on the stats sheet.

Will Nolan Patrick become the series’ top player? Even though he doesn’t turn 18 until next fall, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound centre has the skill and confidence to establish himself as the top player in the series. There’s a reason why he’s in the running to go first overall in the 2017 NHL draft.

Patrick, the son of former NHLer Steve Patrick, has used his size and elite skill set to create countless scoring chances in the first two rounds of the playoffs. He netted five goals and 13 points in 11 games following producing 102 points in 72 games in the regular-season.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen