WHL final preview: Experience gives Wheat Kings edge on Thunderbirds

Kelly Friesen
Matthew Barzal and the Thunderbirds take on the Wheat Kings in the WHL final. (Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)
Matthew Barzal and the Thunderbirds take on the Wheat Kings in the WHL final. (Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

The Brandon Wheat Kings and Seattle Thunderbirds are set to square off for the Ed Chynoweth Cup. The series kicks off on Friday at Brandon's Keystone Centre.

Even though the Thunderbirds have dominated all three of their series, the Wheat Kings are favoured to win the WHL championship. The odds swing in Brandon’s favour because of their notable edge in experience and desire for redemption. They made it to the championship series last year, but the Kelowna Rockets embarrassed them in a four-game sweep.

The Wheat Kings knocked the Memorial Cup hosts, the Red Deer Rebels, out of the playoffs in five contests in Round 3. They defeated the Moose Jaw Warriors in five and Edmonton Oil Kings in six in their previous two series.

The Thunderbirds, meanwhile, swept the Rockets in their conference final matchup. They bounced the Everett Silvertips in five and the Prince George Cougars in four in the first two rounds.

Despite only facing each other once in the regular-season, Brandon and Seattle are poised to have a heated battle. Here is a preview of the series.

(1) Brandon Wheat Kings (48-18-4-2, 102 pts) vs. (3) Seattle Thunderbirds (45-23-4-0, 94 pts)

Season series: Seattle 1-0-0-0. Prediction: Wheat Kings in 6.

Series in a sentence: Wheat Kings, Thunderbirds battle for a ticket to the Memorial Cup.

Here are some questions to ponder about in the series.

Who will be the series’ top scorer? As expected in any major junior final, there’s no shortage of elite goal scorers in the WHL’s championship series. The two clubs combined for 113 goals (Seattle 42, Brandon 71) in the first three rounds.

It is tough to say who will have the best offensive series for the Wheat Kings because of their deep arsenal. New Jersey Devils draft choice John Quenneville (13G-11A), Florida Panthers prospect Jayce Hawryluk (2G-18A), Washington Capitals pick Tim McGauley (8G-13A), Minnesota Wild prospect Reid Duke (6G-14A) and top 2017 NHL draft prospect Nolan Patrick (10G-14A) have all hit 20 points in the post-season.

The writing is on the wall that Matthew Barzal will be Seattle’s top point producer. After leading the Thunderbirds in scoring in the regular-season with 27 goals and 88 points in 58 matches, the New York Islanders first-round pick notched a team-leading five markers and 19 points in 13 playoff contests.

Will Landon Bow keep up his superb numbers against Brandon’s high-powered offense? The 6-foot-5, 208-pound Bow has been nothing short of spectacular in the second season. He’s only let 21 pucks get by him in 13 games, posting a 1.54 average and .936 save percentage.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to fathom how the overage goalie will maintain his superb numbers against Brandon’s elite offense. The Wheat Kings averaged over four goals a game in their first three series and regular-season play. Neither the Cougars, Silvertips nor the Rockets averaged four goals a game in the regular-season, let alone the post-season.

How will Jordan Papirny fare in net? It seems Papirny, 20, won’t have to match Bow save for save for the Wheat Kings to win, but he will need to hold his own in the blue paint.

As a whole, the Edmonton, Alta., native hasn’t had the greatest playoff, posting a 2.98 average and .897 save percentage in 16 games. He did, however, pull up his socks in his last two games against Red Deer. He only let in four goals and posted a .935 save percentage.

Will Seattle’s power play wake up? One of the most impressive aspects of the Thunderbirds’ playoff run is that they managed to do it with a 15.6 success rate on the man advantage. They only mustered seven goals on 45 tries.

In order to beat the Wheat Kings, who have a 79.3 success rate on the penalty kill in the playoffs, it seems Seattle’s power play will need to wake up. They showed in the regular-season that they know how to get it done on the man advantage with a 23.7 per cent sucess rate.

Could Ethan Bear establish himself as the series’ top blueliner? The Wheat Kings’ Ivan Provorov is the safe pick as the series’ best defender. He is, after all, the only blueliner in the series who was chosen with a top 30 draft choice, as the Philadelphia Flyers picked him seventh overall in 2015.

That said, Seattle’s Ethan Bear isn’t as far away as some might think. The Edmonton Oilers draft pick has asserted himself as one of the top blueliners in the WHL’s Western Conference this season. He has a real knack for getting pucks on net and making a strong first pass out of his own zone. It is evident in how he tallied 19 goals and 65 points in 69 contests this season.

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