WHL playoff preview: First-round matchups in the Eastern Conference

Kelly Friesen
Ivan Provorov's Brandon Wheat Kings are the favourites in the WHL's Eastern Conference. (Wheat Kings)
Ivan Provorov's Brandon Wheat Kings are the favourites in the WHL's Eastern Conference. (Wheat Kings)

After the Kelowna Rockets swept them in the WHL final last year, the Brandon Wheat Kings have their sights set on redeeming themselves and booking a trip to the 2016 Memorial Cup in Red Deer.

The Wheat Kings struggled out of the gate, but went on a roll down the stretch. They posted an 11-0-2-0 record in their last 13 contests and finished the year with 102 points.

Brandon’s toughest Eastern Conference competitor seems to be the Red Deer Rebels. The Memorial Cup hosts loaded up at the trade deadline by acquiring many major junior stars such as Boston Bruins first-round pick Jake DeBrusk, San Jose Sharks pick Adam Helewka and overage forward Luke Philip.

The WHL’s playoff action kicks off tonight as the Wheat Kings and Oil Kings square off. The other three Eastern Conference series begin on Friday.

Central Division

(2) Lethbridge Hurricanes (46-24-1-1, 94 points) vs. (7) Regina Pats (36-28-3-5, 80 points)

Season series: Pats 3-1-0-0. Prediction: Pats in 7.

Series in a sentence: The Pats look to crush the Hurricanes’ Cinderella season.

Why the Pats should win: The Hurricanes were the better team in the regular-season, but the Pats have the playoff experience. Regina swept the Swift Current Broncos in the first round of last year’s post-season before falling to the Wheat Kings in the second round. In addition, this is Brent Kisio’s first playoff as the head coach of the Hurricanes while Pats bench boss John Paddock has been here before.

Led by 120-point scorer Adam Brooks and 41-goal scorer Cole Sanford, the Queen City Kids have a solid top six. Moreover, their back end isn’t lacking talent with Washington Capitals picks Connor Hobbs and Cole Williams leading the way.

How the Hurricanes could win: Lethbridge has home-ice advantage in the series, and has been the hottest team at home this season. They went 28-7-0-1 at the ENMAX Centre this year.

There’s no shortage of offensive talent in the Hurricanes’ lineup. Sophomore forward Brayden Burke (27G-82A, 72 games), Toronto Maple Leafs defensive pick Andrew Nielsen (18G-52A, 71 games) and team captain Tyler Wong (43G-46A, 72 games) have proven to be three of the top impact players in the league. The trio helped the Hurricanes establish the No. 1 power play in the league with a 28.9 per cent efficiency.

(3) Red Deer Rebels (45-24-1-2, 93 points) vs. (4) Calgary Hitmen (42-26-2-2, 88 points)

Season series: Hitmen 4-2-0-1 Prediction: Rebels in 6.

Series in a sentence: Memorial Cup hosts face tough test against the Hitmen.

Why the Rebels should win: Even with the loss of veteran forward Conner Bleackley to a significant wrist injury, it’s hard to fathom Brent Sutter’s Rebels going out in the first round of their Memorial Cup season. They are the favourites to come out of the Central Division after boosting their talent level with a handful of last-minute additions.

The Rebels have a team built for the playoffs with lots of skill up front and size on the back end. Carolina Hurricanes first-round pick Haydn Fleury, Winnipeg Jets prospect Nelson Nogier, 20-goal scorer Colton Bobyk and veteran Kyle Doetzel all stand 6-foot-2 or higher on the blueline. Helewka, DeBrusk, Philip, leading scorer Ivan Nikolishin and Jets draftee Michael Spacek give them a strong foundation up front.

How the Hitmen could win: Calgary has the top pair of offensive blueliners in the Dub. Philadelphia Flyers first-rounder Travis Sanheim (15G-53A, 52 games) and top 2016 NHL draft prospect Jake Bean (24G-40A, 68 games) combined for 132 points this season. In addition, they were unstoppable on the man advantage with a combined 20 markers and 67 points.

Albeit they lost most of their top forwards from last year like New York Rangers pick Adam Tambellini and Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen, the Hitmen do have more playoff experience than the Rebels as a whole. Calgary made it to the East Conference final last year while Red Deer was bounced in the first round.

East Division

(1) Brandon Wheat Kings (48-18-4-2, 102 points) vs. (8) Edmonton Oil Kings (29-36-6-1, 65 points)

Season series: Prediction: Wheat Kings in 4.

Series in a sentence: Wheat Kings look to topple Oil Kings for second straight year.

Why the Wheat Kings should win: This is the Wheat Kings year to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup. They are poised to lose many of their top players to the pros next season such as Florida Panthers pick Jayce Hawryluk, Washington Capitals prospect Tim McGauley, New Jersey Devils first-rounder John Quenneville and Philadelphia Flyers top pick Ivan Provorov.

From top to bottom, Brandon has a stacked roster. Hawryluk (47G-59A, 58 games) and Nolan Patrick (41G-61A, 72 games) produced over 100 points each, Provorov is quite likely the league’s top blueliner and goalie Jordan Papirny tends to step his game up in the post-season.

How the Oil Kings could win: It is hard to imagine Edmonton knocking Brandon out of the playoffs, but stranger things have happened in the second season.

Ultimately, 19-year-old netminder Payton Lee, who posted a 3.36 average and .882 save percentage in 28 games with the Oil Kings, will need to stand on his head. Furthermore, Edmonton’s top players in the regular-season such as Calgary Flames prospect Brett Pollock, Arizona Coyotes pick Dysin Mayo and veteran forward Lane Bauer will have to be firing on all cylinders.

(5) Prince Albert Raiders (38-26-7-1, 84 points) vs. (6) Moose Jaw Warriors (36-27-7-2, 81 points)

Season series: Warriors 6-2-0-0. Prediction: Warriors in 6.

Series in a sentence: Saskatchewan rivals poised to go toe-to-toe in first-round bout.

Why the Warriors should win: Moose Jaw’s combo of Tampa Bay Lightning pick Brayden Point (35G-53A, 48 games) and Florida Panthers prospect Dryden Hunt (58G-58A, 72 games) is the most dangerous offensive 1-2 punch in the league. They combined for 3.44 points per game this season. It seems the two stars are poised to go out with a bang in their final seasons of junior hockey.

In between the pipes, Zach Sawchenko has proven to be one of the league’s top young goalies. The Calgary, Alta., native is a potential second-round pick in the 2016 NHL draft after posting a .916 save percentage and 3.04 average throughout 51 games this year.

How the Raiders could win: When push comes to shove, head coach Marc Habschied always seems to get the most out of his squad. Moreover, he knows what it takes to win when it counts, as he led the Rockets to a WHL championship in 2003.

The Raiders don’t have the greatest depth, but they do have a solid starting lineup. They have 92-point scorer Reid Gardiner, slick playmaker Jordan Tkatch and 2016 NHL draft prospect Simon Stransky up front and star blueliner Jesse Lees, Buffalo Sabres pick Brendan Guhle and veteran netminder Rylan Parenteau on the other side of the puck.

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