By Andy Eide
The Western Hockey League’s second season gets underway Friday night and for the second straight season, all five U.S. Division teams have qualified.
The U.S. Division has been on quite a run, sending a team to the WHL Championships in eight of the last nine seasons (Portland 2011-2014, Seattle 2016-2017, Everett 2018), including the last three years straight. Everett won the division and is the second seed in the Western Conference but the Silvertips know that there are no easy paths in the U.S. Division.
Can another U.S. Division team get back to the WHL Championship Series? Here’s a look at the three playoff series kicking off this weekend:
Everett Silvertips (47-16-2-3, 99 pts, 1st place U.S. Division) versus Tri-City Americans (34-28-5-1, 74 pts, first wild card), Game 1, Friday, March 22, Angel of the Winds Arena
If you like goaltending and low scoring games, this is the series for you. Everett’s Dustin Wolf and Tri-City’s Beck Warm are two of the best goalies in the U.S. Division and are going to be tough to score on. Wolf has been a work horse, appearing in 61 of Everett’s 68 games and he’s helped the Silvertips move on from Carter Hart. His 1.96 goals-against and .936 save-percentage are tops in the WHL and he’s as good as advertised. Warm also played in 61 games this year and helped carry the Americans into a second straight wild card spot.
Both goalies are going to be hard on the two lowest scoring clubs in the U.S. Division. Everett has the more dynamic scorers, led by Minnesota Wild prospect Connor Dewar (36-45-81), over-ager Zack Andrusiak (38-26-64) and Bryce Kindopp (39-34-73). Tri-City has a more balanced attack with six players who topped the 20-goal mark this season. They’re led by Parker AuCoin (42-42-84), Anaheim Ducks prospect Kyle Olson (21-49-70) and Nolan Yaremko (28-38-66).
Who’s winning it: The edge is with Everett here. Defensively, the Silvertips are superior and loaded with experienced players like Sahvan Khaira and Artyom Minulin – both who won the WHL Championship with Swift Current last season. The Americans stumbled down the stretch and that trend will continue here. Silvertips in five.
For a deeper look into this series, go here.
Spokane Chiefs (40-21-2-5, 87 pts, 2nd place U.S. Division) versus Portland Winterhawks (40-22-3-3, 86 pts, 3rd place U.S. Division), Game 1, Friday, March 22nd, Spokane Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum
A match up of two teams that have had up and down seasons could provide for the most entertaining series in the first round. The biggest question mark surrounds the health of Vegas Golden Knights first-round draft pick, Cody Glass for Portland. Glass suffered a leg injury during a January 26th game against Seattle and has only played in four games since and has yet to play a game in March. Word out of Portland is that Glass, who still managed 69 points in 38 games, will be ready Friday night. Will he be back to form?
These teams are similar in that they are high scoring – the top two scoring teams in the U.S. – but have had inconsistent goaltending. There are high-skilled, NHL level talent abound in this series as well. Besides Glass, Portland got a huge year from the league’s leading scorer, and San Jose Sharks prospect Joachim Blichfeld (53-61-114) and 2019 NHL Draft prospect Reece Newkirk (23-36-59). Spokane counters with New Jersey Devils first-round pick, defenseman Ty Smith (7-62-69), Los Angeles Kings prospect Jaret Anderson-Dolan (20-23-43) and San Jose prospect Jake McGrew (31-23-54).
Who’s winning it: This is a rematch from last year’s first round series that was won by Portland in seven games. The Winterhawks had home ice in that series, Spokane has it this year. Spokane has more scoring depth than Portland and marginally better goaltending. Home ice will be the difference, Chiefs in seven.
Vancouver Giants (48-15-3-2, 101 pts, 1st B.C. Division) versus Seattle Thunderbirds (31-29-6-2, 70pts, second wild card), Game 1, Friday, March 22nd, Langley Events Centre
Vancouver and Seattle will meet in the playoffs for just the second time ever in a match up between the top team in the Western Conference and the second wild card Seattle Thunderbirds. If you just look at the standings this looks like a mismatch but the two teams split their four-game regular season series and Seattle has been one of the hottest teams in the second half of the season.
The Giants have a solid lineup with balanced scoring up and down their lineup. They’re led by the dynamic defenseman Bowen Byram (26-45-71) who is projected to be a top-five pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. With Byram as the quarterback, the Giants have one of the league’s best power-play units and he’ll be someone that Seattle will have to be aware of at all times. The Thunderbirds are led by center Matthew Wedman (40-37-77) who had a career season for Seattle and rookie goalie sensation Roddy Ross (2.76 GAA, .919 SV%) but does have a young defense.
Who’s winning it: Vancouver’s tandem in net, Arizona Coyotes prospect David Tendeck (2.48 GAA, .911 SV%) and Trent Miner (1.98 GAA, .924 SV%) have alternated starts all year and could give them an edge. This will not be an easy win for the top-seeded Giants. Seattle finished the season strong and the chance of an upset is here. In the end, the Giants will squeak through to the next round. Vancouver is six.
For a deeper look into this series, go here.