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Canadian Hockey League playoff preview: Part 1
by Bob Davis (NHL)
Posted on March 30, 2006, 11:06 PM

NOTE: This column was originally posted in the Reader's Columnist Corner on Saturday, March 25th.

The battle for the 2006 Memorial Cup has begun in Canada. Three junior hockey leagues each run through a gruelling, 70+ game season; then host a four-round playoff system to crown 3 league champions. The respective league champions then travel out to a designated city to compete against the host team to crown the annual national junior champion. This year, the champions from the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will compete against Moncton in the New Brunswick city for the Memorial Cup.

The Memorial Cup is the biggest stage for these young prospects to showcase their talents to potential NHL teams. Some of these players will become household names in the NHL; and a select few will win the Stanley Cup. Over the next few days, I will introduce you to some of the players in each of the three leagues who are hoping to jumpstart their NHL careers by leading their teams to the Memorial Cup Final. Iíll also put my psychic abilities to the test and put my predictions out for each of the first round series. Letís start things up with the WHLís Eastern Conference.

SERIES A: Moose Jaw Warriors vs. Brandon Wheat Kings.

The first East Division matchup pits the first ranked Warriors against Brandon. This, for the most part, appeared to be a rebuilding year for the Wheat Kings, who had been the Division champions in 2004-05. With 10 new players on the roster, Brandon wasnít expecting a fantastic showing this season, so a trip to the playoffs has to be seen as a good first step to regaining the division title next year.

Brandonís success in the first round rests on the shoulders of 18 year old NHL prospect Codey Burki. The native of Winnipeg lead the Wheat Kings in scoring this season with 61 points, including 15 on the power play; in a breakout season for the youngster, who had just 33 points in 120 games over 2 seasons with the Wheat Kings previously. The 195lb centre moves very well down the ice, and could be an excellent addition to any NHL club.

What Burki lacks in physicality, Mark Derlago more than makes up for in sheer heart. After missing the entire 2004-05 season with a career-threatening neck injury, Derlago put up impressive numbers for the Wheat Kings, scoring 29 goals including 10 on the power play. Derlago is the inspirational leader on this team; and just having him in the lineup is a tremendous boost to this team in every game.

While Brandonís leading scorer had an average of less than 1 point per game, the Warriors were lead by Troy Brouwer, who averaged well over one point per game. The 20-year-old right winger had 102 points this season, and had a key goal in the second period of Moose Jawís 5-1 win over Brandon in game 1 of this series. The 7th round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2002, Brouwer has helped Moose Jaw to an impressive 44 win season, and Brouwerís team is expected to be a strong contender for the WHL championship.

PREDICTION: Moose Jaw over Brandon 4 games to

SERIES B: Saskatoon Blades vs. Regina Pats.

The battle of the 2 biggest cities in Saskatchewan is definitely going to be a heated battle. To say that these 2 teams do not like each other would be about as big of an understatement as saying the same thing about the Habs and the Leafs. The fact that they combined for only 40 minutes in penalties in game 1 of this series should be seen as nothing more than first game jitters.

Saskatoonís starting goaltender in game 1 is a player whose name might be familiar to some of you. Anton Khudobin was the goaltender in the gold medal World Junior Hockey championship this past winter for the Russian team; the team that Canada defeated to win the gold. Khudobin played in 44 games with the Blades this season, racking up 23 wins and 4 shutouts in that time to lead the team to a second place finish. The 7th round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2004, Khudobin is expected to be a solid NHL backup goaltender; but the Blades are counting on him to lead them past the Pats in round 1.

2 of Saskatoonís strongest players this season are candidates for the best names in the business. Centre Wacey Rabbit and right winger Devin Setoguchi havenít been too comical with their play at all, amassing 139 points this season for the Blades. Setoguchi, drafted 8th overall in 2005 by San Jose, is a player who could become a major force for the Sharks; while Rabbit, who was drafted in the 2005 draft by Boston, will likely be a strong role player for the Bruins. Both players are going to be a big factor for the Blades in round 1.

While the Blades have been racking up the offence, the Pats climbed to a third place finish in the Eastern Division on the strength of their defence. Anchoring this defensive group are the duo of Nick Ross and Logan Pyett. The Balgonie native Pyett, who is ranked 100th in this yearís entry draft by the Central Scouting Service, has scored 45 points with the 3rd place Pats; while Ross, the 6í Lethbridge native, has 23 points in 62 games with the club in his rookie year. Both men are charged with the responsibility of shutting down the Blades potent offence.

In the event that Ross and Pyett fail, the last line of defence for the Pats is goaltender David Reekie. The 187lb 18-year old Reekie chalked up an impressive 31 wins in 55 games for the Pats this season, posting 2 shutouts and a 3.13 goals against average. Reekie, Pyett and Ross are hoping to knock off their rivals from Saskatoon; they will at least be successful in forcing a 7th game. Itís said that anything can happen in a 7th game, but what will happen is that the Bladesí offence will prevail over the Patsí defence.

PREDICTION: Saskatoon wins game 7 in overtime, series 4-3.

SERIES C: Medicine Hat Tigers vs. Swift Current Broncos.

These 2 central division rivals renew acquaintances in what is likely to be a short series. The Tigers took the regular season title by winning 47 of their 72 games and earning a total of 103 points on the season. Meanwhile, the Broncos struggled through the season, finishing 10 games below .500 with a total of 62 points.

The Broncosí scoring leader this season was Ned Lukacevic, who scored 53 points in 63 games with the club. The 19 year old Serbian, who grew up in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, was drafted in the 4th round of the 2004 draft by the L.A. Kings. Included in that 53 point total are 20 power play points and 4 points in short handed situations. Lukacevic needs a big series if the Broncos are going to upset the #1 ranked Tigers.

While the Broncosí leading scorer was held to just 53 points, the Tigers spread the scoring around very thoroughly. Despite chalking up a team total of 251 goals and 653 total points, the Tigersí leading scorer was Dennis Helm, a Detroit Red Wings prospect, who lit the lamp for 79 points. In fact, the Tigersí well-rounded attack featured 9 players who chalked up more than 40 points this season. Helm, the 132nd pick overall in the 2005 draft, potted 41 goals to lead that attack.

This series isnít going to become an instant classic, unless the Broncos get some scoring from someone other than Lukacevic. That idea didnít work out too well in game 1, as Medicine Hat began their series with a 5-2 win. 3 more games, and this one will be over.

PREDICTION: Medicine Hat wins 4 games to 0.

SERIES D: Calgary Hitmen vs. Lethbridge Hurricanes.

These 2 Alberta rivals collide in a match-up that, on paper, appears about as exciting as the previous series. The Hitmen finished second to Medicine Hat in the Central, just 2 points behind the Tigers with a season record of 47-18-3-4. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes finished just ahead of the Broncos, with the race for 3rd coming down to the final game of the season. Lethbridge battled their way to a 63 point season, just one better than the 4th place Broncos.

The leading scorer for the ĎCanes in the 2005-06 season was Colton Yellow Horn. The 18-year old first nations player from Brocket, Alberta, is described by some scouts as ďat worst, one hell of an AHL playerĒ. Lethbridgeís leading scorer racked up 75 points in 67 games, including 4 short-handed goals, and had a +6 rating on the season. Yellow Horn will be a key player for any NHL club that picks him up; but in the meantime, heís going to need to play his best to knock off the team named after Bret Hart.

Where other teams have won games on offence, the Hitmen rode their defence and goaltending to a spectacular season. Itís not that hard to do when you have the goaltender who lead Team Canada to gold in the world junior championships as your starter. Justin Pogge posted incredible numbers in 54 games this season for the Hitmen; with just 10 regulation losses in that time. Pogge shut out the opposition 11 times on the season, putting up a goals against average of just 1.72 and a .926 save percentage. The Maple Leafs are looking forward to having this 19-year-old in the fold; but Pogge still has one more year of junior eligibility left, which means that Belfour will have to suffice for some time yet.

With the goaltending strength that Pogge provides, the Hitmen havenít needed a lot of offensive firepower. The defensive system employed by the team has lead to the average game ending in a 3-2 margin; and that was exactly the score in game 1, with the Hitmen taking the win over the ĎCanes. Look for Pogge to have a good series, and the Hitmenís style to stifle Yellow Horn.

PREDICTION: Calgary takes the series 4 games to 1.

In part 2 of this series, I will preview the Western Hockey League's Western Conference. The Vancouver Giants have a stingy goaltender of their own leading the way. Will Dustin Slade be able to take the Giants into the Memorial Cup?

Information for the preceeding column was taken from the following sites:
Hockey's Future
The Official WHL Website

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