CHL Playoff Preview, Part 2
by Bob Davis(NHL)
Posted on March 30, 2006, 11:33 PM
NOTE: This column was originally posted in the RCC on Sunday, March 26th.
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.
SERIES E: Vancouver Giants vs. Prince George Cougars.
The Western Conference regular season champions from Vancouver steamrolled their way through the competition this season to finish with 100 points on the year. The high-powered offence, stingy defence and superb goaltending of the Giants is set to face the Cougars, who finished fourth in the B.C. division out west.
The Cougarsí hopes in round 1 rest on being able to crack the Giantsí defence. Prince Georgeís best hopes for doing just that are leading scorer Eric Hunter and linemate Nicholas Drazenovic. The 194lb, 19 year old Hunter amassed 40 goals and 72 points in 71 games with the Cougars; he also led the club through the season with a +11 rating. Drazenovic, the 5th round pick of St. Louis in 2005, lit the lamp 30 times and added 32 assists to finish second to Hunter in scoring. The tandem needs to have a good series for the team to have a shot at round 2.
The Giants had a different approach through the season. The team relied heavily on a very stingy defence, and created their opportunities through their strong play in their own zone. The fact that every player on the team at the end of the season finished with a positive +/- rating is testimony to that. One of the most impressive players on this strong team through the season was rookie Michal Repik. The 17-year-old winger had a great first year for the Giants, raking in 24 goals and 52 points in 69 games; while taking a mere 55 minutes in penalties in his first year.
The strength to any defensive game is a strong goaltender; and the Giants possess one of the best in the league. Dustin Slade was terrific in net for the Giants all season, posting 36 wins and 11 shutouts in 56 games this season. Slade, the undrafted 19-year-old star goaltender, had a frugal goals against average of just 1.90, and a save percentage for the season of .912.
The 2 teams traded shutouts in the first 2 games of the series, with Slade stopping all 19 shots he faced in a 3-0 win in Game 1; and Hunter potting a goal and adding one assist in a 2-0 win in game 2. A hot goaltender usually trumps a good offence; I believe that Slade will have Hunterís number for the rest of this series.
PREDICTION: Vancouver wins 4 games to 2.
SERIES F: Kootenay Ice vs. Kelowna Rockets.
In perhaps the closest match-up in the first round, the second place Rockets take on the third place Ice. The battle for second place in the B.C. division came down to the final game of the season, with Kelowna taking a 4-1 victory over Kamloops to secure home ice advantage for the series against Kootenay. The Rocketsí 46 win, 96 point season was just slightly better than the 94 point season that the Ice posted.
Leading the way for the Ice is their standout 20-year-old right winger, Adam Cracknell. As a walk-on 3 years ago, Cracknell saw little ice time (pardon the pun); but he made a tremendous impact in his second year with the club, notching 61 points and earning a 9th round draft pick in the 2004 draft from the Calgary Flames. This season, Cracknell took his game to a new level, racking up 42 goals and 93 points in 72 games; and finishing the season with a +29 rating. The 6í2, 215lb winger is hoping to be one of the few overage draft picks to make it to the big time.
On the other side of the rink, left-winger Justin Keller leads his Rockets into battle. The 20-year-old, 175lb Keller posted 51 goals and 88 points in 72 games for the Rockets this season. Drafted 245th overall in 2004 by the Lightning, the Summerland, B.C. native is hoping that he can use the road to the Memorial Cup to make a definite impression on the Florida NHL club.
Cracknell got the Ice off to a good start, scoring once in a 3-2 double OT victory in game 1. Keller responded for the Rockets in game 2, scoring a power play goal in the second period of a 5-1 victory. The teams are headed back to Kootenay for a pair of games later in the week; and Kootenay is hoping to head back to Kelowna for game 5 with a 3-1 stranglehold on the series. Iím thinking theyíll succeed in that.
PREDICTION: Kootenay upsets Kelowna 4 games to 2.
SERIES G: Everett Silvertips vs. Tri-City Americans.
Perhaps the weakest division in the Western Hockey League is the United States Division. The Everett Silvertips appeared to struggle at times through the season, but managed to take first place with 85 points. Meanwhile, the Tri-City Americans took fourth place in the division with 67 points, finishing the season 5 games below .500.
Leading the way for the Americans is their star centre, Ian McDonald. The soon-to-be 21-year-old McDonald (his birthday is on March 27th) posted better numbers in 05-06 than he had in the 2 seasons previous combined. With 37 goals and 92 points in 71 games, the Edmonton-born McDonald bested his previous career-highs of 16 goals and 44 points with plenty of room to spare. McDonald did everything he could to help his team, including spending as little time in the penalty box as possible; McDonald spent only 16 minutes in the box.
The Silvertips will look to standout goaltender Leland Irving to stop the Tri-City attack. Irving, ranked second by the Central Scouting Bureau this season, finished the campaign with 37 wins and a 1.91 goals against average in 67 games with the Ďtips. The 17-year-old Irving posted 4 shutouts and recorded a .925 save percentage for the Silvertips, and is a virtual lock to be a high draft pick in the 2007 entry draft.
In another series that will come down to goaltending versus powerful offence, the Silvertips rode the strong play of Irving to a 4-0 shutout in game 1. In game 2 last night, McDonald and the Americans squeaked out a 2-1 victory over Everett. Normally, a strong offence doesnít stand a chance against a great defence, but this time around, Iím taking McDonald to best Irving and lead the Americans to a first round upset.
PREDICTION: Tri-City over Everett in 7.
SERIES H: Seattle Thunderbirds vs. Portland Winter Hawks.
The second place team in the U.S. division, the Thunderbirds, narrowly beat out the Winter Hawks for home ice advantage. Seattle finished the year with 35 wins and 76 points; while Portland was just behind the T-Birds with 72 points. Portlandís defence leaves a lot of questions about how well they will perform in the playoffs; having surrendered the second-highest goal total on the season with 258.
On the offensive side of the ice for the Winter Hawks is New York Rangersí prospect Brandon Dubinsky. The 19-year-old centre posted 21 goals and 67 points in just 51 games with the Hawks. Drafted in the second round, 60th overall, in the 2004 draft by the Rangers, Dubinsky was unable to match career best totals of 30 goals and 78 points in 2003-04, but still managed impressive numbers despite missing 21 games in January and February due to injury. The Winter Hawks will need their top scorer at his best if the team hopes to advance past round 1 for the first time in 4 years.
Aaron Gagnon, a 19-year-old centre, will lead the Thunderbirds in this series. Gagnon, drafted in the 8th round in 2004 by the Phoenix Coyotes, posted just 45 points in 62 games for Seattle, yet he led the team in scoring. The 5í 11Ē 185lb centre will need to provide both an offensive and a physical spark to this team, hoping that his aggressive style will rub off on his team-mates and lead to some much needed offence.
That aggressiveness paid off in the first game of the series, as Gagnon had a goal and an assist to lead his team to an 8-5 victory in game 1. However, Seattle lost that edge in game 2, as Dubinsky assisted on the only goal of the game to lead the Winter Hawks to a 1-0 victory. Seattle needs to sit back and wait for their opportunities against Portland; the lack of defence on the Portland team will show in a longer series.
PREDICTION: Seattle wins 4 games to 2.
WHL PREDICTONS RECAP:
EASTERN CONFERENCE: Moose Jaw over Brandon in 5.
Saskatoon over Regina in 7.
Medicine Hat over Swift Current in 4.
Calgary over Lethbridge in 5.
WESTERN CONFERENCE: Vancouver over Prince George in 6.
Kootenay over Kelowna in 6.
Tri-City over Everett in 7.
Seattle over Portland in 6.
That wraps up the WHL portion of the Road to the Memorial Cup tour. As Iím sure you can tell, the WHL is dominated by elite goaltenders. The pendulum swings the other way with the Ontario Hockey League, as some of the country's elite scorers ply their trade in the OHL. In Part 3, I'll examine the OHL's Eastern Conference, including Colorado Avalanche prospect Wojtek Wolski of the Brampton Battalion.