2016 WHL PLAYOFFS: WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW

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whl playoffs

CALGARY, AB – The 2016 WHL Playoffs opened last night in Brandon, but tonight all 16 WHL Clubs will be in action as the quest to become the 50th WHL Champions and earn a spot in the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup in Red Deer, AB continues.

In the WHL’s Western Conference, the Victoria Royals claimed the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as the League’s top Club during the 2015-16 regular season. Can the Royals continue their stellar play all the way through the WHL Championship Series? Will the surging Seattle Thunderbirds make a deep playoff run? With both an experienced yet youthful roster, will the Kelowna Rockets defend their title? Or, will another talented Western Conference team make a Cinderella run?

Here’s a look at the WHL’s Western Conference Round 1 match-ups:

VICTORIA ROYALS vs. SPOKANE CHIEFS
2015-16 regular season record 

Victoria:                            50-16-3-3, 106pts (L10: 10-0-0-0) 
Spokane:                          33-30-5-4, 75pts (L10: 4-6-0-0)
2015-16 head-to-head record 
Victoria:                            2-2-0-0, 4pts
Spokane:                          2-2-0-0, 4pts 
2015-16 head-to-head top scorers 
Victoria:
Tyler Soy                          4gp-2g-2a-4pts
Dante Hannoun                 4gp-2g-1a-3pts

Spokane:
Keanu Yamamoto             4gp-2g-1a-3pts
Kailer Yamamoto              4gp-1g-2a-3pts 

The Victoria Royals enter the WHL Playoffs as arguably the hottest team in the CHL. They have earned 27 out of a possible 28 points during their current 13-0-1-0 streak, and have been nearly unbeatable since Christmas. Forwards Alex Forsberg and Tyler Soy lead a potent Royals attack that scored 281 goals to lead all Western Conference Clubs. Forsberg was first in Club scoring with 91 points (31g-60a) while Soy ranked second with 85 points (46g-39a). Rookie of the Year candidate Matthew Phillips broke onto the scene with 37 goals and 76 points to lead all rookies in regular season scoring. Team captain Joe Hicketts finished seventh in the scoring race amongst defenceman with 61 points (8g-53a) to go along with an impressive plus-38 rating which earned him a nomination for WHL Player of the Year. The Royals defensive play was stellar all season long as they allowed the fewest goals against in the League and also owned the second-best penalty kill with an 84.2% success rate. Goaltenders Coleman Vollrath and Griffen Outhouse look to guide the Royals to a deep playoff run. Outhouse posted 18 victories to go along with a League-best goals against average of 1.82 while Vollrath notched 32 wins and a .912 save percentage.

The Spokane Chiefs snuck their way into the post-season and face a tough test. Kailer Yamamoto had a productive campaign for the Chiefs as he led the team in scoring with 71 points (19g-52) while his teammate and brother Keanu Yamamoto notched 22 goals and 54 points. The Chiefs have a knack for closing out games as they own a record of 25-2-2-1 when leading after 40 minutes of play this season. Chiefs captain Jason Fram will be key to Spokane’s chances after a consistent season in which he notched 46 points (12g-34a) and a plus-5 rating. The native of South Delta, BC looks to lead a young blueline against a potent Royals offence. Starting goaltender Tyson Verhelst is listed week-to-week with an injury so expect netminder Lasse Petersen to get the nod early on in the series. Petersen posted 12 wins this season and a 2.99 goals against average with three shutouts.

Series E Schedule

Game Visitor   Home Date Time
1 Spokane @ Victoria Friday, March 25 7:05
2 Spokane @ Victoria Saturday, March 26 7:05
3 Victoria @ Spokane Tuesday, March 29 7:05
4 Victoria @ Spokane Wednesday, March 30 7:05
5* Spokane @ Victoria Friday, April 1 7:05
6* Victoria @ Spokane Sunday, April 3 5:05
7* Spokane @ Victoria Tuesday, April 5 7:05

*If necessary

KELOWNA ROCKETS vs. KAMLOOPS BLAZERS
2015-16 regular season record 
Kelowna:                            48-20-4-0, 100pts (L10: 5-4-1-0)
Kamloops:                          38-25-5-4, 85pts (L10: 9-1-0-0)
2015-16 head-to-head record  
Kelowna:                            5-2-1-0, 11pts
Kamloops:                          3-4-1-0, 7pts
2015-16 head-to-head top scorers
Kelowna:
Tyson Baillie:                     8gp-6g-6a-12pts
Tomas Soustal:                  6gp-7g-1a-8pts

Kamloops: 
Garrett Pilon                      8gp-6g-6a-12pts
Collin Shirley                      8gp-4g-3a-7pts

The defending WHL Champion Kelowna Rockets struggled down the stretch but still wrapped up second spot in the B.C. Division, posting an impressive 48 wins along the way. The Rockets will miss Arizona Coyotes prospect Nick Merkley due to injury but still boast a lineup that possesses a lot of fire power. Rockets forward Tyson Baillie finished seventh in scoring amongst all WHL skaters with 95 points (43g-52a) and owned a plus-minus rating of plus-25.  The Rockets had five players record at least 20 goals and 10 players that hit the 40-point plateau. Draft-eligible defencemen Lucas Johansen and Cal Foote anchor a blueline that was effective for the duration of the season both even-strength and on special teams. Johansen notched 49 points (10g-39a) and a plus-11 rating while Foote amassed 36 points (8g-28a) to go along with a steady plus-16 rating. Kelowna clicked for 68 goals on a power play unit that ranked second overall across the League with an execution rate of 24.5%. Goaltender Michael Herringer will get the nod as Jackson Whistle will miss the post-season due to injury. Herringer posted 26 victories and a .900 save percentage in regular season play.

After a slow start to the season, Kamloops has been one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference heading into the post-season. The Blazers enter the WHL Playoffs on a nine-game winning streak, three of which came against the Kelowna Rockets. Collin Shirley led all Blazers in scoring with 37 goals and 42 assists for 79 points to go along with a plus-20 rating. Ryan Rehill and Dawson Davidson lead a blueline that has evolved over the season, tying the Rockets in goals against with 218 and an 81.4% success rate on the penalty kill which marks the fourth-best unit across the League. Netminder Connor Ingram was the team’s regular season MVP and will be needed as the Blazers seek a playoff upset. Ingram posted 32 wins to go along with a 2.61 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and four shutouts this year.
 
Series F Schedule

Game Visitor   Home Date Time
1 Kamloops @ Kelowna Friday, March 25 7:05
2 Kamloops @ Kelowna Saturday, March 26 7:05
3 Kelowna @ Kamloops Tuesday, March 29 7:00
4 Kelowna @ Kamloops Wednesday, March 30 7:00
5 * Kamloops @ Kelowna Friday, April 1 7:05
6 * Kelowna @ Kamloops Saturday, April 2 7:00
7 * Kamloops @ Kelowna Monday, April 4 7:05

*If necessary

SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS vs. PRINCE GEORGE COUGARS
2015-16 regular season record 
Seattle:                           45-23-4-0, 94pts (L10: 9-0-1-0)
Prince George:                 36-31-3-2, 77pts (L10: 3-6-0-1)
2015-16 head-to-head record 
Seattle:                           2-2-0-0, 4pts
Prince George:                 2-2-0-0, 4pts
2015-16 head-to-head top scorers 
Seattle: 
Jerret Smith                       4gp-4g-2a-6pts
Scott Eansor                      3gp-1g-3a-4pts
 
Prince George: 
Tate Olson                       4gp-1g-4a-5pts
Jesse Gabrielle                  4gp-3g-1a-4pts

The U.S. Division was tight for the duration of the 2015-16 regular season until the Seattle Thunderbirds caught fire in the month of February. The Thunderbirds have not lost a game in regulation time over their past 14 games, and have picked up wins in 13 of those contests (13-0-1-0). Led by Islanders first-rounder Mathew Barzal, the Thunderbirds have a lineup that plays a strong two-way game. Barzal wrapped up a solid campaign with 88 points (27g-61a) while forward Ryan Gropp recorded 70 points (34g-36a) including 10 power play markers. Seattle has an effective defensive core on the back end that plays a big and physical style of game. Ethan Bear and Jerret Smith lead the back end as the two defencemen combined for 106 points (28g-78a) and a plus-24 rating together. Goaltender Landon Bow has been terrific for the Thunderbirds since being acquired from Swift Current and will carry the load into the post-season. The 20-year-old netminder has registered an impressive 1.76 goals against average, a .938 save percentage and five shutouts with Seattle in regular season play.

The Prince George Cougars slipped down the stretch as they lost seven of their past 10 games heading into the playoffs. The Cougars are a physical Club that also boasts talent up front. Forwards Chase Witala and Jesse Gabrielle both hit the 40 goal mark while Winnipeg Jets prospect Jansen Harkins notched 57 points (24g-33a) in a solid campaign. The Cougars had five players record at least 56 points this season and their 240 goals as a Club marked the third-most by Western Conference Clubs. Led by Tate Olson, the Cougars defensive unit can demonstrate a shutdown style as they possess an 82.1% penalty kill rate, good enough for third-best amongst all WHL Clubs. The Cougars will need to stay disciplined if they want to keep pace with Seattle as they led all Clubs in penalties so staying out of the box can only help. Ty Edmonds and Nick McBride will be the goaltenders for Prince George with Edmonds having playoff experience under his belt after playing in all five post-season games for the Cougars last year.
 
Series G Schedule

Game Visitor   Home Date Time
1 Prince George @ Seattle Friday, March 25 7:35
2 Prince George @ Seattle Saturday, March 26 7:05
3 Seattle @ Prince George Tuesday, March 29 7:00
4 Seattle @ Prince George Wednesday, March 30 7:00
5* Prince George @ Seattle Friday, April 1 7:35
6* Seattle @ Prince George Sunday, April 3 7:00
7* Prince George @ Seattle Tuesday, April 5 7:05

*If necessary

EVERETT SILVERTIPS vs. PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS
2015-16 regular season record 
Everett:                              38-26-5-3, 84pts (L10: 3-5-1-1) 
Portland:                            34-31-6-1, 75pts (L10: 3-4-2-1) 
2015-16 head-to-head record
Everett:                               5-5-0-0, 10pts
Portland:                             5-4-1-0, 11pts
2015-16 head-to-head top scorers 
Everett: 
Devon Skoleski                  10gp-3g-3a-6pts
Remi Laurencelle                9gp-1g-5a-6pts
 
Portland: 
Caleb Jones                        10gp-1g-8a-9pts
Rihards Bukarts                   6gp-7g-1a-8pts

The Everett Silvertips enter the post-season in a bit of a funk having dropped seven of their last 10 contests but are one of the best defensive Clubs in the League. Remi Laurencelle led the team in scoring with 58 points (28g-30a) but the Silvertips pride themselves on defence and playing a disciplined game. Defencemen Noah Juulsen and Brycen Martin lead a defensive unit that allowed the second-fewest goals against across the WHL, allowing only 172.  Health may play a major role for the Silvertips as star goaltender Carter Hart missed the final four games of the regular season, so back up Mario Petit may have to step up in this series. Hart was one of the top goaltenders this season as the native of Sherwood Park, AB posted 35 victories, a 2.14 goals against average and a .918 save percentage with six shutouts.

The Portland Winterhawks edged out the Spokane Chiefs for third place in the U.S. Division standings but are seeking yet another deep playoff run. Winterhawks forwards Dominic Turgeon and Rihards Bukarts are a lethal combination that can score goals in bunches. Turgeon was solid on the score sheet this season as he collected 70 points (36g-34a) while Bukarts finished with 31 goals and 31 assists for 62 points. Rookie defenceman Caleb Jones had a strong season as the he finished 11th amongst WHL defenceman in points with 55 (10g-45a). Goaltender Adin Hill is ready to guide the Winterhawks after gaining 17 games of post-season experience last season when he guided the Winterhawks to the Western Conference Championship Series against the Kelowna Rockets. Hill collected 32 wins this season to go along with a steady .917 save percentage and three shutouts. Lastly, Portland and Everett split their 2015-16 head-to-head meetings with five wins each so this series has the potential to be a competitive one.

Series H Schedule

Game Visitor   Home Date Time
1 Portland @ Everett Friday, March 25 7:35
2 Portland @ Everett Saturday, March 26 7:05
3 Everett @ Portland Tuesday, March 29 7:00
4 Everett @ Portland Wednesday, March 30 7:00
5* Portland @ Everett Friday, April 1 7:35
6* Everett @ Portland Saturday, April 2 6:00
7* Portland @ Everett Monday, April 4 7:05

*If necessary

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