The wild Western Hockey League playoffs added more teams to the second round and said goodbye to a couple more, but the real story seems to be teams that are fighting for their playoff lives.
The Everett Silvertips ended the season of last year’s WHL Champion Seattle Thunderbirds with convincing 7-3 and 4-0 defeats. The Tips who won the series in five games await the winner of the Portland Winterhawks vs Spokane Chiefs series.
The Hawks thought they had it in hand after going up three to one in games in the series and the shift back to Portland, but the Chiefs had other plans. The Hawks had built a 2-1 lead at the end of the first on goals by Mason Mannek and Cody Glass only to have Spokane tie it up midway through the second. However, less than twenty seconds later, Ryan Hughes restored the lead to take it into the third period. Spokane tied the game again just five minutes into the third, but Dennis Cholowski would put the Winterhawks up by one and hoped to close out the game. With just over a minute left in the third period, Spokane pulled their goaltender for the extra attacker and the Hawks weathered the storm for half of that time. With time running down, Nolan Reid found his way to the net and put a puck past Cole Kehler to send the game into overtime. Nearly ten minutes elapsed before the always dangerous Kailer Yamamoto capitalized on a Jaret Anderson-Dolan pass and a shot that beat Kehler to give the Chiefs life in the series, now down three games to two with game six taking place in Spokane. Game seven if needed would be in Portland on Tuesday and the Hawks would rather not have that battle on their hands with the Everett Silvertips waiting in the wings.
In the BC Division battle, Victoria Royals took game four by a 7-3 margin, but find themselves down in the series three games to two with a win by Vancouver Giants in the next game 5-3 and the series now heads to Vancouver for game six. Game seven if needed, would be played Tuesday in Victoria.
The Central Division saw the Lethbridge Hurricanes eliminate the Red Deer Rebels in five games with a 6-4 win and move on to the winner of the Brandon Wheat Kings versus Medicine Hat Tigers. For the Rebels, it’s another tough season ending after entering the playoffs with the only losing record among the sixteen teams in the first round and the third first round exit in four years which has to give upper management concern for next season.
The Brandon Wheat Kings weren’t going down without a fight. Despite having to play away from their normal venue, the Kings battled back from a 2-0 deficit and captured game three with a 5-3 win. The next two games Brandon took as well by equal scores of 5-2 to come within a game of winning the series. Game six headed back to Dauphin, Manitoba where the Tigers took a first period two goal lead, but was matched by a pair in the second by the Wheat Kings. Just over thirty seconds into the period Mark Rassell score for the Tigers giving him his third of the game as a natural hat trick and the Tigers looked to end hopes for the Wheaties.
Midway through the third the Wheat Kings found a way to tie the game and the teams battled the rest of the period to no avail. The game went into overtime and the guy who got the game tying goal, also found a way to win it as well. Linden McCorrister became the hero for the Wheat Kings as they win their series four games to two and face the Lethbridge Hurricanes which will be hosted by Brandon with the schedule to be announced by Tuesday.
The Eastern Division is also a seesaw battle with Regina Pats coming back to tie the series with Swift Current Broncos with a 7-2 score with the deciding game seven early in the week. The winner of this series will face the winner of the Moose Jaw Warriors versus Prince Albert Raiders which has also been a major battle. Prince Albert came within a game of tying the series after dropping the Warriors 5-1 and sending the series for game six to Prince Albert. The Raiders and Warriors traded goals in the first and doubled that in the second to leave the game knotted at three each. An early goal by Prince Albert was matched four minutes later in the third, but Prince Albert would bag the final goal midway through the frame. Several icings by Moose Jaw negated their pulling of their goaltender for the extra attacker and couldn’t get set in the Raiders zone until it was too late. Game seven will be played on Tuesday.
Recently, two teams have started shopping for new people at the helm of two franchises. Just one day after handing out the hardware at the Prince George final home game, Todd Harkins was told that his expiring contract would not be renewed. Harkins had been the General Manager of the Cougars for the past four seasons after joining the team as a regional scout and then quickly promoted to Head Scout and Director of Player Personnel in 2013. Harkins main downfall happened when the Portland Winterhawks ousted the then 2017 BC Champion Cougars in six games of the first round of last year’s playoffs. Harkins also was involved in a trade that sent future players back east for a Russian player who lasted just a season before suddenly returning home and leaving the Cougars in a massive hole resulting in going from first to worst in the BC Division and seeing crowds drop nearly twenty percent this past season.
The Saskatoon Blades also made a change in firing Head Coach Dean Brockman after just two seasons behind the bench. The circumstances surrounding the firing are cloudy as Brockman, who still has a year left on his contract and had given another positive performance for the team which has missed the playoffs five straight years. Players asked by the Saskatoon media said he was a good coach and firing was a surprise, but none would comment further. The playoff format in years gone by would have given the Blades a spot this year, but the hybrid format which was introduced a few seasons back, did not give the Blades access.
Colin Priestner, who is in his second year as the team’s General Manager, made the move without offering a potential candidate to replace Brockman, and has yet to make any decisions on the assistant coaches with the team.
With the first round of the playoffs coming to a close, there still may be further moves from teams in the coming days.
The Everett Silvertips announced the first games of the second round will take place on Friday, April 7 and Saturday, April 8 at the Angel of the Winds Casino Arena in Everett against the winner of the Portland/ Spokane series.