With playoffs now in full swing, we look at the elite eight, and at the end of it, just four teams will remain.
In the west, there are four teams vying for a shot at the WHL Championship
Seattle Thunderbirds (1) vs. Prince George Cougars (4)
The Cougars ended the Tri-City Americans’ run in five games after thrilling fans with an overtime win in PG to move on. Seattle won four straight ve Kelowna, but in each of those games, the Rockets were in tight mainly due to their goaltender Jari Kykkanen. But the Cougars have a tandem of toughies in the net too. Ty Brown and Tyler Brennan have slowly worked to the top of net minders and seem up for a challenge. PG broke Seattle’s streak of winning in regulation and has been tight in their games to date.
Seattle loaded at the trade deadline and went all in, giving up a ton of draft picks to get guys like Dylan Geuther (Edm), Colton Dach ( Sas), Kyle Crnkovic Sas last year), Luke Prokop (Edm), Nolan Allen and Reese Shaw (PA). They emptied the closet of top draft picks in 23 and 24 and have gone out as far as 26 in lower rounds. Indeed they are all in. PG has a legitimate shot, though, at unraveling the juggernaut if they get impressive netminding. Right now, Tyler Brennan is out hurt with no timeline for return, so duties are with Ty Young with a backup, but unless he’s bombarded, he’ll run until Brennan returns.
Seattle was in the WHL Final last year vs. Edmonton, who went all in last year. Their record for the year proves it. Dead last in the WHL, barely making double-digit wins, and figure a couple of years of rebuilding.
Kamloops Blazers (2) vs Portland Winterhawks (3)
The Blazers are hosting the Memorial Cup this year and have gone all in as far as a big trade with Everett, where Ryan Hofer and Owen Zellweger went for three players, draft picks in the first round through 2026 and 2nd through 5th rounds in those four years. That cupboard is bare. Kamloops did well with Zellweger in the playoffs in demolishing Vancouver in four games. Three games where they won 8-0, 6-1, and 5-0 was only offset by the 5-4 overtime win to get game four.
Portland battled Everett and took their series in 5. The first two games in Portland were decent, as was game 3, the wheels fell off in game 4, where they were shut out 5-0, but they came back with a vengeance in game 5 at home.
Against Kamloops, the season was a mixed bag. They did well and poorly and had a tight battle, so it truly is up in the air.
Portland is the only team with just two players listed as overage. They hoped to land Ozzy Weisenblatt if he was returned to junior and offered conditional picks to Prince Albert if that happened. It didn’t, so they have just two, and one is a goaltender.
Currently, they are playing Jan Spunar, the younger goaltender, and he has been stellar in his games, so the Hawks have a stronger duo in net.
It will be interesting if Portland can at least gain a split in Kamloops; doing so might move their chances of longshot currently to a real opportunity to face Seattle in round 3.
Winnipeg Ice (1) vs. Moose Jaw Warriors (4)
The beast that is Winnipeg is all in and in a considerable way. Giving up draft picks like water to assemble a team that lost just 11 games all year, scoring 325 goals to 177. Only Saskatoon, at 171, gave up fewer tallies. The latest playoff match saw both teams sweep their respective series, with both seeing good games against the opposition. Both gave up some goals during their stints and didn’t seem afraid. There is a little history here.
In 1984 a team called the Winnipeg Warriors moved to Moose Jaw to become the team you see today. It wasn’t until Kootenay moved to Winnipeg that a team existed there.
There have been many speculations on what will become of the ICE. First, they have given away almost every draft pick for four years. Columnists in Winnipeg have been brutal about the future of the franchise. The promised arena in Winnipeg hasn’t materialized, and the crowds don’t pack the 1700 seats at Art Fleming Arena at the University of Manitoba. Many times it’s at least 100 or shyer. Only Swift Current, with a rink of 2200, is smaller. One has to wonder how the team can be profitable. One columnist in Winnipeg has said the WHL fined the ICE $500,000 for failing to live up to the terms of the moving agreement. Both sides have denied this.
When out in Winnipeg last year, I noticed little signage on tickets there and was met by someone when I went to get tickets for the PWHBC group. While not telltale signs, it’s an odd feeling one gets when just moments before doors open, someone is tacking up a sign to sell tickets at the box office. Overall a strange experience. Same with contact, as one had to email, it was very tough to find phone numbers to contact to make arrangements. It will be exciting to see what the next steps are, especially with so many picks gone, and whether the franchise can withstand heavy losses when the sellouts aren’t happening now.
Though Winnipeg should, on paper, win this series, Moose Jaw will give them a run!
Saskatoon Blades (2) vs. Red Deer Rebels (3)
Both Red Deer and Saskatoon did a bit at the deadline, with Saskatoon drawing arguably the better end with Jake Chiasson for 1st round picks in 23 and 25 and a conditional in 26. Jake was strong during his team’s battle with the pesky Regina Pats and figures to play a significant role here. Red Deer traded for one player in Ryker Singer with draft picks in 23 and a player and a 7th-round pick to get Portland’s Nick Andrusiak. Otherwise, they have been quiet.
Red Deer took five games to dispatch the Calgary Hitmen, and Saskatoon took the whole seven to beat Regina. Regardless of the series winner, expect good games with these two, who will look to set their sights on Winnipeg for the rights to the Eastern Division representative in the WHL final.
So now predictions. With the four top teams advancing with no upsets in the first round, the battles get tighter as they seek dominance in representing their respective conferences.
Out west, Seattle still seems tough to beat overall, but PG may score a game or two. Seattle should take it. It may see five or six games, though.
Portland and Kamloops is a toss-up. Should Spunar play like he has the past few games, and even in the 5-0 loss, he could make it very tough on the Blazers. This one may go Portland’s way in six, should they get the split in Kamloops.
Winnipeg is the favorite out East, but again, the Warriors may grab a couple to make it interesting. Saskatoon should make quick work of Red Deer—Winnipeg in six, Saskatoon in 5.