BY STUART KEMP
The Western Hockey League playoffs have run through the first round with a couple small surprises and now that group of sixteen has been dropped to just eight with ten days to play a possible seven game series. The stakes are higher now as the winners will move onto the Conference finals and eventually the WHL Final for which one team will earn a coveted spot in the Memorial Cup Tournament. It’s a tough haul where a team is lucky to repeat as Conference Champion let alone WHL Champion.
With that, let’s take a look at the eight teams in battle this round.
Starting out in the Western Conference, where once there were three teams in the BC Division competing in the first round, now there is only one. The Victoria Royals took all of their seven games against the pesky Vancouver Giants, a team that hadn’t made the playoffs let alone out of the first round since 2011. The Giants threw all they had at the Royals, but in the end, it was a strong game by goaltender Griffen Outhouse that put the Royals over the top. Now they face the one team that swept their first round series with the BC Division winners, the Kelowna Rockets. The Tri City Americans looked all of the top team that they weren’t at the end of the regular season, but came together against the Rockets in a big way. Whether Outhouse can stem the flow of the Americans or not, will be the deciding factor and chances are, if the Royals top scoring group doesn’t put up their strongest ever numbers, the Royals could be out quickly as well. Ams are rested, Royals are not and the US Division has once again proven to be the strongest overall division in the league again this year.
Prediction: Americans in five
The Portland Winterhawks had to take seven games to finish off a hard, physical Spokane Chiefs team. The Hawks first line was in its prime for the seventh game, but the other lines helped the team through the other six games. The Chiefs threw everything at the Hawks and some of it not so legal either with the officials missing several flagrant violations. Despite that, the Hawks continued to battle and eventually came away with one of the best performances in the seventh and deciding game. Cole Kehler, who had some rough outings for the Hawks in net, was as strong as one would expect a twenty-year-old goaltender to be. Kieffer Bellows, Cody Glass and Skyler McKenzie carried the Hawks in the scoring and Alex Overhardt was the go to guy for the faceoffs.
Against the Everett Silvertips, the Hawks won the overall season series, but just barely. The last two games for the Hawks against the Tips were shutouts, Everett won their first round series against the Seattle Thunderbirds by a 4-1 margin, but won’t get that easy a ride for the Hawks. The two teams match up well with solid goaltending and snipers on both sides. Everett’s addition of Garrett Pilon from the Kamloops Blazers at trade deadline put the focus onto scoring for a team that relied on a more defensive approach and mistakes from the other team for their points. The Tips will have their hands full with a potent offense and relying on Carter Hart to be the savior in net. Hart has had issues in Portland where he has been unable to dethrone the Hawks.
Prediction: Hawks in six
The Eastern Conference has its two strongest teams battling each other in the second round. It’s a shame too as the reward should be the meeting following knocking out the lower teams, however in the hybrid playoff matchups, this is not the case. It’s the Scotty Munro Champions Moose Jaw Warriors against the second strongest team in the WHL this season in the Swift Current Broncos. The Broncos loaded up their team at trade deadline as did the Warriors to a lesser extent and the battle is one for the ages. The Broncos and Warriors both had to play the full seven game series, the Warriors against the lowest seeded team in the Prince Albert Raiders and the Broncos against the Memorial Cup hosts Regina Pats. Both had high scoring games for and against in their series and bring solid goaltending and high powered offense. While the Warriors hold the honor of the best overall regular season record, this is playoffs and things change dramatically.
Prediction: Swift Current in seven
The other match in the conference will see the Lethbridge Hurricanes hosting the Brandon Wheat Kings. Though the Kings hold a better record, because they were in the powerhouse Eastern Conference with Moose Jaw and Swift Current, they were unlucky not to have caught up to the Regina Pats. Because they were a wildcard contender, the Wheat Kings won’t get home ice advantage in any series this year. The Canes were in a very weak Central Division this season, though they looked very strong against the Red Deer Rebels who were the only team in this season’s playoffs with a losing regular season record. The Hurricanes took their series in five games, while Brandon needed six to win theirs against the top Central Division team in the Medicine Hat Tigers. Unlike the first round, the Wheat Kings will actually play home games at home in Brandon, Manitoba and that should add more momentum.
Prediction: Wheat Kings in six
Local area news in Vancouver, Washington comes as both a bitter disappointment and knowledge of the inevitable. Ten years ago, City Bible Church purchased the twin rinks in Vancouver known as the Mountain View Ice Arena. Immediately, the church dug out the west rink and built a church and other facilities in the space with knowledge that they would look to build on at some point with the date uncertain. On April 2, Mountain View Ice Arena released a statement that the arena will close for business effective August 31, 2018. The last line of the statement read that they were looking in the interim of alternatives for the skating community in the Vancouver Metro area. The rink is the only one in the Vancouver, Washington area and the closure comes as the hockey and skating worlds are increasing in popularity. Currently, the only other public ice sheets are the Winterhawks Skating Center in Beaverton, Sherwood Ice Arena in Sherwood, Oregon and Lloyd Center rink which is well short of regulation with its remodel four years ago.
City Bible Church is looking to build an athletic center which will open before its school that it has been planning to build since taking over the arena space ten years ago.
The arena itself was built in 1998 on SE Mill Plain Boulevard and SE Olympia Avenue with two rinks, one facing east/west, the other north/south. The north/south rink was demolished in 2006.