With the 2018 WHL Playoffs set to begin Thursday, March 22, WHL.ca provides a look in at each of the eight head-to-head matchups across the league.
With a general introduction, vital statistics and keys to the series, we’ve got everything you need to know heading into the 2018 WHL Playoffs. While the usual suspects are known, our ‘Players to Watch’ section will take a deeper dive into some of the supporting characters set to take on a big role in the post-season.
Finally, we close each of our series previews with a quick look to the past for a brief historical take on the rivalry that exists – or stands to ignite.
In our third of eight opening round 2018 WHL Playoffs previews, we examine the back-to-back Central Division Champion Medicine Hat Tigers playing host to the wild card Brandon Wheat Kings, who finished fourth in competitive East Division, earning the first of two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.
Following their ninth division title in franchise history, the Medicine Hat Tigers will clash with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the first round of the 2018 WHL Playoffs for a second year in a row.
The meeting was set up following Friday’s decision involving the Regina Pats and Swift Current Broncos, which clinched third place in the East Division for the Pats and the top wild card spot for Brandon.
The Tigers are led this year by the high-scoring duo of 50-goal scorer Mark Rassell (50G-30A) and the league’s top scoring defenceman and New York Islanders prospect David Quenneville (26G-54A). They’ll look to take down Brandon’s high-flying offensive duo of Colorado Avalanche prospect Ty Lewis (44G-56A) and Carolina Hurricanes prospect Stelio Mattheos (43G-47A), who will be looking to repeat their championship success of the 2015-16 campaign.
The matchup will also pit the next generation of each squad against each other. For the Tigers, there’s forwards Ryan Chyzowski, Josh Williams, Elijah Brown and Bryan Lockner. Their core of 1999-born players is strong as well, with skaters like James Hamblin, Gary Haden and Hayden Ostir occupying that year’s group of players. Simply put, prudent drafting and solid moves have created a team that can compete year after year.
In a similar position with younger talent are the Wheat Kings, who have players like Luka Burzan, Cole Reinhardt, and Chase Hartje to compliment the team’s older forward group the includes Lewis and Evan Weinger. Consider that an offensive stud such as Mattheos is a 1999-born forward capable of playing two seasons beyond this one and this might not be the last time we see the Wheat Kings and Tigers battle things out for supremacy in the Eastern Conference.
Game one of the series is set for Friday, March 24 (7:30 p.m. MT) at the Canalta Centre with game two taking place on Sunday, March 25 (6:00 p.m. MT). The series will then shift to Dauphin, Man. for games three and four on Tuesday, March 27 and Wednesday, March 28 respectively with 7:30 p.m. CT starts on both nights.
Schedule Game 1 – Friday, March 23 – Canalta Centre – Medicine Hat, Alta. – 7:30 p.m. MT
Game 2 – Sunday, March 25 – Canalta Centre – Medicine Hat, Alta. – 6:00 p.m. MT
Game 3 – Tuesday, March 27 – Credit Union Place — Dauphin, Man. – 7:30 p.m. CT
Game 4 – Wednesday, March 28 – Credit Union Place — Dauphin, Man. – 7:30 p.m. CT
*Game 5 – Friday, March 30 – Canalta Centre – Medicine Hat, Alta. – 7:30 p.m. MT
*Game 6 – Sunday, April 1 – Credit Union Place — Dauphin, Man. – 7:00 p.m. CT
*Game 7 – Tuesday, April 3 – Canalta Centre – Medicine Hat, Alta. – 7:00 p.m. MT
Forget the individual games:All four games in the season series ended in overtime, with the Wheat Kings winning three of the four matchups. Two of those matchups were before the WHL’s Trade Deadline on Jan. 10, when the Wheat Kings offloaded key pieces of their roster in an apparent bid to plan for the future. True to that statement, the Tigers captured their lone victory of the season series just days after the Trade Deadline on Jan. 13. With how quickly a 3-on-3 overtime can go sideways for a club, there’s no shame in taking those regular defeats as long as the Tigers don’t get too down about it and remember they were one shot away from winning those games as well. The season series was closer than their 1-0-3-0 record shows.
Key to the Series – Brandon Wheat Kings
Home cooking is king: This first round matchup is one that favours the Tigers if things reach seven games due to home and away records of both clubs. If the Wheat Kings can come out of the first two games with even a single victory, their 27-6-2-1 record as the home club (third-best among all playoff-bound teams) and the Tigers’ 15-17-4-0 road record (fifth-worst among playoff-bound teams) this season should build enough confidence for them to sweep their three games. Winning a game on the road will be a tough test for the Wheat Kings, who have the worst road record out of all playoff-bound teams, but they have won twice in Medicine Hat this season as well so it’s not out of the realm of the possible.
Forward to Watch – Medicine Hat Tigers
LW Mark Rassell (50-30—80): As they say in showbiz, give ’em the old Rassell dazzle. Overage forward Mark Rassell led the WHL this year with 42 even-strength goals, one ahead of Jayden Halbgewachs (San Jose Sharks) and Ty Ronning (New York Rangers), who each finished with 41 even-strength goals. In fact, of the 18 WHL skaters to score 40 or more goals this season, Rassell was just one of three, along with Kieffer Bellows (New York Islanders) and Tanner Jeannot, to score fewer than 10 power-play goals.
It’s worth noting then that 23 of the 30 goals scored in the four-game season series came with both teams were at even strength, including a pair from Rassell himself. The series will be won when both teams are on even ground and Rassell is the one player that can help to tip the scales.
Forward to Watch – Brandon Wheat Kings
C Stelio Mattheos (43-47—90): The first overall draft selection from the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft continued his ascent into the upper-echelon of top scorers in the league this season with a 43-goal campaign. As an 18-year-old, he led all players in the season series with five goals and nine points in four games, collecting one of the overtime-winners in the series. The Carolina Hurricanes have a budding star for the future, but for the time being, he’s property of the Wheat Kings.
Your potentially useless, yet also incredibly quirky stat of the day involves the legacy of 30-goal scorers and Manitoban-born players on the Wheat Kings. The last season to featured multiple 30-goal scorers for the Wheat Kings without at least two from the province of Manitoba was the 2003-04 season. The streak of offensive homegrown success continued this season with Brandon’s Ty Lewis and Winnipeg’s Mattheos continuing the odd, yet fascinating tradition. Do with this stat how you please, but know that the Wheat Kings’ success will continue to come largely from talent developed within.
Defenceman to Watch – Medicine Hat Tigers
D David Quenneville (26-54-80): In the past nine seasons, the team with the highest-scoring defenceman in the league has always advanced past the first round and generally made an appearance in the conference and league finals. David Quenneville (New York Islanders) topped the WHL’s defensive scoring charts this year and should play a strong role in helping aid the Tigers in their goal of a first round victory and beyond. Quenneville was just one of three defencemen, including Austin Strand (Los Angeles Kings) and Josh Mahura (Anaheim Ducks), to surpass the 20-goal plateau this season.
In a season series where all four games were decided by a single goal, you can bet that the top offensive player of the blue line could provide an edge to the Tigers in the playoffs.
Defenceman to Watch – Brandon Wheat Kings
D James Shearer (2-10-12): After the Wheat Kings’ deals at the Trade Deadline, the team named Brandonite and overage defenceman James Shearer as their captain for the remainder of the season. His presence may not be as offensive as Quenneville’s, but for a team like the Wheat Kings, local pride is always on the line and you can bet the hometown players will want to protect it at all costs.
It also goes without saying that this is Shearer’s chance to lead his club to an Ed Chynoweth Cup after being a younger part of the team’s 2016 championship run. How the Wheat Kings fare in the playoffs will come down to the leadership provided by Shearer and steady hand on the team’s blue line.
Goaltender to Watch – Medicine Hat Tigers
Jordan Hollett (16-13-4-0, 3.43, .896): Up until February, the Medicine Hat Tigers had rode the tandem of Hollett, a sixth-round selection of the Ottawa Senators in the 2017 NHL Draft, and overage goaltender Michael Bullion. An injury in February thrust the goaltending reins upon Bullion and he delivered, recording Medicine Hat’s lone victory over Brandon in the four-game season series. Bullion was also pulled from one game in the season series, one that Hollett battled back in to earn a single point. Hollett has primarily served as backup during his young WHL career, but he appears to be the succession plan after Bullion ages out this season. If Bullion should falter, could Hollett’s coming out party as a quality WHL goaltender come sooner than expected?
Goaltender to Watch – Brandon Wheat Kings
Dylan Myskiw (22GP, 11-5-2-0, 3.41 GAA, .887 SV%): Logan Thompson was the assumed starter and put together a very strong overage season until going down with an injury on Mar. 9 during a game against the Swift Current Broncos. Since then, Myskiw has dutifully occupied the crease, sporting a 5-1-0-0 record, 3.32 GAA and .884 SV% and winning a pair of statement games against the league-leading Moose Jaw Warriors to close out the season. It’s still unclear as to if Thompson will be ready to go come Friday, but after Myskiw’s strong late-season play, you can expect the Wheat Kings to play a confident game regardless of who is between the pipes.
Playoff History – Medicine Hat Tigers
The five-time Ed Chynoweth Cup Champions will enter the 2018 WHL Playoffs as the Central Division champions for the second straight year. That’s put them halfway to equalling their run of four straight division title in the mid-2000s, but another streak is more pressing at the moment. With the exception of the 2015-16 WHL Playoffs, the Tigers have won eight straight first round playoff matchups dating back to the 2008-09 season. For a club that has the type of annual success the Tigers have had, their playoff success hasn’t quite matched that since the team’s last WHL Championship in the 2006-07 season, with six second round exits in the past 10 seasons. Will this be the year they make another run deeper than just two rounds?
Playoff History – Brandon Wheat Kings
With three WHL Championships and 13 division titles to their franchise’s name, there’s no introduction needed for the Wheat Kings when it comes to the WHL Playoffs. It has tended to be a case of feast or famine for the Wheat Kings though, who have appeared in eight WHL Championship series, but reached the top of the league only once every 20 seasons or so, winning titles in 1978, 1996, and 2016. The team’s present core of veterans represent what was once the young component of the 2016 WHL Championship squad. With a new batch of young talent now on the horizon, including three who were short-listed by NHL Central Scouting in the midterm rankings ahead of the 2018 NHL Draft, the Wheaties will be looking to make a strong championship run and return to the top of the league.
Head-to-Head Playoff History – Medicine Hat Tigers and Brandon Wheat Kings 2016-17: Medicine Hat Tigers defeat Brandon Wheat Kings 4-0 in Eastern Conference Round 1
2011-12: Medicine Hat Tigers defeat Brandon Wheat Kings 4-2 in Eastern Conference Round 1
2008-09: Brandon Wheat Kings defeat Medicine Hat Tigers 4-0 in Eastern Conference Round 2
2003-04: Medicine Hat Tigers defeat Brandon Wheat Kings 4-1 in Eastern Conference Round 2
1992-93: Medicine Hat Tigers defeat Brandon Wheat Kings 3-1 in Eastern Conference Round 1