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 first of eight opening round 2018 WHL Playoffs previews, we examine the Eastern Conference Champion Moose Jaw Warriors and the Prince Albert Raiders.
Your average fan might look at a series pitting a top seed against a wild-card seed and think, “Pfft… no need to even play this one out!”
Well, all you average fans might want to take a longer look at the first-round series featuring the WHL Regular Season Champion Moose Jaw Warriors and the wild-card seeded Prince Albert Raiders, because it just may not be that simple.
Yes, the Warriors did cruise to a record of 52-15-2-3, good enough for 109 points and a franchise-first Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy. Yes, the Warriors managed to go 5-2-0-1 in their head-to-head season series with the Raiders, outscoring their northern rivals by a margin of 29-21.
But it was the Raiders who won three of the final four meetings between the two East Division foes, with their lone defeat coming in a tight-checking 2-1 shootout decision on March 13.
Those same Prince Albert Raiders were arguably one of the hottest teams coming down the stretch run towards the 2018 WHL Playoffs, winning nine consecutive contests from February 21 through March 10. That run not only grabbed the attention of fans around the WHL, it lifted the Raiders into the 2018 WHL Playoffs picture as they decisively evacuated their cold seat on the outside of the big dance.
Yes, the Warriors may boast the WHL scoring champion – San Jose Sharks prospect Jayden Halbgewachs posted an astounding 70 goals and 129 points in 72 games – but the Raiders respond with a pretty stingy defence. Having given up only 250 goals – good enough to tie for 10th in the WHL – the Prince Albert blueline is patrolled by a strong complement featuring Vojtech Budik, Max Martin and Brayden Pachal, among others. Don’t forget 6-foot-4 Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Ian Scott tending the net.
Yes, this may be a matchup pitting the regular season champion against a wild-card opponent. But don’t expect the rough-and-tumble Raiders to go quietly into the night.
Game 1 – Friday, March 23 – Mosaic Place – Moose Jaw – 7 p.m. MT
Game 2 – Saturday, March 24 – Mosaic Place – Moose Jaw – 7 p.m. MT
Game 3 – Tuesday, March 27 – Art Hauser Centre – Prince Albert – 7 p.m. MT
Game 4 – Wednesday, March 28 – Art Hauser Centre – Prince Albert – 7 p.m. MT
Game 5* – Saturday, March 31 – Mosaic Place – Moose Jaw – 7 p.m. MT
Game 6* – Sunday, April 1 – Art Hauser Centre – Prince Albert – 6 p.m. MT
Game 7* – Tuesday, April 3 – Mosaic Place – Moose Jaw – 7 p.m. MT
Set the stage for the Magic Man: All year long, fans watch Jayden Halbgewachs dance around defender after defender, making countless look absolutely helpless. Well, after becoming the first WHL player to reach the 70-goal plateau since Pavel Brendl of the Calgary Hitmen did so back in 1998-99. Interestingly enough, Brendl and the Hitmen went on to win the 1999 WHL Championship, defeating the Kamloops Blazers in five games. All that being said, the 5-foot-8 product of Emerald Park, Sask. will undoubtedly be critical to the Warriors success in the post-season. The speedster put up 10 points (7G-3A) in eight contests against the Raiders during the regular season and will need to maintain that trend in the post-season.
Key to the Series – Prince Albert Raiders
Penalty Killing: Remember how we talked about that stingy Raiders defense? Well, they happen to own the second-best penalty kill across the entire WHL. If Prince Albert wants to find a way to scrape out an upset over the high-powered Warriors and their electric offense, winning the special teams battle will be a good place to start.
Forward to Watch – Moose Jaw Warriors
LW Tristin Langan (16-26–42): Boasting arguably the best depth of any forward corps, it might be tough to single out an unsung hero or darkhorse contributor up front for the Warriors. Look no further than 19-year-old Tristin Langan, a product of Swan River, Man., whom just happened to enjoy a breakout campaign. With 42 points (16G-26A) in 70 appearances, the 6-foot, 200-pound left winger registered career highs in all major offensive categories and also rung up a plus-22 rating. Disciplined, having only collected 23 penalty minutes all season, Langan will be relied upon to remain steadfest defensively, but don’t go to sleep because the kid will bury on you.
Forward to Watch – Prince Albert Raiders
RW Brett Leason (16-17–33): After coming over in a mid-season trade from the Tri-City Americans, things started to click for the 18-year-old Leason. In 54 contests with the Raiders, the 6-foot-4, 206-poud product of Calgary, Alta., put up 15 goals and 32 points after having only managed one goal in 12 appearances with the Americans to start the campaign. If the Raiders hope to keep pace with the Warriors, secondary offense from the likes of Leason will go a long way to making that happen.
Defenceman to Watch – Moose Jaw Warriors
Jett Woo (9-16–25): Everyone knows Kale Clague while Josh Brook and Dmitri Zaitsev have also done enough to make their mark in Moose Jaw. It isn’t very often a 17-year-old defenceman has the ability to carry a heavy load, but Woo is one of those rare cases. Ranked 20th by NHL Central Scouting in its midterm rankings for the 2018 NHL Draft, the 6-foot, 201-pound product of Winnipeg, Man., found himself in and out of the lineup due to injury this season, but there’s no questioning his ability when he is at 100 per cent. An impressive rookie campaign in 2016-17 saw Woo post 22 points (5G-17A) over 65 games from the backend. Despite only appearing in 44 games during 2017-18, the steady blueliner still managed a plus-29 rating.
Defenceman to Watch – Prince Albert Raiders
Jeremy Masella (4-9–13): Let’s get one thing straight – Masella isn’t here to put pucks in the net. Standing 6-foot-5 and tipping the scales at 214 pounds, the 19-year-old product of Phoenix, Ariz., serves as a menacing physical presence in his own end of the rink, punishing opponents at every available opportunity. Having split the season with the Victoria Royals and Raiders, Masella arrived in Prince Albert and added a physicality on the blueline that was not previously provided by the two-way dependables like Vojtech Budik, Max Martin or Brayden Pachal. Forwards be warned: coming out of a corner won’t be easy when you enter with Masella.
Goaltender to Watch – Moose Jaw Warriors
Brody Willms (54 GP, 37-11-2-2, 3.00 GAA, .898 SV%, 4 SO): The 19-year-old product of Coquitlam, B.C., enjoyed great success in his first year starting after serving as the understudy to longtime Warriors netminder Zach Sawchenko. Having proven himself capable in the regular season, the real test now begins for Willms as he only owns 20 minutes of prior post-season experience.
Goaltender to Watch – Prince Albert Raiders
Ian Scott (50 GP, 24-16-3-3, 3.10 GAA, .897 SV%): With a hulking 6-foot-4 frame, it’s easy to see why the Toronto Maple Leafs saw fit to utilize a fourth-round pick (110th) on Scott, a product of Calgary, Alta. While Scott just completed his second consecutive season with 50 appearances in the Prince Albert net, with only 33 minutes of WHL Playoffs experience, he finds himself in a similar boat to Willms. If there ever was a time to prove one’s true worth, it’s in the post-season.
Playoff History – Moose Jaw Warriors
Having just won the franchise’s first Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as WHL Regular Season Champions, the Warriors will now look to embark on a journey to their first Ed Chynoweth Cup. Sure, the 1967 Moose Jaw Canucks were WHL Champions, but that falls in a different franchise line than today’s Warriors. The last time the Warriors advanced to an Eastern Conference Championship came during the 2012 WHL Playoffs, where they fell in five games to the Edmonton Oil Kings – eventual WHL Champions. The last WHL Championship appearance for the Warriors came in 2006, where they were swept in four games by the Vancouver Giants. After scoring a franchise-first regular season title, can the Warriors double dip and bring home a franchise-first Ed Chynoweth Cup?
Playoff History – Prince Albert Raiders
The last time the Prince Albert Raiders made a post-season appearance – 2016 – they dropped a first-round series to the Warriors in five games. After missing out on the 2017 dance, the Raiders and back and out for revenge. Though they have hung one WHL Championship banner, it’s been quite some time since the 1985 Prince Albert Raiders claimed the league title before going on to add a Memorial Cup Championship to their trophy case. In fact, the Raiders haven’t been back to the WHL Championship since that 1985 appearance and 2005 serves as the last visit they made to an Eastern Conference Championship, falling to the Brandon Wheat Kings in seven games. On a roll heading into the post-season, can the Raiders capture lightning in a bottle and strike for an upset over the Warriors in Round 1?
Head-to-Head Playoff History – Moose Jaw & Prince Albert
2015-16: Moose Jaw Warriors defeat Prince Albert Raiders 4-1 in Eastern Conference first round
1998-99: Prince Albert Raiders defeat Moose Jaw Warriors 4-1 in Eastern Conference semifinal
1991-92: Prince Albert Raiders defeat Moose Jaw Warriors 4-0 in Eastern Division first round