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Lethbridge Hurricanes and Spokane Chiefs set to battle for WHL championship

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The Lethbridge Hurricanes are feasting in the playoffs after years of famine.

The Hurricanes open the Western Hockey League championship final on the road Friday against the Spokane Chiefs.

Lethbridge last won a WHL title in 1997 and then didn't win another playoff series again until this year.

The Hurricanes opened with a six-game win over the Brandon Wheat Kings, then took out the Kootenay Ice in five games, before a shocking four-game sweep of the favoured Calgary Hitmen in the Eastern Conference final.

So the Hurricanes have had time to put their feet up during the last week, while the Chiefs and Tri-City Americans wore each other out in a seven-game Western Conference final that ended Tuesday.

"We've had a long layoff, but at the same time I think we've used it wisely," head coach Michael Dyck said Thursday from Spokane. "It was important to get that rest, mentally more than anything."

The winner represents the WHL at the Memorial Cup in Kitchener, Ont., from May 16 to 25.

The host Kitchener Rangers were ahead 1-0 in the OHL final against the Belleville Bulls. Both teams will play in the Memorial Cup. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship series starts Friday with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies hosting the Gatineau Olympiques.

Lethbridge may be the more rested team heading into the WHL final, but Spokane is battle-hardened after taking down the Americans, who were the regular-season winners.

"I don't know if we've been rubbing our hands together in glee because we know that Spokane will be ready to play us tough tomorrow night," Dyck said. "Them going seven games with Tri-City, they're obviously a really good team."

Lethbridge and Spokane finished second in their respective divisions behind Calgary and Tri-City and were thus the third-seeded teams in their conferences heading into the playoffs.

The Chiefs had the best power play in the league during the regular season, but it went cold in the playoffs. Spokane's penalty kill, however, tops all WHL teams in the post-season.

Goaltender Dustin Tokarski from Watson, Sask., leads all goalies in the post-season with a goal-against average of 1.41, a save percentage of .945 and three shutouts.

He's rated in the top-10 North American goaltending prospects by Central Scouting for this year's NHL entry draft.

Up front, Drayson Bowman, Mitch Wahl, Ondrej Roman and Chris Bruton do the bulk of work on offence, but Judd Blackwater, David Rutherford and Levko Koper have also chipped in during the post-season.

There's less of a gap between Lethbridge's power play and penalty kill and the Hurricanes have been consistently good at both.

Lethbridge can also spread the scoring around and even the foot soldiers have scored goals at key moments.

Austin Fyten, a 16-year-old call-up from the midget triple-A team in Strathmore, Alta., scored the overtime goal in Game 2 against Calgary to give the 'Canes a 2-0 lead going back to their own building.

Zach Boychuk, who won a gold medal at the world junior hockey championship with Canada, is the player to watch in the Hurricanes lineup. Central Scouting ranks him No. 8 among North American skaters for the draft.

"He's one of our offensive catalysts, brings a lot of energy and brings more to his game than just offence," Dyck said. "He's transformed himself into a good two-way player.

"He's killing penalties for us and we've put him out in different situations, down a goal with a minute left as well as up a goal with a minute left."

Mike Manigao played the majority of games in Lethbridge's net during the regular season, but Juha Metsola from Finland won the starting job in playoffs with his performance during the last six weeks of the season.

"He doesn't let anything get to him. He's got an even keel not only to his game, but his personality as well," Dyck said. "That's helped him in some of these situations he's gone through."

The Chiefs ended the regular season ranked second in the Canadian Hockey League behind the Kitchener Rangers, while the Hurricanes were No. 10.

The Hurricanes heard the rumblings of discontent in Lethbridge when they were three games below .500 last October, but the young team has come a long way since then.

"I don't think this is a cocky group," Dyck said. "We've got a bit of a swagger. We're certainly a team that has the confidence that if we play our game we can have success against anybody."

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