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2005 Western Hockey League (WHL) Playoff Preview

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers


Courtesy of www.whl.ca.

OHL First Round Playoff Preview >>

Calgary, Alberta - The race for Western Hockey League supremacy and a shot at the Memorial Cup begins as the 2005 WHL Playoffs open. Here's a look at the first round division Semifinals match-ups featuring eight Blueshirt prospects, including: Zdenek Bahensky (Saskatoon), Ivan Baranka (Everett, photo - right), Dane Byers (Prince Albert), Nigel Dawes (Kootenay), Brandon Dubinsky (Portland), Marcus Jonasen (Tri-City), Rick Kozak (Prince Albert) and Roman Psurny (Medicine Hat).

FIRST ROUND PREVIEWS:
Saskatoon vs. Prince Albert >>
Medicine Hat vs. Red Deer >>
Kootenay vs. Kamloops >>
Seattle vs. Tri-City >>
Portland vs. Everett >>

EASTERN CONFERENCE
EAST DIVISION:
#2 Saskatoon Blades (Bahensky) vs. #3 Prince Albert Raiders (Byers, Kozak)

2004-05 head-to-head record: Saskatoon won series 6-4-0

The Blades find themselves back in the playoffs after winning only seven games during the 2003-04 season. After leading the East division for much of the season and becoming the first team to clinch a playoff spot this season, the Blades were overtaken by the surging Wheat Kings at the end of February.

The Blades may have trailed off from their early-season form, but they are still a dangerous team. The keys to success for the Blades will be getting their run-and-gun offense - with the likes of Ryan Keller, Devin Setoguchi, Wacey Rabbit, Joe Barnes and Zdenek Bahensky - back on track. They'll also need some solid netminding from Ryan Cyr.

The Raiders have spent almost the entire season in third place in the division, never really living up to the pre-season expectations of a division title.

The key to success for the Raiders will be the netminding of Rejean Beauchemin. The 19-year-old Canadian World Junior goaltender has been inconsistent through the regular season. However, when on his game, Beauchemin can be the difference between winning and losing, especially against an offensively charged Saskatoon roster. One big bonus for the Raiders is they'll have a healthy Jeremy Colliton for their series with Saskatoon. The addition of Colliton, the team's captain, will make a huge difference in the Raiders' attack and in the dressing room. Blueshirt prospects Dane Byers and Rick Kozak will be relied on for their rugged style up-front.

Series Schedule:
Prince Albert @ Saskatoon; Wednesday, March 23
Saskatoon @ Prince Albert; Saturday, March 26
Prince Albert @ Saskatoon; Monday, March 28
Saskatoon @ Prince Albert; Wednesday, March 30
Prince Albert @ Saskatoon; Friday, April 1 (if necessary)
Saskatoon @ Prince Albert; Saturday, April 2 (if necessary)
Prince Albert @ Saskatoon; Tuesday, April 5 (if necessary)


CENTRAL DIVISION:
#1 Medicine Hat Tigers (Psurny) vs. #4 Red Deer Rebels

2004-05 head-to-head record: Medicine Hat won series 4-1-1

The Medicine Hat Tigers enjoyed another solid regular season, winning their second straight Central division and Eastern conference crowns, and are looking to defend their WHL championship.

The Tigers are a team built for the playoffs. They have scoring depth up front, starting with 34-goal man Stefan Meyer and Canadian World Junior Clarke MacArthur. They have a dynamic defence that can score, with the likes of Kris Russell and Cam Barker, and keep the puck out, with names like Cody Blanshan and Steve Marr. The Tigers also have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league in Kevin Nastiuk and Matt Keetley. Put it all together, and you have one very tough team to beat. Tigers rookie forward Roman Psurny is coming of a 20-goal WHL season.

Despite being 10 games over .500, the Rebels only managed a fourth-place finish in the Central division - their lowest finish in the division since the 1995-96 season.

Offense hasn't been a problem for the Rebels. With a line-up featuring rookie scoring leader Roman Wick, playmaker Ty Morris, and Canadian World Junior tandem of Colin Fraser and Dion Phaneuf, the Rebels should be able to find the net. In Phaneuf, they also have the CHL's best defenceman. The key for Red Deer will be keeping pucks out of their net. 20-year-old netminder Jerry Festa has struggled with consistency this season, leaving rookie Andrew Leslie the job for the majority of February and March. If the Rebels can get strong goaltending from one of the two, they could give the Tigers a run for their money.

Series Schedule:
Red Deer @ Medicine Hat; Saturday, March 26
Red Deer @ Medicine Hat; Sunday, March 27
Medicine Hat @ Red Deer; Tuesday, March 29
Medicine Hat @ Red Deer; Wednesday, March 30
Red Deer @ Medicine Hat; Friday, April 1 (if necessary)
Medicine Hat @ Red Deer; Saturday, April 2 (if necessary)
Red Deer @ Medicine Hat; Tuesday, April 5 (if necessary)


WESTERN CONFERENCE
B.C. DIVISION
#1 Kootenay Ice (Dawes) vs. #4 Kamloops Blazers

2004-05 head-to-head record: Kootenay won series 2-1-1

The Ice defied many pre-season predictions by not only making the playoffs, but skating to the league's best regular-season record and earning the franchise's first ever Scotty Munro Trophy.

The keys for the Ice this season have been stifling defence and outstanding goaltending from Jeff Glass and Taylor Dakers that helped the club allow league-low 137 goals-against. The Ice also possess a speedy and explosive offense led by 50-goal sniper Nigel Dawes, and 32-goal man Ryan Russell. If Kootenay can stay on the same path that led them to the regular-season title throughout the playoffs, they will be an awfully tough team to beat. Dawes led the Ice with five points (three goals, two assists) in four regular season meetings with Kamloops.

The Blazers wrapped up the regular season 11 games below .500, and had to fight until the last weekend of the season to clinch a playoff spot for the 24th straight season.

The key for the Blazers all season has been the play of netminder Devan Dubnyk. The first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2004 appeared in 65 games this season and faced a league-high 1896 shots. Dubnyk will need to be at his very best for the Blazers to have any chance of getting through the first round. The Blazers, who had their share of trouble scoring this season, will also need to find enough offensive creativity from the likes of Aaron Richards, Kris Hogg and Ray Macias to break down a rock-solid Kootenay back end.

Series Schedule:
Kamloops @ Kootenay; Friday, March 25
Kamloops @ Kootenay; Saturday, March 26
Kootenay @ Kamloops; Tuesday, March 29
Kootenay @ Kamloops; Wednesday, March 30
Kamloops @ Kootenay; Friday, April 1 (if necessary)
Kootenay @ Kamloops; Sunday, April 3 (if necessary)
Kamloops @ Kootenay; Tuesday, April 5 (if necessary)


U.S. DIVISION
#1 Seattle Thunderbirds vs. #4 Tri-City Americans (Jonasen)

2004-05 head-to-head record: Seattle won 8-1-0

Not only are the Thunderbirds back in the post-season after missing last year's playoffs, they're in as U.S. division champs. Despite a dip in form during the last month of the season, Seattle managed to lead the division pretty much wire-to-wire during the regular season.

Seattle's keys to success this season are a sturdy defence and outstanding goaltending from Bryan Bridges. Yet, the T-Birds, led by 31-goal man Aaron Gagnon and sophomore playmaker Chris Durand, can also generate offense, which they'll need to beat the solid netminding of Tri-Cities' Carey Price. After being one of the most consistent teams through the first three-quarters of the season, the Thunderbirds have been beatable in recent weeks and will need to find their early-season form again if they want playoff success.

Picked by many at the season's outset to win the U.S. division, the Americans have had a rather disappointing campaign, having had to fight until the last weekend of the regular season to clinch a playoff spot.

Despite a sub-par regular-season, the Americans have the potential to make waves in the playoffs. The key for the Ams, as it has been in the regular season, will be the play of goaltender Carey Price. The 17-year-old netminder saw action in 62 games this season, and was often the difference between the Ams' winning and losing. If Price is at his best in the playoffs, the Americans could be dangerous, especially to a Seattle team recently struggling with consistency. The Americans will also need the likes of Marcus Jonasen, Dylan Stanley and Ian McDonald to step up offensively if they want to solve a tough Seattle defence.

Series Schedule:
Tri-City @ Seattle; Saturday, March 26
Tri-City @ Seattle; Monday, March 28
Seattle @ Tri-City; Wednesday, March 30
Seattle @ Tri-City; Friday, April 1
Tri-City @ Seattle; Saturday, April 2
Seattle @ Tri-City; Tuesday, April 5
Tri-City @ Seattle; Wednesday, April 6


#2 Portland Winter Hawks (Dubinsky) vs. #3 Everett Silvertips (Baranka)

2004-05 head-to-head record: Everett won 5-3-2

After a sub-par first half of the season, Portland turned it around and was one of the best teams in the league in the second half.

Portland's offense is their key to success. They have plenty of firepower up front with the likes of 30-goal men Dan DaSilva and Cody McLeod. Brandon Dubinsky has also managed to find his scoring touch after a statistically disappointing start to the season. Dubinsky ranked second on the club behind DaSilva's 10 points with nine points (three goals, six assists) in 10 games during the season series with Everett. The Hawks' defence, led by Canadian World Junior Braydon Coburn and top prospect Brendan Mikkelson, are big, tough, and capable of shutting teams down when on their game. However, the Hawks biggest key may be netminder Blake Grenier. After spending much of the season injured, Grenier's return has brought the Hawks much-needed stability in goal. If Grenier can keep up his current form, he may be what the team needs to make a playoff push.

The Silvertips managed to avoid the sophomore jinx in their second Western Hockey League season, proving that last year's remarkable inaugural season was no fluke.

The Silvertips didn't get to the playoffs by scoring lots of goals. Their 167 goals this season was the third-lowest total in the Western Conference. However, defence is what wins Everett hockey games. Facing a potent Winter Hawks attack, the Silvertips will need their defence corps, led by Ivan Baranka, Mitch Love and Shaun Heshka, to be at their best. Goaltending, as with any team, is crucial to success in the playoffs, and in Mike Wall, Everett has one of the best. Wall, coming off a very solid season, will be a key factor in determining if the Tips can go on another long post-season run.

Series Schedule:
Everett @ Portland; Friday, March 25
Everett @ Portland; Sunday, March 27
Portland @ Everett; Tuesday, March 29
Portland @ Everett; Wednesday, March 30
Everett @ Portland; Friday, April 1
Portland @ Everett; Saturday, April 2
Everett @ Portland; Tuesday, April 5
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