WHL Conference Championship Preview

By League Press Release

In the Eastern Conference, the two Division Champions, Red Deer Rebels (Central) and the Brandon Wheat Kings (East) square off for Games 1 and 2 at Red Deer’s Centrium on Friday and Saturday (7:30 p.m. both nights). Games 3 and 4 are at Brandon’s Keystone Centre on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Wheat Kings got stellar goaltending from Robert McVicar in pushing aside the Swift Current Broncos in five games in the Conference semi-final. Robert McVicar has a 1.74 GAA and .938 save percentage through 12 games. Wheaties’ Ryan Craig is second behind Duncan Milroy of the Kootenay Ice with nine goals and 16 points and teammate Colin McRae has 15 points. “Obviously McVicar has been a big part of our playoffs so far. And I think the fact that we play four lines and get everybody into the game all the time, that’s huge for us,” Wheat Kings head coach Dean Clark, who moved over from Calgary after the 2000-01 season, told the Brandon Sun.

An original WHL franchise, the Wheat Kings have won two League Championships, the first in 1978-79 and the most recent in 1995-96.

Reigning WHL and Memorial Cup champion Rebels took care of the Moose Jaw Warriors in six games in their Conference semi-final. Shane Bendera’s replacement, 2002 NHL draft-eligible Cam Ward, has played very well. Ward is 8-2 with a 2.15 GAA and .915 save percentage. Goaltending and a defence-first approach led by 2001 NHL first rounders, forward Colby Armstrong (Pittsburgh) and defenceman Jeff Woywitka (Philadelphia) is again carrying the Rebels through the playoffs.

“We take a lot of pride playing without the puck and playing as groups and localized units as we go over the boards and onto the ice,” Sutter said. “I think that’s part of the reason why we’ve had success offensively. With our hockey team when we’re playing well defensively we’re a very good offensive hockey team.”Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick from 2000, Mikhail Yakubov, leads the Rebels’ scoring with seven goals and six assists. The Rebels won three of four meetings with Brandon during the regular season. The only blowout came Jan. 4 in Brandon when the Wheat Kings erupted for five goals in the second period en route to an 8-3 win. The last meeting came Feb. 22, a 5-1 Red Deer victory at the Centrium.

RED DEER VS BRANDON: Red Deer was 3-1-0 against the Wheat Kings this season including 2-0-0 at the Centrium…During the season series, CARSEN GERMYN (4-2-6) and MIKHAIL YAKUBOV (2-4-6) led the REBELS in scoring while JORDIN TOOTOO (2-3-5) was the top scorer for the WHEATIES.

INJURIES: Brandon: #10, DUSTIN BRU, C, Concussion, day to day. Red Deer: #2, DEREK MEECH, D, Wisdom Teeth, Day to Day

Fans of the Kelowna Rockets had never experienced playoff fever before but they knew just what to do when it hit – head on down to Skyreach Place to get some tickets. The day after the Rockets polished off the Spokane Chiefs in the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference semi-final, just shy of 5,000 tickets were scooped up for Games 3 and 4 of the final with the Kootenay Ice, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Ice and Rockets open the series Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Cranbrook Rec Plex.

Why all the fuss in Kelowna?

Because prior to this season the Rockets had never advanced past the first round of the playoffs, dating back to when the franchise was relocated from Tacoma in 1995. For six straight years fans in Kelowna watched their boys pack their equipment away after the opening round. Plus, the Rockets gave no indication during the regular season that they would contend in the playoffs this year. They entered the post-season as conference’s sixth seed after finishing fourth in the B.C. Division.

“We’ve been breaking new ground here and the town’s really gotten behind us and there’s a lot of excitement with our players and with the community. It’s been a lot of fun,” Rockets head coach Marc Habscheid said.

Brilliant goaltending by Shane Bendera, who was acquired in a mid-season trade with the Red Deer Rebels, was key. Bendera’s 2-0 shutout in Game 6 on Saturday highlighted a Rockets comeback after they dropped the first two games. The 2000 National Hockey League draft pick (Columbus) has a sparkling 1.35 goals-against-average and .946 save percentage in 10 playoff outings.

Calgary Flames’ first-rounder from 2001, Chuck Kobasew, has seven goals and 10 points to lead a balanced Kelowna attack that has seven players with eight or more points through two rounds. The Rockets are 4-1 on the road this spring.

The Ice, who won the 2000 WHL Championship, swept the Seattle Thunderbirds in four games led by centre Duncan Milroy, who himself was a mid-season acquisition from the Swift Current Broncos. Milroy leads all playoff scorers with 10 goals and 10 assists in 11 games. The other part of the trade involving Milroy, goalie B.J. Boxma, has also paid dividends for Kootenay. Boxma has a 2.19 GAA in 11 games. The Ice dominated the season series with Kelowna, winning three of the four games, with the other a 3-3 tie.

KOOTENAY VS KELOWNA: Kootenay was 3-0-1 against Kelowna in the four game season series (2-0-0 at home, 1-0-1 on the road). During the season series, TOMAS PLIHAL (4-1-5) led the ICE in scoring while KIEL McLEOD (1-2-3) and CAM PADDOCK (1-2-3) were the top scorers for the ROCKETS.

INJURIES: Kootenay: Nothing to Report. Kelowna: #10, Kevin Young, D, Dislocated Shoulder, Day to Day