Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

From the Dub: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

The conference finals are already well underway here in the WHL.The Edmonton Oil Kings are playing the virtually unstoppable Prince Albert Raiders for the Eastern Conference title. In the West, it's the Spokane Chiefs and the Vancouver Giants. The Chiefs eliminated my Portland Winterhawks and nearly swept the Everett Silvertips. It's hard to get excited about playoffs when your own team is done, which is why I'm shifting gears. The Winterhawks couldn't beat the Chiefs this year, so that leaves one option: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. 

Hail to the Chiefs: How did the Spokane Chiefs even get this far? It's simple. They wanted it more, they worked harder and they had more faith in themselves than others did. Before they eliminated the Portland Winterhawks 4-1, they also bumped the Hawks from second place in the U.S. Division in the 11th hour. That was more because Portland ran out of steam in a must-win weekend that would have given them home ice advantage. Still, it explains the series between the two teams. One faltered and the other dug deeper when it mattered most. Plus, there's the revenge factor. The Winterhawks had eliminated the Chiefs in the first round in four previous showdowns. The Chiefs went on to nearly sweep the Everett Silvertips out of playoffs in the second round. The Western Conference title series will not be so easy. The Chiefs are down 2-0 to the Vancouver Giants, but it's not over yet. You will not find a more determined team in the Dub than the Spokane Chiefs. Since my own team is well past done, I might as well get behind them. Players to watch: forwards Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Ethan McIndoe, Filip Kral, Luke Toporowski, Captain Ty Smith, Adam Beckman and goalie Bailey Brkin.

Top 100: Luke Toporowski is ranked 100th by NHL Central Scouting in its final rankings for the 2019 Entry Draft.    

One giant leap: Once my hometown Winterhawks were predictably finished for the season, I turned my attention to the B.C. Divison. The Vancouver Giants particpated in the Everett Silvertips' pre-season tournament, where they were already dominant right out of the gate. For their WHL opponents, the Vancouver Giants' spectacular season was best explained by the Victoria Royals fan who was sitting in front of me at the tournament: "Uh-oh." The B.C. Division Champions are better known right now for one particular player; defenseman Byram Bowen. He is ranked second on the final draft rankings. I've been watching him all season and I can assure you, the hype is real. The WHL players listed on the final rankings all have one thing in common: they already look like NHL players. The Vancouver Giants got this far because they play like an NHL team. 

Better luck next year: The Portland Winterhawks have consistently been ranked as one of the top teams in the league and they are a perennial favorite for playoffs. This year, they became synonymous with Cody Glass. There weren't players who could match him, save one: his linemate Joachim Blichfeld. Therein lies the trouble: the Hawks relied a little too heavily on their top line, leaving younger players to fend for themselves. The 2018 -2019 Winterhawks were young and it showed in the latter half of the season. I like what's happening here in terms of the future, specifically 2020 draft prospects Seth Jarvis, Jaydon Dureau, Robbie Fromm-Delorme and Cross Hanas. For all the excitement surrounding Cody, I actually think next year's team is the one to watch. 

Dawn patrol: The Prince Albert Raiders are the league's Scotty Munro Champions. Not much has stopped them this year, but there have been a few exceptions along the way. The Saskatoon Blades gave them a scare with two wins in round two and kudos to them for doing so. The Blades had not made a playoff appearance in four years, so challenging the league's top team in the second round was a victory of sorts. Plus, the Raiders have a secret weapon in their favor: some of the league's most dedicated fans. The Prince Albert Raiders' diehard fans lined up at 5:20 a.m. this past Tuesday morning to get their hands on tickets for the Eastern Conference final against the Edmonton Oil Kings.  

Things happen for a reason: Nic Petan's cousin Dante Hannoun was a Victoria Royal until January 10, when he was traded at the deadline to the Raiders. He was the poster boy for the Raiders' second round performance against the Blades. Hannoun recorded seven points and was a plus-three in four games, topping it all off with a hat trick and first star of the night in the final game against the Blades. Hannoun remains the league's top goal scorer in playoffs. He was named WHL Player of the Week for the week ending April 14. 

Third time's a charm: You will not find a better story this year than that of Raiders forward Brett Leason. Orginally drafted by the Tri-City Americans in 2014, Leason was traded to Prince Albert in October 2017. The Raiders stuck with him and it's paid off. Leason notched 89 points in 55 games played this season and  he has 12 points in 11 playoff games. Passed over in two previous NHL Entry Drafts, Leason is currently ranked 25th, indicating he will be a first round pick in 2019. Brett Leason will be 20 years old on April 30. He wears number 20 on his jersey. I'm a hockey fan, I believe in superstition. Therefore, I won't be surprised if Leason is drafted 20th overall.   

Good Neighbours: On the other hand, April 20th didn't bring the Raiders good luck. They lost in overtime to the Edmonton Oil Kings in game two. A big reason was rookie Jake Neighbours. He had an assist on the the team's first goal and more importantly, he helped the Oil Kings stay perfect in overtime with the game winner. It wasn't the first time: Neighbours also scored the OT game winner in their first playoff game against the Calgary Hitmen. He completed that series with a goal and an assist in the Oil Kings' 6-0 shutout of the Hitmen on April 10. That win completed the sweep for the Oil Kings, who are playing in the conference finals for the first time since 2014. Fun fact: Neighbours is from Airdrie, Alberta, the same hometown as Oilers forward Ty Rattie. 

Reverse psychology: The Spokane Chiefs are not the odds on favorite in the Western Conference series, but they are the last U.S. Division team still standing. They deserve my support and respect. Besides, every time I made a prediction this season it didn't work out. Cheering for the underdog seems like a good strategy at this point. As for the Eastern Conference, nothing much has kept the Prince Albert Raiders down this season. I doubt they'll stay down after just one loss. Besides, Brett Leason needs a fairy tale ending to his story. The most likely opponents for the WHL title will be Vancouver and Prince Albert, but I'm not jinxing it with a prediction. Instead, I'll just conclude by saying that this year's WHL conference finals offer a good preview of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com

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