Andy Devlin/Randy Feere

2017-18 Playoff previews: Medicine Hat Tigers vs Brandon Wheat Kings

Brandon Wheat Kings (40-27-3-2, 85 points, first wildcard spot) vs. Medicine Hat Tigers (36-28-8-0, 80 points, Central Division winner)

Head to head:

Dec. 2 BDN 5-4 OT

Dec. 8 BDN 4-3 OT

Jan. 13 MH 4-3 OT

Feb. 24 BDN 4-3 OT

Series leaders:

Wheat Kings

Stelio Mattheos 5 G, 4 A

Evan Weinger 3 G, 2 A

Tanner Kaspick 2 G, 1 A

Kale Clague 0 G, 5 A

Cole Reinhardt 2 G, 0 A

Logan Thompson .912 save percentage, 11 goals allowed on 125 shots

Tigers

David Quenneville 3 G, 2 A

Mark Rassell 2 G, 3 A

James Hamblin 2 G, 2 A

Ryan Jevne 2 G, 1 A

Michael Bullion .833 save percentage, 10 goals allowed on 60 shots

Regular season leaders:

Wheat Kings

Ty Lewis 70 GP, 44 G, 56 A, 100 Pts

Stelio Mattheos 68 GP, 43 G, 47 A, 90 Pts

Evan Weinger 65 GP, 31 G, 26 A, 57 Pts

Connor Gutenberg 72 GP, 18 G, 35 A, 53 Pts

Logan Thompson 3.41 GAA, .908 save percentage, 29-22-1-2

Tigers

Mark Rassell 70 GP, 50 G, 30 A, 80 Pts

David Quenneville 70 GP, 26 G, 54 A, 80 Pts

James Hamblin 70 GP, 21 G, 43 A, 64 Pts

Ryan Chyzowski 72 GP, 21 G, 31 A, 52 Pts

Michael Bullion 3.19 GAA, .891 save percentage, 20-15-3-0

Playoff history:

2017 – MH 1st round 4-0

2009 BDN 2nd round 4-0

2004 MH 2nd round 4-1

2001 MH 1st round 4-2

1993 MH 1st round 3-1

Schedule:

  1. Fri Mar 23 7:30 p.m. (MDT) BDN @ MH
  2. Sun Mar 25 6 p.m. (MDT) BDN @ MH
  3. Tue Mar 27 7:30 p.m. (CDT) MH @ BDN
  4. Wed Mar 28 7:30 p.m. (CDT) MH @ BDN
  5. Fri Mar 30 7:30 p.m. (MDT) BDN @ MH
  6. Sun Apr 01 7 p.m. (CDT) MH @ BDN
  7. Tue Apr 03 7 p.m. (MDT) BDN @ MH

The Medicine Hat Tigers and Brandon Wheat Kings are set to renew acquaintances from last year’s opening series matchup, one in which the Tigers swept the Wheat Kings in fairly convincing fashion, outscoring them 21-9.

Because of the dominating play by the East Division this season, the Tigers are the lucky team that gets to make the three-province trip in the crossover.

The Tigers were able to capitalize on the worst division in the league this season and ran away with the Central crown. They beat up on their divisional opponents to the tune of a 15-9-1-0 record, earning the division title for the ninth time in franchise history.

Like any series, injuries will play a factor, no doubt about that.

The Tigers will be without their top line centre Hamblin when the playoffs open. He has been ruled out for the entirety of the playoffs after colliding in the neutral zone and injuring his wrist during their regular season finale against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

The real question is how that affects his partner in crime, Rassell, who has played the majority of the past two seasons shotgun alongside Hamblin and tied for the team lead with 80 points.

The Medicine Hat News reported this week that the newly acquired Elijah Brown will get the first crack at filling in for Hamblin.

Mason Shaw was also listed as out indefinitely with a lower-body injury on this week’s injury report. Tigers Head Coach Shaun Clouston is hopeful he returns at some point this series.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, the Wheat Kings No. 1 option between the pipes is sidelined and there is no clue when Thompson might return.

Thompson pushed off against the post March 9 against the Swift Current Broncos and struggled to get up. The Brandon Sun reported that there is a cone of silence around Thompson and that the team is not letting any information out about their goaltender’s lower-body injury. He could be back for Game 1 or he could be back for Game 7. Nobody knows.

Dylan Myskiw has performed well in his absence, finishing the season at a 5-1-0-0 clip, totalling a 11-5-2-0 record with a .887 save percentage and 3.41 goals against average. Whether its Myskiw or Thompson in the blue paint, they will need to be on top of their game, seen as the Wheat Kings allowed the second-most shots in the league, 2,550.

As big of a factor as Thompson was for the Wheaties this winter, the biggest story of the season was the trade deadline and how the team responded to seeing two dressing room leaders get sent out of town.

The Wheat Kings smashed the rebuild button and dealt their best player, Kale Clague, to the division-rival Moose Jaw Warriors. They also shipped top-six forward Tanner Kaspick to the Victoria Royals. All of this happened when they were positioned as the third-best team in the WHL, only behind the divisional juggernaut Warriors and Broncos.

The Wheaties sputtered out of the deadline as they tried to sort themselves out. They endured a nine-game losing streak. They have already been through adverse times and appear to be better because of it now with the playoffs about to start.

Understandably, the Wheat Kings were taken aback in the wake of the trade deadline.

After getting pounded on their trip through the States, the team bonded and had players step up and start to fill the void.

Now rolling, the Wheat Kings have knocked off Clague and the Warriors three times in March and have won nine of their last 12 games. They enter the playoffs in a completely different mind frame opposed to last year, when they dropped 15 of their final 20. Their playoff opponent, the Tigers, finished up their last 12 games this season by going 7-5-0-0.

If the regular season was any indication of what to expect this series, buckle up for a long and entertaining series. All four regular season meetings went into overtime, with the Wheat Kings taking three of the four tilts.

Of course, it’s difficult to draw anything from three-on-three results in the regular season.

Playoffs are a completely different animal with the five-on-five continuous overtime, but don’t expect these two teams to hit triple OT with the fire power they both posses.

Having two players in the top 20 in league scoring, Mattheos and Lewis will give the Tigers fits in their own end. Shutting them down will be impossible, they best they can aim for is to try to slow them down.

The shutdown role will land mostly on Dylan MacPherson and Kristians Rubins. David Quenneville might not be the most sound blue liner in the league, but he eats so many minutes he will surely be out there for several of Lewis and Mattheos’ shifts.

With Quenneville on the ice for nearly half the game, he will have lots of opportunities to wind up and crank it from the line. The Wheat King forwards are going to have to commit to sacrificing the body and gobble up the shooting lanes to keep the league’s top scoring blue liner at bay.

Of course, there is a family connection between the two teams. David Quenneville’s brother, Peter, captained the Wheat Kings on their road to the WHL finals during the 2014-15 season. David’s other brother, John, played 222 games with the Wheat Kings, attended the WHL final with Peter and won the Ed Chynoweth Cup as an alternate captain during the 2015-16 playoffs.

It might take all three Quenneville’s to slow down the top two lines of this year’s installment of the Wheat Kings.

Wheat Kings Head Coach David Anning has spread out his two stars that finished in the top 20 for league scoring to attack teams in different ways.

The line of Reinhardt, Matteos and Luka Burzan will grind it out and use their physical presence on their opposition, while the Lewis, Gutenberg, Weinger line might be one of the fastest options in the league.

Those lines will surely be keyed on by Clouston’s group, which means that the Wheat Kings will need secondary scoring from the likes of Linden McCorrister and Marcus Sekendiak in order to survive. If they can heat up and carry the load, this might be a short series for the Tigers.

Losing an elite power play quarterback in Clague will hurt. In the playoffs, the gravity of power play opportunities doubles, if not triples.

The Tigers were the least penalized team in the league this season, but struggled when down a man. Their penalty kill operated at a 74.22 per cent clip this season, third worst in the league.

There might not be that many chances for the Wheat Kings to cash in on the man advantage; power play efficiency could be a make or break point for the wildcard winners.

Both teams are on par with each other in the goals for and against category. Finishing right behind each other in the two categories this season, the Tigers allowed three fewer goals, while the Wheat Kings put 12 more pucks in the net on the other side.

In a battle of over agers between the pipes, Thompson might have had the better statistical season, but Bullion brings seven more games of playoff experience to the table. Having the knowledge to know what it is like when the heat gets cranked up cannot go understated.

Fans from the outside might be shocked to learn that Jordan Hollett will start in the blue ice for the Tigers in Game 1. Hollett is coming off a knee injury and played in fewer games this season. In 35 games, Hollett went 16-13-4-0 with a .896 save percentage and 3.43 goals against.

It was announced at the Tigers’ media availability on the eve of Game 1 that Clouston said he would have no problem going to Bullion if Hollett struggles, or simply just using both goalies in Game 3 and 4, the only two games that occur on back-to-back evenings. Clouston has confidence in both goalies and worked with a 1A-1B system this season.

This series will come down to who can get the last stop. Judging by the regular season, the games will be tight and shots will come from all angles. Whichever goalie is able to limit second- and third-scoring opportunities with all the talent flying around the ice, will probably find themselves advancing to the second round.

The Tigers never really faced a worthy challenger in the division all year. Against all other first- and second-place teams from their respected divisions, the Tigers went 8-12-2-0 with a minus-26 goal differential.

Motivation can be a powerful drug. There are 17 players on the Wheat Kings roster that went through the playoff loss last year and are a prideful bunch. The Wheaties stormed back from a 4-0 whole to Clague and the Warriors, clipping them 5-4 in a shootout last weekend. This group appears to ready to take on the world despite whatever talent left their roster at the deadline.

But there is something in the water in Medicine Hat that has seen the Tigers win one round in the playoffs in each of their last eight times in the dance.

Stealing a win on the road will be tough. Both teams carried winning percentages over 600 this season at their home rink. Look for the Wheat Kings to come out early in Game 1 and blitz the Tigers early in the series.

There are too many question marks surrounding this series to make a prediction.

When does Thompson come back? Can Rassell perform without his top centre beside him? Which team can steal a game on the road first?

The only answer we know is that this shapes up to be one of the most evenly matched series and has a great chance at going the distance. If you’re a fan in either city, gas up the van and hit the road so you don’t miss a single second.

Banner photos by Andy Devlin and Randy Feere.

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