#WHLPlayoffs Preview: Western Conference Championship – Thunderbirds vs. Rockets

WHL Network

With the Conference Championship series of the 2017 Western Hockey League Playoffs set to begin Friday, April 21, provides a look in at each of the two head-to-head matchups on either side of the league.

In our first of two Conference Championship series playoff previews, we examine a second-consecutive clash between the soaring Seattle Thunderbirds and high-powered Kelowna Rockets.

As the Seattle Thunderbirds and Kelowna Rockets meet for the second consecutive time in the WHL’s Western Conference Championship series both sides carry their fair share of things to prove.

Mathew Barzal, captain of the Thunderbirds, came back to the Western Hockey League with a lengthy checklist – two of the biggest items coming in the form of a WHL Championship and a Memorial Cup title. The other, a World Junior Championship gold medal, has already come to pass as Barzal and Team Canada settled for silver back in January. Having tasted defeat at the 2017 WJC after being sent back to Seattle from the NHL’s New York Islanders, you can rest assured Barzal has a mighty big chip on his shoulder and wants nothing more than to win a WHL crown one year after suffering the bitter taste of defeat at the hands of the Brandon Wheat Kings.

Like Barzal, Kelowna Rockets forward Reid Gardiner returned to the WHL from the professional ranks this season, though his story is a bit different. The undrafted Gardiner signed an American Hockey League contract with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins – minor league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins – and remained with the club up until the WHL Trade Deadline on Jan. 10. The overage forward found his way into 23 contests with the Baby Pens, tallying six points (3G-3A) along the way. Dealt to the Rockets from the Prince Albert Raiders at the trade deadline, the product of Humboldt, Sask., opted to return to his western roots in hopes of advancing beyond the first round of the WHL Playoffs for the first time in his career. Well, he’s done that safely and at the age of 21, the goal is now to help Kelowna exact a measure of revenge on the team that knocked them out of contention one year ago in the 2016 Western Conference Championship series.

Barzal and Gardiner represent two of the most electrifying and entertaining stars remaining in the 2017 WHL Playoffs.

Barzal – the product of Coquitlam, B.C. and former 16th overall pick of the Islanders – was named the Western Conference Player of the Year and nominee for the WHL’s Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as Player of the Year.

Gardiner – the five-year WHL veteran – is the co-leader in WHL Playoffs scoring with 22 points (12G-10A) to his credit through 11 games.

Both teams made quick work of their second-round opponents to earn valuable rest ahead of the Western Conference Championship series. The Thunderbirds broke out the brooms, sweeping the U.S. Division-champion Everett Silvertips in four games, while the Rockets needed five contests to permanently ground the Portland Winterhawks.

When the puck drops Friday night at ShoWare Center in Kent, Wash., one thing is certain – it won’t be boring.


Game 1 – Friday, April 21 – ShoWare Center – Kent, Wash. – 7:35 p.m. PT
Game 2 – Saturday, April 22 – ShoWare Center – Kent, Wash. – 7:05 p.m. PT
Game 3 – Tuesday, April 25 – Prospera Place – Kelowna – 7:05 p.m. PT
Game 4 – Wednesday, April 26 – Prospera Place – Kelowna – 7:05 p.m. PT
*Game 5 – Friday, April 28 – ShoWare Center – Kent, Wash. – 7:35 p.m. PT
*Game 6 – Sunday, April 30 – Prospera Place – Kelowna – 5:05 p.m. PT
*Game 7 – Tuesday, May 2 – ShoWare Center – Kent, Wash. – 7:05 p.m. PT

Season Series

Oct. 22 – Kelowna (5) at Seattle (1)
Dec. 7 – Seattle (1) at Kelowna (6)
Feb. 13 – Seattle (3) at Kelowna (6)
Feb. 25 – Kelowna (3) at Seattle (5)

Seattle Kelowna
Seattle Thunderbirds vs. Kelowna Rockets
46-20-4-2 (98 points) Record 45-22-5-0 (95 points
Fourth Place WHL Standing Sixth Place
Second Place Conference Standing Fourth Place
Second Place – U.S. Division Division Standing Second Place – B.C. Division
27-8-0-1 Home Record 23-10-3-0
19-12-4-1 Road Record 22-12-2-0
253 (T-8th) Goals For 283 (Third)
206 (T-4th) Goals Against 206 (Fourth)
22.2% (Eighth) Power Play 25.2% (Third)
83.3% (Third) Penalty Kill 801.% (Ninth)
Lost WHL Championship 2015-16 Playoffs Eliminated in Conference Final
Ryan Gropp – 35-49—84 Leading Scorer Kole Lind – 30-57—87
Mathew Barzal – 10-69—79 Second Leading Scorer Calvin Thurkauf – 33-37—70
Ethan Bear – 28-42—70 Third Leading Scorer Nick Merkley – 23-40—63
Ryan Gropp – 35 goals Top Goal Scorer Calvin Thurkauf – 33 goals
Ethan Bear – 28-42—70 Top Scoring Defenceman Cal Foote – 6-51—57
Rylan Toth
(36-18-2-1, 2.75, .902, SO)
Top Goaltender Michael Herringer
(33-15-3-0, 2.78, .904, 2 SO)
4-0 Playoffs – Home Record 5-1
4-0 Playoffs – Road Record 3-2
39 (4.88/game) Playoffs – Goals For 38 (3.45/game)
18 (2.25/game) Playoffs – Goals Against 24 (2.18/game)
37.9% (First) Playoffs – Power Play 29.2% (Fifth)
89.7% (Second) Playoffs – Penalty Kill 90.7% (First)
Keegan Kolesar – 6-11—17 Playoffs – Leading Scorer Reid Gardiner – 12-10—22
Carl Stankowski
(8-0, 2.24, .913)
Playoffs – Top Goaltender Michael Herringer
(8-3, 2.18, .924, 2 SO)

Key to the Series – Seattle Thunderbirds

Discipline: Of all the teams remaining in the 2017 WHL Playoffs, the Thunderbirds are the least penalized with only 72 minutes in penalties incurred through eight games (9 PIM/game). The next closest team of the final four is the Regina Pats (121 PIM in 11 games; 11 PIM/game). In stark contrast, the Rockets are the most penalized team remaining, having racked up 162 minutes in penalties over 11 games (14.73 PIM/game). The Thunderbirds are owners of the top-ranked power-play in the 2017 WHL Playoffs, having scored 11 times on 29 power-play opportunities. That being said, while the Rockets’ fifth-ranked power-play unit is converting at a rate of 29.2 percent overall, it did produce at a rate of 37.0 per cent with the man advantage during five games against Portland. Without question, these two teams own the most lethal power-play squadrons in the league and whichever sees more opportunities will likely survive what projects to be a high-scoring series.

Key to the Series – Kelowna Rockets

G Rylan Toth

Goaltending experience: Carl Stankowski has been steady between the pipes for Seattle, going undefeated through two rounds. But he remains a 17-year-old rookie with only 15 total games (regular season and playoffs) of WHL experience. Backup Matt Berlin has 20 regular season games worth of WHL experience and 20-year-old Rylan Toth has yet to dress due to an undisclosed injury. Conversely, 21-year-old Rockets goaltender Michael Herringer owns 148 combined games of WHL experience and took the Rockets to the 2016 Western Conference Championship series. If Stankowski stumbles and Toth remains unavailable, the Rockets own a very clear upper hand in this department. Herringer’s experience could be enough to put the Rockets over the top in 2017 after being swept by the Thunderbirds back in 2016.

Forward to Watch – Seattle Thunderbirds

C Alexander True

C Alexander True (4-8—12): The 19-year-old product of Copenhagen, Denmark, is enjoying a career year after tallying 40 points (25G-15A) in 66 regular season games and he hasn’t slowed up in the playoffs, notching 12 points (4G-8A) in eight contests. Secondary scoring from the likes of True takes pressure off big guns like Keegan Kolesar and Mathew Barzal. At 6-foot-5 and 199 pounds, the third-year pivot will test the grit of Kelowna’s infamously strong blueline.

Forward to Watch – Kelowna Rockets

LW Calvin Thurkauf

LW Calvin Thurkauf (5-7—12): The 19-year-old product of Zug, Switzerland, and seventh-round pick (185th) of the Columbus Blue Jackets cranked it up in the second round against Portland, scoring five goals and adding five assists through the five-game series. Sure, Reid Gardiner is playing like a man possessed and Dillon Dube is providing his usual, reliable two-way game, but at 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds, Thurkauf is a vital cog in Kelowna’s offensive machinery.

Defenceman to Watch – Seattle Thunderbirds

Aaron Hyman (1-4—5): Acquired from the Calgary Hitmen prior to the WHL Trade Deadline, the 19-year-old product of Calgary is quietly proving his worth as a steady presence on the Thunderbirds blueline. Ethan Bear is the stud and draws all the attention, while Jarret Tyszka is the up-and-comer grabbing the attention of NHL scouts ahead of the 2017 NHL Draft. But the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Hyman has helped eat up some big minutes and leads the entire team with a plus-9 rating through eight playoff games.

Defenceman to Watch – Kelowna Rockets

Kaedan Korczak (0-0—0): With stud rearguard Cal Foote suspended for three games, the 16-year-old Korczak drew into the lineup for Games 4 and 5 against the Portland Winterhawks. The Rockets’ first-round pick (11th) at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, Korczak joined the team at the conclusion of his midget season and while he may not be the ‘now’ on the Kelowna blueline, he absolutely represents the future and, boy, is that future bright. With Foote set to miss Game 1 of the Western Conference Championship series, the 6-foot, 170-pound Korczak – a product of Yorkton, Sask. – will likely draw back in to open the festivities. He may not see a ton of ice, but when he is out there, he is worth watching.

Goaltender to Watch – Seattle Thunderbirds

G Carl Stankowski

Carl Stankowski (8 GP, 8-0, 2.24 GAA, .913 SV%): The 17-year-old product of Calgary was thrust into the pressure cooker of the WHL Playoffs after Rylan Toth went down with injury late in the regular season. To date, the 5-foot-9, 159-pound Stankowski is showing folks around the WHL exactly why the Thunderbirds have so much hope for him in the future. In the first round against Tri-City, Stankowski opened the post-season with a bang and he carried that forward in the second round, managing to out out-duel Carter Hart of the Everett Silvertips – the reigning CHL Goaltender of the Year.

Goaltender to Watch – Kelowna Rockets

G Michael Herringer

Michael Herringer (11 GP, 8-3, 2.18 GAA, .924 SV%, 2 SO): The 21-year-old product of Comox, B.C., was lights out in a first-round victory over the Kamloops Blazers and he remained steady in making quick work of the upstart Portland Winterhawks during the second round. This is Herringer’s final kick at the WHL can and there’s nothing like the motivation of aspirations to avenge defeat. In 2016, the Thunderbirds swept the Rockets from the WHL Playoffs, scoring 12 times on the veteran goaltender along the way. Don’t expect a repeat of that in 2017.

Playoff History – Seattle Thunderbirds

The Seattle Thunderbirds suffered bitter defeat at the hands of the Brandon Wheat Kings in the 2016 WHL Championship, rendering the franchise still in search of its first Ed Chynoweth Cup. Prior to 2016, the Thunderbirds hadn’t seen a Western Conference final since being on the wrong end of a five-game set with the Kelowna Rockets back in 2003. The last WHL Championship appearance prior to 2016? It came back in 1997 when Patrick Marleau was a member of the Thunderbirds. Could Mathew Barzal be the man to help bring the Ed Chynoweth Cup to the Emerald City for the first time?

Playoff History – Kelowna Rockets

The Kelowna Rockets are owners of four WHL Championships (2015, 2009, 2005, 2003), the most recent of which came back in 2015. Kelowna was dangerously close to a second consecutive appearance in the championship series, having fallen to the Seattle Thunderbirds in last year’s Western Conference final. In 2014, the Rockets fell in the Western Conference final yet again. There’s no question winning is synonymous with the Kelowna Rockets as conference final appearances have almost become the minimum expectation out in the Okanagan.

Head-to-Head Playoff History – Kelowna/Tacoma Rockets and Seattle Thunderbirds

2015-16: Seattle Thunderbirds defeat Kelowna Rockets 4-0 in Western Conference Championship
2013-14: Kelowna Rockets defeat Seattle Thunderbirds 4-0 in Western Conference semifinal
2012-13: Kelowna Rockets defeat Seattle Thunderbirds 4-3 in Western Conference first round
2007-08: Seattle Thunderbirds defeat Kelowna Rockets 4-3 in Western Conference first round
2004-05: Kelowna Rockets defeat Seattle Thunderbirds 4-3 in Western Conference semifinal
2002-03: Kelowna Rockets defeat Seattle Thunderbirds 4-3 in Western Conference Championship
2000-01: Seattle Thunderbirds defeat Kelowna Rockets 4-1 in Western Conference first round
1994-95: Tacoma Rockets (1-3-0) and Seattle Thunderbirds (0-4-0) eliminated in West Division round-robin

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