The curtain goes up on the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs tonight with five of the eight series taking center stage.
In addition to the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins hosting Matt Calvert and the Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton will entertain San Jose, the New York Rangers will travel to Montreal to meet the Canadiens, Ottawa takes on the Boston Bruins and St. Louis will be in St. Paul, Minnesota to play the Wild.
A former co-captain of the Wheat Kings, Calvert is one of six players chasing down the Cup this season that are graduates of Brandon’s Western Hockey League franchise.
The others include Mark Stone of the Senators, St. Louis Blues’ forward Ryan Reaves, Calgary’s Michael Ferland, Jordin Tootoo of the Chicago Blackhawks as well as Eric Fehr of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Series featuring Tootoo, Ferland and Fehr will begin Thursday night as Chicago will host the Nashville Predators, the Leafs will travel to Washington while Calgary takes on the Ducks in southern California.
While the Leafs are in post-season play for the first time in four years, the playoffs are nothing new for Fehr, who was a member of Cup winning Penguins in 2016. A former WHL Player of the Year, Fehr has scored eight goals and 10 points in 60 Stanley Cup playoff games.
Fehr’s playoff experience would provide a real boost for a young, inexperienced Maple Leafs club that is facing a Capitals’ squad that has eon the Presidents’ Trophy three times in the past eight seasons. However, he is currently listed as day to day with an upper body injury after blocking a shot during his first game with the Leafs following the March NHL Trade Deadline.
In 53 games this past season, the Winkler, Manitoba product scored six goals and 11 points.
During his Wheat King career in Brandon, Fehr scored 277 points, including 146 goals in 279 games.
In other action Thursday, Ferland and the Flames will have a third go at exercising past demons in avenging their last two playoff series losses against the top team in the Pacific Division. In both 2006 and 2015, the Ducks ended Calgary’s season with seven and 5-game series wins respectively, en route to a Conference Final appearance in both years.
A key to having success against a playoff built and ready Ducks’ team will be the Flames ability to answer the bell physically and that’s where Ferland comes in. A Brandon product, who was a member of the 2010 MasterCard Memorial Cup Host Team, Ferland is coming off a season that saw him score fifteen goals and 25 points in 76 games.
As a Wheat King, Ferland scored 180 points, including 79 goals in 185 career games.
In Thursday’s other series opener, Tootoo will be taking the ice against a Predators’ club that chose him with its fourth pick of the 2001 National Hockey League Entry Draft.
A veteran of 723 NHL games as well as 40 more playoff tilts, “Toots” played his first eight seasons in Nashville, scoring 46 goals and 125 points in close to 500 games.
During his first year in Chicago this season, the popular right-winger had two goals and 3 points in 50 games. In four seasons with the Wheat Kings, the Churchill, Manitoba born Tootoo averaged close to a point per game with 93 goals and 209 points in 220 games.
Among the clubs expected favored to win Lord Stanley this year is Pittsburgh. Led by Sidney Crosby, the Penguins enter their series with the Columbus Blue Jackets in what could be described as the first round’s most unfair series as it pits two of the league’s elite teams against each other thanks to the NHL’s playoff format.
Columbus is returning to the playoffs for the first time in three years and is already anticipating a heated battle with its division rivals. The Blue Jackets have struggled down the stretch with their offense and Calvert is hoping to provide a spark.
“With our team, we score by committee and we have a lot of guys that help out,” says Calvert, who has scored two goals and 4 points in six career playoff games. “That’s how we won games at the start of the year, from first line to fourth line we were scoring. A lot of guys are in slumps, but we’re just going to keep having some fun and not grip the sticks too tight.”
A local product, Calvert played three seasons in Brandon, scoring 99 goals and 230 points in 198 career games.
Meanwhile two teams going in opposite directions collide in the Central Division series between the Wild and St. Louis Blues.
Minnesota left a sure-thing division title slip away with a March collapse that saw the Wild win just four of sixteen games. The Blues meanwhile fired head coach Ken Hitchcock on February 1st, replaced him with Mike Yeo and St. Louis finished strongly going 21-8-2 and from 28th to first in goals against per game.
One of the many Blues to excel with Yeo behind the bench has been Reaves, the Winnipegger and son of former Blue Bomber all star running back Willard Reaves.
The club’s longtime enforcer came into the season with 51 fights in his six NHL seasons and an average of 7 minutes, 48 seconds of ice time per game.
While he has maintained his physical style of play, he seems to be reaping the benefits of spending last off season revamping his game, focusing less on fighting and more on speed. His play this season has earned him the increased ice time.
“As it should be,” says Blues’ captain Alex Pietrangelo. “He’s been playing great for us.”
“I think I have a lot of years left in me,” says Reaves, who last week was announced as St. Louis’ nominee for the Masterton Trophy for perseverance. “In order to be able to do that, I have to adapt, and I can’t be that guy that I was when I came into the league, wanting to go out and fight everybody and building energy. I’ve got to be able to play, I’ve got to be able to help the team defensively, offensively, any way I can.”
Reaves, who spent three seasons with the Wheat Kings, scored seven goals and 13 points for St. Louis this year and the former fifth round draft choice enters post season play with 25 playoff games under his belt.
During his WHL career, he scored 36 goals and 79 career points in 201 games.
Montreal, Edmonton and Ottawa will be three of five Canadian teams bringing the curtain up on the playoffs Wednesday night and the Senators will be hoping to continue their season long domination of the Bruins, having won all four games between the two teams this season.
The Senators return to the playoffs this year with former Tampa Bay Lightning bench boss Guy Boucher in his first year as head coach of Ottawa. He brought his patented neutral zone trap up north with him and frustrated opponents as he watched the Sens compile 98 points on the year and an impressive second place finish in the Atlantic Division.
Both teams are banged up heading into the playoffs but Ottawa is confident that all star blueliner Erik Karlsson, who missed the final game of the regular season with a foot injury, will be able to answer the bell and play.
When the Sens last made post season play two springs ago, Brandon’s former captain took care of the offence down the stretch. This season has been a different story for the former First Team WHL All Star. Stone, who did pick up two assists in last Saturday’s win over the Rangers, has gone fifteen games without a goal.
Constantly referred to as the Senators’ best forward, Stone is looking forward to starting a fresh new chapter when the puck is dropped for game one tonight.
“Yeah, obviously, I haven’t scored in a while,” says Stone, who last found the back of the net against the Winnipeg Jets on February 19th. “I want to score. I’m happy that the new season is starting up here.”
Stone, who finished fourth in team scoring with 22 goals and 54 points, missed ten games this season. Most recently, he was sidelined by a lower body injury believed to have been a bruised thigh.
A bronze medal winner with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship, Stone played four seasons in Brandon, scoring 106 goals and 296 points in 232 career WHL games.
While Stone, Reaves, Calvert, Tootoo, Ferland and Fehr will represent the Wheat Kings on the ice during the Stanley Cup playoffs, another former Brandon star – coach Glen Gulutzan – will be front and center behind Calgary’s bench.
A Saskatoon native, Gulutzan played four seasons in the WHL including two (1989-91) in Brandon.