Three years ago, Jordan Papirny became the first goalie ever picked by the Brandon Wheat Kings in the first round of the Western Hockey League bantam draft.
This season, Wheat King fans are certainly seeing why.
The rookie netminder, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Thursday, is the biggest reason why the Wheat Kings are still alive in these WHL playoffs, heading into Game 5 of their second-round series with the powerhouse Edmonton Oil Kings tonight at Edmonton’s Rexall Place.
Papirny’s brilliant 49-save effort in the Wheat Kings’ stunning 5-2 victory over the Oil Kings on Wednesday night at Westman Place helped Brandon stave off playoff elimination and served notice that the he has indeed arrived as one of the WHL’s elite young netminders.
Papirny, who stopped all 11 shots he faced in a pivotal third period that began deadlocked 2-2, has been under siege all series, with the Oil Kings driving to the net with more traffic than the 18th Street bridge at rush hour.
After backstopping Brandon to a series sweep of the East Division champion Regina Pats in Round 1, Papirny has posted a superb .928 save percentage and 3.50 goals-against average in this Eastern Conference semifinal.
His stats are even more impressive when you consider the Wheat Kings have been outshot a whopping 196-109 by the Oil Kings — almost a two-to-one margin — with Papirny facing 45, 57, 43 and 51 shots in the four games.
Papirny’s performance is bringing back memories of a young Tyler Plante nine years ago.
Like Papirny, who began the year splitting the netminding duties with veteran Curtis Honey before taking over the No.1 job over the second half of the season, Plante was a 17-year-old rookie goaltender in the 2004-05 WHL campaign sharing the crease with veteran Mike Nichol before securing the starting role and running with it right through to the WHL final.
It would take a monumental comeback by Brandon to match that memorable playoff run, but the Papirny-Plante comparison isn’t far off as the Wheat Kings’ new young netminder continues to turn heads around the league and with NHL scouts.
While he won’t be named WHL rookie of the year like Plante was in 2005, it’s possible Papirny could still play his way into draft consideration this year, after being ranked 24th among North American netminders in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings for this year’s draft.
Papirny has proven to be a prime-time playoff netminder, improving his regular-season numbers from a 3.28 GAA and .900 save percentage to a 3.25 GAA and .919 save percentage overall in the post-season.
It will almost certainly take a herculean effort from Papirny to prolong this series much longer against one of the WHL’s elite teams.
But Papirny has clearly shown that the future is bright indeed, with the talented ’tender the backbone of an impressive young Wheat Kings core that should challenge for a league championship in the next few seasons.