There’s no question that team play is the key to post-season success in virtually any level of competitive hockey.
One skater simply can’t carry an entire club over the long haul, and even a hot goalie can only steal wins for so long without enough support from those in front of him.
In the past 10 years, only one time has the Western Hockey League’s player of the year actually hoisted the Ed Chynoweth Cup as a league champion (Kris Russell, 2006-07 Medicine Hat Tigers).
With that said, rarely do championships come without some spectacular individual performances along the way, and with the margin between winning and losing shrinking as the playoffs go on, sometimes the performance of a key player can tip the scales either way.
Here is a look at eight players to watch (one from each of the remaining teams) in the second round of the WHL playoffs:
• Jordan Papirny, Brandon Wheat Kings — His numbers (3.00 goals-against average, .906 save percentage) in the first-round sweep of the Regina Pats weren’t overwhelming, but the 17-year-old rookie played pretty well and displayed a knack for shaking off early goals and making key saves when his team needed them. The Edmonton Oil Kings scored the most goals (290) in the Eastern Conference and allowed the least (179) in the entire WHL, and the Wheat Kings will need strong goaltending to give them a chance.
• Henrik Samuelsson, Edmonton — Samuelsson is the one of the most dangerous scorers on a team that has more of a blue-collar identity than the squad that played in the previous two league finals, and he’s been a holy terror against Brandon, with nine goals and 12 assists in 13 career regular-season and playoff games.
•Damon Severson, Kelowna Rockets — Severson is +90 over the last two years and racked up 61 points during the regular season. He was held to two assists in a first-round victory over the Tri-City Americans, but is the top defenceman on one of the WHL’s stingiest teams and will be challenged physically in the conference semifinals by the gritty Seattle Thunderbirds.
• Mackenzie Skapski/Wyatt Hoflin, Kootenay Ice — I’m cheating by picking two players for this spot, but Skapski, the club’s starter during the regular season, struggled in the first round against the Calgary Hitmen and was replaced by Hoflin, who won the last three games. Sam Reinhart and Jaedon Descheneau will get their points against the Medicine Hat Tigers, but the Ice will need some saves at the other end.
• Trevor Cox, Medicine Hat — Curtis Valk became the Tiger’ go-to player when Hunter Shinkaruk went down for the season with a knee injury, but Cox had a breakout campaign himself and led the team in first-round scoring (three goals, seven assists) against the Swift Current Broncos. The Ice are up next for the Tigers, and Cox led the season series against them, with nine points in six games.
• Nic Petan, Portland Winterhawks — The WHL’s second leading scorer during the regular season (113 points), Petan was quiet by his standards in the first round with four points against the Vancouver Giants.
• Patrik Polivka, Victoria Royals —Probably the quintessential team that gets by without major star power, the Royals got a brilliant 1.68 GAA and a .938 save percentage from Polivka in a first-round sweep of the Spokane Chiefs. The degree of difficulty goes up considerably in this round against Portland.
• Taran Kozun, Seattle Thunderbirds — Yet another goaltender makes this list, because it’s the game’s most important position. Kozun had not played a single playoff game when he was acquired from the Kamloops Blazers this season, but he was superb in the first round against the Everett Silvertips (2.27 GAA, .927 pct.) and will need to continue that against the league-leading Rockets.
AROUND THE WHL: Descheneau is the WHL and Canadian Hockey League player of the week after racking up seven goals and eight assists in four games, scoring the winner in each of Kootenay’s last three victories over Calgary … Prince Albert C Leon Draisaitl (10 goals, 14 assists in 13 regular-season, tiebreaker and playoff games) was the WHL’s player of the month for April, while Kelowna G Jordon Cooke (1.75 GAA, .943 pct. in 11 regular-season and playoff games) was the goalie of the month … Calgary G Chris Driedger has signed a three-year contract with the Ottawa Senators, who chose him in the third round of the 2012 NHL draft.