WHL: Giorgio Estephan, Juuso Välimäki and Connor Dewar Step Up in Conference Finals

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Juuso Valimaki
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Former Lethbridge Hurricanes captain Giorgio Estephan was a cornerstone of the team’s blockbuster trade deadline deal with the Swift Current Broncos, for good reason. He’s a natural leader and WHL veteran who is going out with a bang.

Eastern Conference: Giorgio Estephan Gives Swift Current Broncos the Edge

Giorgio Estephan was originally drafted in 2015 by the Buffalo Sabres, who declined to sign him to an entry-level deal. He played for the Rochester Americans in 2016 and attended Minnesota Wild training camp in 2017. Trades to better teams and playoffs often lead to free agency signings for junior players. It would not be surprising to see Giorgio Estephan sign a deal over the summer or at least get invited to another NHL camp.

The Swift Current Broncos are loaded with talent, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. At first, it looked like they might run away with the Eastern Conference Championship. Estephan scored his second WHL career post-season hat trick in Game 2. Goal number three was the game-winner in a 4-3 overtime win over the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

Fighting Back

Estephan’s showstopper helped the Broncos take a 2-0 series lead over Lethbridge. The truly exciting aspect of this series is that both teams have found a way to fight back. The Hurricanes mounted a comeback with duplicate 5-1 wins in Games 3 and 4. The Broncos then pulled off a 4-3 win in Game 5. Max Patterson initiated the scoring for the Broncos. Estephan had two goals and three points. Colby Sissons (New Jersey Devils) added a goal and an assist. The Hurricanes didn’t go down without a fight. Left winger Egor Zudilov scored their third goal at 18:59, but it wasn’t enough to tie it up.

Game 6 is Monday night in Lethbridge. The easy headline would be “Swift Current Broncos on the verge of clinching the Eastern Conference Championship” but I don’t think it will be that easy. I wouldn’t count out the Lethbridge Hurricanes. They came this far. They could go all the way.

Western Conference: Juuso Välimäki Leads the Charge for the Tri-City Americans

It doesn’t take long to notice Juuso Välimäki in a Tri-City Americans game. The Calgary Flames prospect has been a standout since day one. The WHL Western Conference Final is proof of that. The Everett Silvertips were leading the series 3-1 when the Tri-City Americans roared back with a 5-2 win in Game 5. Välimäki scored twice in the win. He had help from Nolan Yaremko, Parker AuCoin and captain Michael Rasmussen. Connor Dewar kept the Everett Silvertips in the game with both of the team’s goals. The series continues Monday night in Kennewick, Washington. Can the Tri-City Americans tie it up? Based on their performance in the playoffs, I’d say the answer is yes.

Superstition, Guaranteed

I’m always cautiously optimistic when I see a seemingly endless winning streak or a perfect sweep in playoffs. It usually means a crash is coming. That appeared to be the case for the Tri-City Americans in the Western Conference Final. The opening weekend was a split, as each team claimed a win. It didn’t last long. The Everett Silvertips dominated games three and four to take a 3-1 series lead. I knew the Americans wouldn’t stay down for long because this battle really started way back in September.

The Everett Silvertips have been on top of their game all season. More importantly, they have been resilient. The Silvertips like to fight physically, but what makes them dangerous is their internal fight. They never give up. They are also loaded with top NHL prospects, including 2018 draft-eligible forwards Connor Dewar and Riley Sutter. Other standouts include NHL prospects Patrick Bajkov (Florida Panthers) and Garret Pilon (Washington Capitals). Dewar stood out even as a rookie. He’s currently ranked 117th in the NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings.

The Tri-City Americans didn’t exactly breeze through the season either. Like the Silvertips, the Americans have a lot of fight in them. After a slump in January, they began an upward climb to championship form that peaked with their historic back-to-back sweeps in Rounds 1 and 2 of the playoffs. They’re tough but they are also very talented. Välimäki, Rasmussen and Yaremko have made headlines all season. It’s no surprise that they are leading the way in playoffs.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

All four teams left standing in the WHL playoffs are worthy of the league title and a shot at the Memorial Cup. Choosing one over the other is a game of chance anyway, so I’m sticking with my gut instinct. I’m still all in for a WHL Championship match-up between the Lethbridge Hurricanes and the Tri-City Americans. I can remember a time not so long ago when both teams were in a very different place. They have come a long way in a short time. Their return to championship form is reason enough to root for them.

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