—BY CAM CHARRON AND SCOTT SEPICH
Back in February, it was theorized that the NFC title game between West Coast rivals Seattle and San Francisco was the real Super Bowl, that it was the game played by the two top teams in the league. By that point in the season, was there any doubt that the Kelowna Rockets and the Portland Winterhawks were the top two teams in the Western Hockey League, if not all of major junior?
This has been a matchup circled on calendars for months. Kelowna were tops in the BMO CHL Top 10 Rankings at the conclusion of the season, with Portland placing third. The Winterhawks led major junior hockey in RPI to top Buzzing the Net's Dynamic Dozen, with the Rockets placing second.
The 4-0 mark in the season series by Kelowna is somewhat deceiving — Portland couldn't buy a save in their first two meetings with one another, and iced something well short of a full roster when Kelowna visited the Rose City back during world junior season.
Still, our mathematical odds are surprisingly slanted in favour of Portland. Who really knows what to expect out of this matchup? When the teams first played each other in late November, the Rockets were short overage Marek Tvrdon and the Winterhawks had yet to make a move for Mat Dumba. Since those additions, both teams have cleared through the rest of the Western Conference like a warm knife through lactose-free butter. The series prediction may have come down to a coin flip. — Charron
Season series: Rockets 4-0-0-0. Odds favour: Portland 60%. Most mathematically likely outcome: Portland in 6. Prediction: Kelowna in 7.
What kind of home ice advantage can the Rockets expect? Much has been made over the course of the year of the Rockets' near dominance on home ice. Kelowna went 28-4-0-4 at home, and three of those regulation defeats came against a single team: Victoria. Prospera Place is unique in the junior hockey world for being a large facility sitting more than 6,000 fans without an upper bowl, packing the fans and the noise close to the ice, which can create loud atmospheres if the team is playing at capacity.
Still, the Winterhawks are 25-7-1-3 on the road and scored more goals (155) than all but three other teams (Brandon, Calgary, Kelowna) scored at home. Line-matching is generally not a focus in junior hockey, but Kelowna's Ryan Huska may try and exploit certain matchups, like keeping big Madison Bowey on 5-foot-9 Winterhawks forward Nic Petan. Last change could be a factor, but not travel, as the teams will have at least one day off between travel days. — Charron
Speaking of, Is Nic Petan going to be OK for Game 1? Petan’s obviously a major talent in the league when averaging a point a game is considered a slump, but he hasn’t quite been himself since the end of February. In 17 games since March 1, he has put up 'just' four goals and 13 assists. Those are numbers most guys would love to have, but when you consider that he had compiled 106 points in the 55 previous games, there’s been a bit of a step backward.
Now Petan is recovering from a head and/or neck injury suffered in Game 5 against Victoria, when he was cross-checked in the back of the head by Brandon Magee, then thumped in an ensuing fight by Ryan Gagnon.
Petan missed a day of practice, but declared himself “100 per cent” earlier this week. Johnston hasn’t been so eager to proclaim Petan as ready to go, and it’s likely that a doctor will make the final call on whether or not he’ll be able to play this weekend. — Sepich
How does Myles Bell's absence affect the Rockets attack? Unlike Petan, Myles Bell is not expected back for the series and is still listed as week-to-week. The team hasn't suffered much in the absence of their leading scorer. Bell led the Rockets with 42 goals and 77 points in the regular season, but hasn't played since Game 4 of the Rockets first round series with a lower-body injury.
Yet despite having a single point-a-game player, Kelowna wasn't starved for offence this season at all, scoring 310 times. The team's hottest line heading into the postseason of Tvrdon, Nick Merkley, and Rourke Chartier hasn't been affected and they've continued to put up points, Merkley being second on the Rockets behind defenceman Damon Severson. Tvrdon deserves partial credit for turning Chartier's season around after the 17-year-old started off slowly. He's vaulted back into NHL draft consideration since the arrival of the overage Slovak, scoring 41 points in 38 games.
While Kelowna has got along without Bell thus far, people tend to forget that Portland had the fourth best defence in the Western Conference this season.. That came despite the early goaltending struggles. — Charron
Can Brendan Burke handle this series? With a team loaded with elite forwards and defencemen over the past four seasons, Winterhawks goaltenders have become used to being considered the club’s "weak link." It’s a little unfair to Burke, a sixth-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes, as it was to Mac Carruth before him. Burke may not be Eric Comrie, but he’s made huge strides since taking the reins as the Hawks’ starting goaltender.
Early on, the 18-year-old’s numbers sagged as he coped with being a full-time starter while the retooled defensive group in front of him tried to develop chemistry and comfort. In November, the jury was out on whether this would be a truly successful season for Burke and the Winterhawks. When the Hawks acquired 20-year-old goalie Corbin Boes at the trade deadline, some even wondered if Burke was being replaced.
But Johnston publicly stated that Burke was his guy, and Burke has responded with stellar numbers since the Hawks added Dumba to the lineup and got their stars back from the world junior championship in mid-January.
Burke has looked more comfortable during this playoff run than Carruth did at the same age, and may be developing into one of the league’s elite goalies.
Kelowna, however, absolutely shelled Burke during the regular season. Yes, Burke was missing Dumba, Petan, Taylor Leier, Brendan Leipsic, and Derrick Pouliot in the final two meetings in Portland, but he didn’t even make it to the midway point in either game. In three games against the Rockets this season, he posted an 8.36 goals-against average and .797 save percentage.
There’s little doubt he’ll be better in this series, but the key is how much better. With Kelowna’s Jordon Cooke on top of his game, Burke must be at his best to hold off a deep Rockets lineup. — Sepich
How will the Rockets' D handle the challenge of the deep Portland forward group? Kelowna was tied with Victoria for the fewest number of goals given up in regulation or overtime during the regular season, and have maintained an excellent goals against average during the postseason, with just 21 goals conceded in nine games.
Still, the Rockets have yet to face an above-average offence this postseason. Kelowna is also middle in the pack as far as shots given up among playoff teams. Cooke's .929 save percentage has masked some of the problems. The Rockets are regarded as having the deepest defence corps in the WHL, but they're in tough against Portland. The season series hasn't exactly played out with everybody on the Winterhawks showing up, and after just facing two of the league's 41 30-goal scorers in the first two rounds, the Rockets D-corps, anchored by captain Madison Bowey, is up to the challenge.
Rockets assistant coach Dan Lambert said his defensive corps will have its hands full and will need to counter the 'Hawks top weapons with aggressive, yet smart hockey.
"The biggest thing for us is that we can't give them odd-man rushes," said Lambert. "They love to create and make plays, and you can't give them an inch or they make you pay. We have to be aggressive, but at the same time make sure we play intelligent, we're sound defensively and try to limit their chances." (Kelowna Capital News)
The other danger? Portland has scored 14 powerplay goals so far in the postseason, and the Rockets have gone shorthanded 41 times in the first nine games of the postseason. They've had considerable success on the PK, killing penalties at a 90.2% clip.
However, Seattle and Tri-City had the 14th and 20th best power plays in the WHL, respectively, in the regular season, the the Winterhawks had the best. The Rockets defence is big and physical play is a strength, but the Winterhawks are a team that has retaliated like clockwork this season when up a player. — Charron
Can Portland’s defence contribute enough offensively? The Hawks have two NHL top-10 picks at the blue line in Dumba and Pouliot, but the Rockets have had the best one-two scoring punch among the league’s defencemen in Bowey and Severson.
Pouliot's the top-scoring defenceman in the league during the playoffs (16 points in nine games), and Dumba’s averaging a point a game. That kind of production will need to continue, and it would be helpful if the Hawks got something out of the rest of the defensive group.
Garrett Haar had 45 points in 61 regular-season games, but has kicked in just two assists so far. Overall, Portland has gotten just one goal and eight points out of blueliners not named Dumba or Pouliot in the playoffs. There’s plenty of firepower in the forward group, but a little help from guys like Haar, Vancouver Canucks pick Anton Cederholm and Keoni Texeira would be a welcome development. — Sepich