WHL Western Conference preview: Can the injury-depleted Kelowna Rockets dig deep after a seven-game marathon?

Scott Sepich

Three first-round playoff series in the WHL's Western Conference looked like they should've been blowouts, but the one that everyone thought would hold the most dramatics ended with the Spokane Chiefs taking down the Tri-City Americans in five games.

The Chiefs-Ams series wasn't exactly a laugher, though, as two games went to overtime and two others were tight deep into the third period. But Spokane comes into the second round with fresher legs than any of its higher-ranked companions.

Meanwhile, the Kamloops Blazers, Kelowna Rockets and Portland Winterhawks got all they wanted and more in their opening series, which in some ways is preferable to cruising through a sweep because all three clubs have been given their wake-up call for the postseason.

And while the Blazers and Winterhawks made it through the first round relatively unscathed (with a couple exceptions), the undermanned Rockets might be running on fumes when round two kicks off this weekend.

(2) Kelowna Rockets vs. (3) Kamloops Blazers

Season series: Kamloops 6-4 (2 wins in OT). Odds favour: Kelowna 64%. Most statistically probably outcome: Kelowna in 5. Prediction: Kamloops in 6.

If the odds favour the Rockets, why should the Blazers win? Quite simply, the Rockets are decimated right now due to injury, especially on the back line. Kelowna has just four healthy defencemen, and needed to dress '97-born Joe Gatenby in Game 7 of the Seattle series to have a fifth in uniform. Mitchell Wheaton hasn't played since January, and the Rockets took a huge blow in the first round when MacKenzie Johnston and Jesse Lees suffered injuries on separate hits that resulted in suspensions to Seattle players.

Those three aren't likely to play in this series, along with injured forwards Colton Sissons, Rourke Chartier, Carter Rigby and J.T. Barnett. Converted defenceman Myles Bell could return to his old position (as he does on the power play), but Bell had a breakout offensive year with 38 goals and 93 points as a forward and the Rockets probably don't want to sacrifice his production.

The Rockets are deep — 14 players scored at least 10 goals in the regular season — but after clawing back from three games down to the physically imposing Thunderbirds in the first round, can they have anything left in the tank to challenge the much-better Blazers?

The answer probably lies with health and stamina of defencemen Madison Bowey, Colten Martin, Damon Severson and Riley Stadel.

Kamloops, meanwhile, is healthier after receiving a stiff challenge of its own in the first round from the plucky Victoria Royals. But with 36-goal scorer Tim Bozon out with a hand injury, the Blazers attack has been muted somewhat.

Of course, if Kale Kessy keeps lighting the lamp, Bozon's absence won't be as noticeable. Previously noted more as an agitator than a sniper, Kessy had a pair of hat tricks in the Victoria series and scored seven goals in six games. This from a guy who had four goals in 28 previous postseason games with the Medicine Hat Tigers.

With four goals, 14 points and a +8 in the first round, JC Lipon seems to be regaining the form that saw him jump out to a big lead in the individual scoring race in the first month of the regular season.

Now, the Blazers just need Cole Cheveldave to find his form a bit. With an .880 save percentage against the Royals, Cheveldave ranked 15th of 17 qualified goalies in the first round.

Kamloops started the season 16-0-1, and looked very much the part of a junior hockey juggernaut in doing so. It's clear that the Blazers have excellence in them, and after a rough patch in the middle of the regular season they seem closer to finding what made them successful back in September and October.

So how could the Rockets win? Without Tyson Baillie, the Rockets probably wouldn't have become the first team in 17 years to rally from a 3-0 deficit to win a series. The 17-year-old had seven goals and 12 points against Seattle (including all three goals in Game 7) to lead Kelowna, and with so many teammates out of the lineup he'll need to have another big series to keep the Rockets in it.

Kelowna also needs to get something from Ryan Olsen, who failed to score a goal in the first round after ranking second on the team with 32 in the regular season.

The Rockets somehow held Seattle scoreless on 24 power-play opportunities in round one, but still needed overtime in Game 7 to win the series. Kelowna can't let the Kamloops power play click at the 25.8% rate it did against Victoria and expect to win.

(1) Portland Winterhawks vs. (4) Spokane Chiefs

Season series: Portland 7-1-1. Odds favour: Portland 81%. Most statistically probable outcome: Portland in 5. Prediction: Portland in 6.

Why the Winterhawks should win: Despite a couple of hiccups against the Everett Silvertips, Portland managed to get into the second round without suffering any significant injuries. And despite unexpectedly losing twice to Everett, the Winterhawks dominated the run of play even in the two setbacks. Portland outshot the Tips 257-109 in the series.

Ultimately, it was Portland's ability to score with the man advantage that proved too much for Everett to overcome, as the Hawks notched 13 power play goals (a 39.3% clip) in the six-game series.

Against the Chiefs in the regular season, the Hawks got tremendous production from the second line of Oliver Bjorkstrand, Chase De Leo and Taylor Leier. The trio combined for 16 points in an 8-3 win over Spokane in February, with Leier becoming the first Winterhawk in more than a decade to record a six-point game. If that group continues to provide a lift and the top line of Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan and Ty Rattie do their thing, it's going to be tough for the Chiefs to keep up.

Mac Carruth, a 20-year-old who's only one win away from the WHL record for playoff wins by a goaltender, had an underwhelming series against Everett, posting an .865 save percentage. He tends to struggle when he doesn't see a lot of pucks, which actually bodes well for him now that he's facing a livelier offensive bunch in the Chiefs.

How the Chiefs can win: The raw numbers don't look good, as Portland outscored the Chiefs 45-19 in nine games during the regular season. But Spokane's one regulation victory was a convincing 5-2 decision in Portland in January, one of Portland's most convincing losses of the season.

Spokane has won 14 of 17 dating to the regular season, and have a healthy Alessio Bertaggia to go with the high-scoring trio of Mike Aviani, Mitch Holmberg and Todd Fiddler. Overager Blake Gal surprised with five goals in five games against Tri-City, giving the Chiefs another offensive option to try to keep pace with the high-scoring Hawks.

Eric Williams has a tall task in net for the Chiefs, but he was outstanding in last year's second round when the Chiefs pushed similarly favored Tri City to seven games before falling just short.

The Chiefs will also need to take advantage of Portland's occasional struggles at home. The Winterhawks lost two of three to Everett in Portland, scoring just nine goals. On the flipside, Portland outscored the Tips 23-8 in three blowout victories at Everett's Comcast Arena. The Chiefs likely can't rely on home ice to keep them in the series, and it's crucial for them to steal a game in Oregon this weekend.