Thursday, April 18, 2013
By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks are about to meet in a WHL playoff series for the second straight spring.
While these organizations have met in 11 previous series, they haven’t done it in consecutive seasons since 1993-95.
Throw out the one time they met in one of those round-robin affairs, and each side has won five series, going back to 1981-82.
On Friday night in Portland, then, they will begin a best-of-seven series that carries with it some long-term bragging rights.
There isn’t much doubt that the Blazers go into the Western Conference final as the underdog.
After all, the Winterhawks finished atop the WHL’s overall standings. They led the league in offence and were second on defence. Their top line — Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan and Ty Rattie — finished 1-2-3 in the scoring race. Defenceman Seth Jones, a freshman from Plano, Texas, is likely to be the first pick in the NHL’s 2012 draft.
We could go on and on, but by now you get the idea that this is a pretty good team.
On top of all that, the Winterhawks are of the opinion that the world is against them. Their general manager and head coach, Mike Johnston, has been suspended since late November and won’t be back this season. The franchise has been fined $200,000 and has forfeited a number of draft picks.
And, yes, the Portland players are buying into this adversity stuff.
“Absolutely,” veteran forward Taylor Peters told Paul Buker of The Oregonian. “When we had those sanctions back in November we kind of took it as a chip on our shoulder. It was ‘it’s us, we’re going to do this for Mike and we’re going to do this despite all the setbacks we’ve had.’
“We’re definitely building off that adversity. We have ‘adversity’ written on our playoff shirts, just to remind us that we’ve battled through this so far, we’re not going to come this far and give up now.”
But the Blazers haven’t come this far just to roll over, either. This also is a good team, one that finished second in the B.C. Division with the WHL’s fourth-best record.
The Kamloops line that had Colin Smith between Tim Bozon and JC Lipon was dominant until Lipon left to play for Canada at the World Junior Championship.
In the second half of the season, the Blazers have focused on their defensive play, and, with the acquisition of Joel Edmundson from the Moose Jaw Warriors, have gotten progressively better.
So . . . this shapes up as a series that should provide some terrific entertainment. Here’s a look at how one observer sees things as it begins:
Cole Cheveldave of the Blazers has gotten better as the playoffs have worn on. He was solid in a six-game victory over the Victoria Royals, who may have lost that series in the third period of Game 1 when they blitzed the Blazers’ net but weren’t able to beat the goaltender.
Portland’s Mac Carruth is the winningest goaltender in WHL history and is at the top of his game right now. Carruth, a 20-year-old from Shorewood, Minn., has signed with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. He will appear in his 65th WHL playoff game on Friday.
The Winterhawks big four — Jones, Derrick Pouliot, Troy Rutkowski and Tyler Wotherspoon — is the best in the WHL. Jones is a stud. Period. He almost surely will be the No. 1 pick in the NHL’s June draft. Pouliot was taken eighth overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2012 draft. Rutkowski (Ottawa Senators) and Wotherspoon (Calgary Flames) have signed NHL deals. They have 37 points in 10 playoff games this spring. They also have played in 183 playoff games.
The Blazers’ top four doesn’t carry that kind of pedigree, but has been in 114 postseason games and is a solid group that plays well together. Edmundson, who has signed with the St. Louis Blues, has gotten better and better over the last two months. He is a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder who can dominate. Tyler Hansen may be the most under-rated player in all of the WHL; he and partner Sam Grist punish people in their zone. Marek Hrbas has been consistent and will surprise you with some of his jaunts into the offensive zone. Those four have 16 points in 10 games. Their job, however, is to defend and they do that very well.
EDGE: Portland, but not by as much as you might think.
Portland has the WHL’s top forward line — Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan and Ty Rattie finished 1-2-3 in the scoring race and have put up 49 points in 10 playoff games. . . . Rattie has 41 career playoff goals, 11 of them this spring. . . . Portland has been getting good secondary scoring from a line that features Oliver Bjorkstrand, a freshman from Denmark, Chase De Leo and Taylor Leier. They have a combined 35 points. . . . Taylor Peters, 20, is one of the WHL’s top defensive forwards and a great penalty killer.
Brendan Ranford of the Blazers has never played better. He had nine points in the four-game sweep of Kelowna. . . . Ranford, Cole Ully and Lipon have proved a formidable threesome. . . . The Blazers will welcome back Colin Smith on Friday. He missed the last three games after suffering a suspected concussion in Game 1 of the last round. Smith had 106 points in the regular season, tops on the Blazers. . . . Portland will have to try and keep Kale Kessy from taking up residence in front of Carruth. Kessy, a big body with good hands, has 11 goals and that ties him with Rattie for the league lead. . . . There is speculation that Bozon, who has missed seven games since suffering a fracture in his right hand on March 26, may be ready for Game 1. . . . Smith and Kessy will be reunited Friday, perhaps with Chase Souto on the left side.
EDGE: Portland. The pendulum could shift if Bozon returns.
Portland has the best PP in the playoffs, at 30.8 per cent, and has scored the most PP goals (16). . . . The Blazers are fourth, at 26.3 per cent, and have scored 15 goals. . . . Kamloops has received 57 opportunities in 10 games, to Portland’s 52. . . . You may recall that the Blazers had 11 PP opportunities to Kelowna’s one in Game 4 of that series.
Portland’s penalty-killers have surrendered only three PP goals in 28 opportunities (89.3 per cent), and that’s No. 2 in the WHL. . . . The Blazers are 13th, having been beaten eight times on 35 chances (77.1). That has to get better if Kamloops is to win.
The Winterhawks went 37-12-3 after Travis Green, the assistant GM/assistant coach, took over for the suspended Johnston. Green’s right-hand man is Kyle Gustafson, who has been with the Winterhawks since before the 2008 ownership change.
The Blazers have put together back-to-back 47-20-5 seasons under head coach Guy Charron and associate coach Dave Hunchak. The latter has done a terrific job with the Blazers’ back end.
Every Kamloops player who took part in the seven-game thriller with Portland last spring will tell you the team learned never to quit while playing in those games. . . . At one time or another, every coach plays the ‘us against the world’ card. Never has it had more meaning than in the Portland dressing room this season. . . . Portland has seven players on its roster who have played in, and lost, each of the last two WHL championships series.
It’s Portland, in six games.
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