Thunderbirds throw a scare into Hawks during WHL playoffs

SEATTLE Ñ The Portland-Seattle hockey rivalry, decades old and a part of the Western Hockey League for 25 seasons, is as heated as ever.

The Winter Hawks won the regular-season series 9-2-1. But the rivalry between the two franchises has certainly rekindled in the playoffs, with the Thunderbirds winning two of the first three games.

'They've proved to be a hard team to beat,' Portland center Paul Gaustad says.

Game 5 in the best-of-seven series is at 7 tonight at the Rose Garden. Portland will see the return of defenseman Joey Hope, who was suspended for three games after delivering a season-ending hit to Matthew Spiller in Game 1.

The two franchises are just a three-hour drive apart Ñ essentially next-door neighbors on the Grand Tour of the WHL Ñ and just one year apart in WHL age (Portland is 26, Seattle is celebrating its 25th anniversary).

But their histories couldn't be less similar.

Portland has won 10 division titles and two Memorial Cups, one during a year in which it was host for the event. Portland has played in the WHL Final eight times and holds the league record for season attendance.

Seattle has never won a division title and has reached the WHL Final just once Ð in 1997.

The Winter Hawks have only one major-league team (the Trail Blazers) to compete with for fans and media attention. Seattle has three (the SuperSonics, Seahawks and Mariners), plus the University of Washington.

The Hawks have never lost a playoff series to Seattle, which played as the Breakers from 1977-85. Portland owned a 20-6 record in the playoff rivalry entering this year.

Seattle, though, has been treating the Hawks of late the way a college student with three jobs treats a fraternity member on scholarship Ñ with disdain. The Thunderbirds have played strong defense despite losing their top defender, Spiller, for the season in the opening game. Seattle has enjoyed some spectacular goaltending from Nick Pannoni. The offense has made the most of its chances, as well.

Seattle did as much in the first round last year. After finishing sixth in the seven-team Western Conference, the T-Birds beat regular-season champion Kelowna, four games to two.

'When you get to the playoffs, you don't have a problem getting up for games,' Pannoni says. 'But because we're playing Portland, and they're our rival, we really don't have a problem getting up for games.'

Pannoni has been doing such a good job against the Winter Hawks that when Gaustad scored to tie Tuesday's game 2-2, he looked skyward as if to give thanks for the goal.

'I just felt so É relieved that I got that goal,' Gaustad said after the Hawks' 3-2 defeat. 'We're just going to have to keep putting pressure on, and we'll get to him.'

Portland defender Richie Regehr, who played with Kelowna last year, says the Seattle-Portland rivalry is every bit as intense as that of Kelowna and Kamloops.

'Kelowna-Kamloops is supposed to be the fiercest rivalry in the league,' he says. 'But Seattle-Portland is just as intense. You feel it for games.'

Although Seattle will get a closer rival when Everett, Wash., joins the WHL in two years, Portland probably will remain its top rival because of the history between the two cities.

'The league loves building these rivalries,' Portland coach Mike Williamson says. 'It helps the game.'

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