Portland will be host for first two games
For Craig Valette, the plan against Spokane will be simple.
'Outwork them, you can beat them,' the veteran Portland Winter Hawk forward says. 'They're not overly big, they don't hit harder. They're a hardworking team.'
And Chiefs goalie Barry Brust, who has a 6-2-1 record and 2.55 goals-against average against Portland? 'He's played well, but he's hot and cold,' Valette says. 'We've got to catch him sleeping. Our goaltenders are hot right now, too.'
It could be a duel of goaltenders and tight-checking defenses as the Winter Hawks and Chiefs embark on their first-round, best-of-seven Western Hockey League playoff series at 7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Sunday at the Rose Garden.
The series shifts to Spokane for games March 26 and 28 and, if necessary, March 29.
Neither team scores a lot, each ranking in the bottom quarter of the 19-team league. Both have decent defenses Ñ if healthy. Mix in some hot goalies, and you probably will see some 2-1 and 3-2 games.
It's a new season for Portland, which has gone just 5-21-4-3 in the last 33 games and placed third in the WHL U.S. Division, 11 points behind the Chiefs. Six injuries have slowed Portland down the stretch, but only one player (Brian Woolger) will definitely be out for the series. Spokane probably will be without only defenseman Doug Lynch.
Between the pipes
Portland coach Mike Williamson is likely to go with 19-year-old Krister Toews in the Spokane series. Toews has stopped 173 of 185 shots in the last six games (a terrific .935 save percentage), had two wins and one tie in four starts against Spokane, and better goals-against (2.94) and save percentage (.894) against the Chiefs than teammate Lanny Ramage.
The Winter Hawks have developed healthy confidence with the 6-2 Toews backing them up. He doesn't flop as much as the 5-10 Ramage, and poses a bigger obstacle in net. Not to say that Williamson wouldn't hesitate to insert Ramage, a 2001 playoff hero. Playing Toews also would give him playoff experience for next year.
Brust has played in nine of 10 Portland-Spokane games, giving way to Jim Watt once, a 5-4 overtime win for the Winter Hawks. He's much bigger and broader than the Winter Hawks goalies Ñ 6-2, 220 Ñ and much more heralded, drafted by Minnesota last summer.
On the blue line
The Winter Hawks desperately need Braydon Coburn, who missed 16 games (ankle), and Joey Hope, who missed 10 games (shoulder), to help the team's anemic offense. Portland has been badly outshot lately, with Richie Regehr the only offensive defenseman.
With low scores, the Winter Hawks cannot make mistakes and must be tight in front of Toews or Ramage, 'so we don't need the heroics,' Williamson says.
With Lynch out (broken leg), the only defenseman that really scares Portland is 19-year-old Chris Heid, a point man on the power play.
In the crease
Chad Wolkowski, a pillar in front of the net, missed games lately because of illness not related to his concussion problems, he says. He had seven goals and six assists in eight games against Spokane.
'When he's at the top of his game, he's our No. 1 guy,' Williamson says.
Valette has been held pointless in the past nine games. Williamson says Valette and Brad Priestlay, who led Portland with 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) against Spokane are tired after the regular season.
Spokane should have center Jeff Lucky and goal scorer Tim Krymusa back and maybe Brad Schell. The triggerman has been speedy center Mason Wallin, with grinder and finisher Joff Kehler on his wing Ñ they've combined for 26 points against Portland. 'We've got to be careful with Wallin,' Valette says.
Notes: Both power plays were pretty productive against the other team Ñ Portland 22.7 percent, Spokane 23.5 percent. É Spokane has outshot the Winter Hawks in six of 10 games, although the Chiefs' 41-11 advantage Feb. 23 really sticks out. É The Winter Hawks have to be better in the third period,; they've been outscored 15-8 in the final stanza in the series, despite being fairly even on shots. É The Winter Hawks had the third-fewest goals (192) in the league and scored just once in three games last weekend. É 'We're not getting the wins,' Valette says, 'but guys know how to jack it up for the playoffs.' É Portland holds a 4-2 advantage in playoff series versus Spokane.