Winterhawks move on to main event -- West finals vs. Kelowna
The undercards are over. Now it's on to the main event.
I understand that when the Winterhawks visit Kelowna, British Columbia, for next Friday's opener of their Western Hockey League playoff series, it will be billed as the Western Conference finals.
Even so, hockey folks from Vancouver to Regina will be paying attention to what happens when the league's two powerhouses square off in a super series.
"It's going to be a great series," Portland coach Mike Johnston said Thursday night after the Hawks disposed of Victoria 5-1 to wrap up their West semifinal series. "If the fans thought this one was good, they'll be highly entertained."
The teams posted by far the WHL's best regular-season records, Kelowna at 57-11-0-4, Portland five points behind at 54-13-2-3.
"Kelowna is much deeper in skill (than Victoria), more of a transition team like ours," Johnston said. "We're two teams that have built in similar fashion. (The Rockets) are deep in talent. Four quality lines, and their defense can score. They skate, they can jump into the rush like our team can."
Kelowna was missing 20-year-old right wing Myles Bell as it swept Seattle in four games in their West semifinal series. The 6-1, 215-pound Bell, the Rockets' leading regular-season scorer (42 goals, 35 assists and nine-game winning goals), has a "lower-body" injury.
Whether Bell will be recovered by next Friday is anybody's guess, but the Rockets still have plenty of firepower without him, a very solid defense and a goaltender (Jordon Cooke) with the WHL's second-best goals-against average in the regular season.
The way Kelowna dominated Portland in the regular season, it wouldn't seem to be much of a contest. The Rockets beat the Hawks 6-2 and 6-3 in Kelowna on Oct. 4 and 5, then crushed them 9-3 and 7-2 in Portland on Dec. 31 and Jan. 2.
The Hawks, though, didn't have a full complement of players in any of those four games.
"We've never had our full team," Johnston said. "It's a factor, but I'm not saying it's why (Portland lost). They have a good team."
It has been 3 1/2 months since the teams have met, though, and the Hawks are a much different team now. Veteran defenseman Matt Dumba, acquired from Red Deer, has anchored the back end.
This is a team with plenty of playoff experience. Portland has been to the WHL Finals the past three years, to the Memorial Cup a year ago. There will be no shortage of confidence on either side when the teams meet up in Kelowna.
"We had trouble with them in the regular season, but the playoffs are a different ballgame," left wing Brendan Leipsic said. "It'll be a good challenge for our group, going in there and trying to get game 1. If we get that first one, it change the tide of the series big-time."
Leipsic admits it was hard not to look past playoff opponents Vancouver and Victoria in the first two playoff series, with a potential showdown with Kelowna on the horizon.
"You're always thinking about what could happen in the future, but we're a pretty mature team," he said. "We really do take it one game at a time."
There will still be another series to play for the survivor, but the Western Conference finals will seem like a WHL finals.
"Every series is like a WHL finals," Leipsic offered. "It's live or die, game by game. But we're excited to get it going. (The Rockets) had a great season. They're going to be ready to go, with us the defending champs. It's going to be ours to lose, I think."
Not sure about that, especially with the potential loss of center Nicolas Petan, the victim of a cheap-shot cross-check from behind by Victoria's Brandon Magee against the boards in the third period of Portland's 5-1 win Thursday night.
The 5-9, 175-pound Petan jumped up and grabbed Victoria's Ryan Gagnon, a 6-1, 190-pound defenseman, who pummeled him pretty good before linesmen were able to break it up. Petan had to be helped off the ice, the victim of what appeared to be a knee injury.
Leipsic broke speed records racing in to confront Magee, and the second line brawl in two periods ensued.
"It's just emotion, right?" Victoria coach Dave Lowry said afterward. "Mags is a pretty honest player. Frustration boils sometimes, and sometimes it gets the best of you. We're disappointed with the events, but that's emotion, that's playoffs."
Did Petan do something to precipitate Magee's actions?
"It's a long playoff series," Lowry said with a shrug. "Those are events that transpire."
Leipsic didn't see it quite the same way.
Magee "cross-checked (Petan) in the head," Leipsic said. "You just don't do that when you're (down) 4-1 in a game, and you're going to be going out (of the series). That's why we're moving on, I guess."
The Hawks are moving on because they're a superior team to the Royals, who are a very good team in their own right.
"We knew how tough Victoria is," Johnston said. "I thought it was going to be a hard-fought, slug-it-out, seven-game series. It was going to be our speed against their physical contact and grinding game. I told the guys, 'I'm glad we don't have to step on that bus tonight' (for game 6 at Victoria). Holy mackerel."
The Hawks can take heart in the solid performance of 18-year-old goaltender Brendan Burke, who rose to the challenge Thursday night, repelling several great scoring chances by the Royals when the outcome was still in doubt.
"Burke was outstanding," Johnston said. "Every puck that hit him, he was big, he was strong, he was square to the puck. I felt really comfortable with him.
"He has played nine playoff games (this season). Now he has enough experience we go into a championship series. That's good for him."
Asked to compare Portland and Kelowna, Lowry begged off with, "I'm not really interested in talking about Portland."
Nothing left to discuss regarding Lowry's Royals, who are done for the season.
For the Hawks, it's on to the main event now.