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WINTERHAWKS NOTES: Ponich returns to skating, feels good; Hawks face tough Kelowna series

Defenseman Brett Ponich, out of action since late January after knee surgery, returned to skating last week. And, he reports to feeling good, with his intentions to still return, should the Portland Winterhawks advance to the Western Hockey League finals.

The finals, in mid-May, would be the earliest he would return. The Memorial Cup, should the Winterhawks make the tournament May 20-29 in Mississauga, Ontario, would be the more definite return time.

"It feels great, better than walking actually," said Ponich, upon exiting the ice after a skating session Monday. "The (left) leg is weaker from not using it. This is a good way to get it back."

Ponich would have to be cleared by Winterhawk doctors to play. He returned to the ice eight weeks after surgery.

"I'm pushing as hard as I can to get back as fast as I can," he said. "If I can get back in the WHL playoffs, that'd be great."

Ponich has been going through rehabilitation to strengthen his left leg, riding the stationary bike and lifting weights. He's also adjusting to using the leg again, as he's been favoring it.

"When I walk, it's fine," he said. "The swelling has gone down a ton; there's still a little fluid in there."

Ponich expects to be full strength by June and July in time for St. Louis training camps. He's signed with the Blues. The big thing is he misses playing with his Hawk teammates.

"Unfortunately, I couldn't finish the regular season," he said. "It's definitely been tough. I've been here for four years, and the whole year I was waiting for the playoffs. It's just good to be here with the guys."

Ponich has played in 249 games in his career, including 45 this season.

• The Hawks open second-round WHL playoff action Thursday night against Kelowna. Portland won the season series 3-1, winning 5-1, 4-2 and 6-1 in October. But the Rockets won the final regular-season meeting 5-3 in January.

Shane McColgan led the Rockets in scoring with 21 goals, 45 assists for 66 points, and with three goals and seven assists for 10 points in the team's first-round sweep of Prince George.

Other top players for Kelowna are Geordie Wudrick (43-16-59), Mitchell Callahan (23-31-52) and defenseman Tyson Barrie (11-47-58).

The Rockets (43-28-0-1) caught Vancouver and won the British Columbia Division and had 87 points, 16 fewer than the Hawks. Kelowna is a balanced, defensively structured, hard-working team with a good goaltender in Adam Brown, who had a 36-22-0-1 record, 2.59 goals-against average and .916 save percentage.

The Rockets have played in the Memorial Cup four times in the past seven years, winning it in 2004 and last competing in 2009. Some current players were on the 2009 team, and General Manager Bruce Hamilton and coach Ryan Huska are among the best in the league.

"Playing against organizations like that, they always seem to come up big in playoff time," Portland GM/coach Mike Johnston says.

"We'll have to match their work ethic," Ryan Johansen says. "As long as we're outworking them, or working as hard, we should have the upper hand with our skill level and depth."

Adds Nino Niederreiter: "We know we'll have a tough battle against them."

A key, again, will be Portland goalie Mac Carruth, who played well as the Hawks swept Everett by a combined score of 22-8.

"I was happy with the way he settled into the series," Johnston says.

The coach liked the way the Hawks, particularly the young players, handled the Everett series.

"Every series you gain more experience," he says. "Several guys in our lineup had their first playoff experience. We handled situations well.

"Playoff hockey is all about ups and downs and momentum. We had games where Everett scored first. We battled hard and made adjustments in our game."

• The Kelowna series schedule: at Rose Garden, 7 p.m. Thursday; at Rose Garden, 5 p.m. Sunday; at Kelowna, 7 p.m. Tuesday; at Kelowna, 7 p.m. Wednesday; at Rose Garden, 7 p.m. Friday, April 15 (if necessary); at Kelowna, 5 p.m. Sunday, April 17 (if necessary); at Rose Garden, 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 19 (if necessary).