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Goaltending, special teams key for Portland against Spokane

by: JAIME VALDEZ Riley Boychuk of the Portland Winterhawks celebrates a goal against Spokane in their regular-season finale. The teams will meet for the Western Hockey League Western Conference championship, opening a best-of-seven series with games at the Rose Garden at 7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Sunday.

It's Spokane versus Portland for supremacy in the Western Hockey League's Western Conference, with goaltending and special teams the likely keys to the series.

The best-of-seven finals series gets underway with games at 7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Sunday, both in the Rose Garden. The Winterhawks earned home-ice advantage by finishing with one more point (103 to 102) than Spokane and claiming the U.S. Division championship.

"The last two years, it's been very close in all the games we've played," says Portland coach Mike Johnston, whose team beat the Chiefs in last year's playoffs. "It's going to be a close series. The schedule is tough: four games in five nights to finish the series (if it goes the distance).

"The longer the series the tougher it's going to be."

The Chiefs won five games to Portland's four in the season series and outscored the Hawks 39-34.

But the Hawks went 3-2 on Spokane's ice, including winning 10-5 on Feb. 9 (against Spokane's backup goalie).

In their most recent meeting, rendered meaningless because the Hawks had clinched the division, each team rested players and Spokane won 6-3 at the Rose Garden on March 20.

Each team is primed for the series, as each was challenged in the second round.

Portland dispatched of Kelowna, and Spokane bested Tri-City, each in six games.

"We're playing confident right now," Hawk forward Brendan Leipsic says. "We had that overtime heartbreaker (2-1 loss, Game 5 vs. Kelowna), but we got past it." The Hawks won at Kelowna in Game 6 to close out the series to move to 5-0 in playoff road games.

"We have a lot of confidence on the road right now," Leipsic adds.

A concern for Portland will be to contain Tyler Johnson, who had 53 goals and 62 assists for 115 points during the regular season, as well as linemate Levko Koper. Although Johnson is suspended for the first game.

"Johnson and Koper are skilled guys with tons of speed," Portland forward Riley Boychuk says. "We'll try to contain them down low. They're not big guys. If we can get the puck in deep and put wear and tear on their defensemen, keep the puck in their end, we're doing our job."

But, "Spokane's a hard-working team, with big D-men," led by Jared Cowen, Boychuk adds.

Says Johnston: "They play a hard game, where they play with speed, a direct game, physical. It's probably going to be a lot like Kelowna, but (the Chiefs) have some top-end players with Johnson and Cowen. ... But we have good players, too.

"We have slightly different styles. They're a high volume shot team as well."

Koper had 32 goals and 50 assists for 82 points during the regular season. Also for Spokane, Brenden Kichton finished at 23-58-81, Dominik Uher 21-39-60 and Steven Kuhn 20-30-50. Against Portland, Johnson led the way with five goals and six assists for 11 points, followed by Kichton (5-4-9), Blake Gal (4-4-8), Uher (1-7-8), Cowen (2-5-7), Kuhn (3-3-6) and Tyler Vanscourt (1-5-6). Koper had four goals and one assist in nine games.

Hawk forward Ryan Johansen had 6-7-13 against Spokane, followed by Sven Bartschi (7-4-11), Brad Ross (4-5-9), Boychuk (4-4-8), Ty Rattie (1-7-8) and Nine Niederreiter (3-4-7). In five games against Spokane after his trade to Portland, Craig Cunningham had two goals and three assists.

The starting goalies have had differing levels of success. Spokane's James Reid went 5-1 against the Winterhawks with a 2.95 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. Portland's Mac Carruth had numbers of 3-3, 4.29 and .903.

Spokane led the WHL in both power play (26.7 percent) and penalty kill (87.3 percent). "But we're close, right there with them," Johnston says, of his special teams.

"The key is setting the tone early," Leipsic says. "We've outplayed our opponent in the first 10 minutes (lately), and that's key."

Portland's third line of Taylor Peters, Boychuk and Tayler Jordan (or now with Leipsic) was assigned to Johnson's line early in the season, but the defensive assignments have switched in recent games.

"We have so much depth up front, we can rely on anybody to play in any situation," Jordan says. "We'd rather have teams adjust to us. We feel like we have much more depth."

The two teams met last season in the first round of the playoffs and the Winterhawks won in seven games, with Ty Rattie scoring the Game 7 overtime winner.

It will mark the ninth playoff series all-time between the teams, with Portland having won five of the eight series, including the 1998 and 2001 Western Conference finals, the only other times the teams have met for the conference title. Portland edged Spokane in Game 7 on home ice in 1998 and went on to sweep Brandon in the WHL finals and then win the Memorial Cup.

"They're really excited about advancing to this round, and now being in the final four," Johnston says, of his players. "We're focused on what we have to do."

Medicine Hat and Kootenay play in the WHL Eastern Conference finals. Kootenay swept the WHL's best regular-season team, Saskatoon, in the previous series.

"It doesn't surprise me," Johnston says, of Kootenay. "They have a good team until Christmas, then didn't play well after Christmas. They have a veteran team, and then traded five players to Swift Current for (center) Cody Eakin."