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Two top teams, and questions

Kelowna owned Portland during WHL regular season


A lot of unknowns are prevalent as the Portland Winterhawks prepare to play the Kelowna Rockets in a highly anticipated Western Hockey League Western Conference finals.

• Does Kelowna’s 4-0 regular-season advantage against the Winterhawks mean anything? The Hawks had players missing from their lineup in all four games.

• Will Portland goalie Brendan Burke continue his strong play?

• Who will have the better power play? Portland led the WHL in regular season, but Kelowna has been dominant on special teams in the playoffs.

• Kelowna owns home-ice advantage — will that be a big deal?

• And, maybe the biggest question, will Portland’s Nic Petan and/or Kelowna’s Myles Bell play in the series? When and how much? Bell missed the Rockets’ previous series against Seattle with a lower-body injury, and Petan has been undergoing examination for a possible head or neck injury, after a skirmish with a Victoria player went all wrong last week.

Just think: The two Western Conference powerhouses could meet without their leading scorers. The schedule has Game 1 on Friday and Game 2 on Saturday in Kelowna, with the third and fourth games Tuesday and Wednesday, April 22 and 23 in Portland.

Still, both teams have great depth on offense and defense, and it’ll be a closely watched series all across the Canadian Hockey League. The Rockets ranked first in the CHL for much of the season, with Portland in the top five.

“I”m excited for the series,” Hawks captain Taylor Leier says. “People are looking forward to it. We’re looking to get some redemption, going 0-4 against them in the regular season, to prove to people ... they’ve been No. 1 in the CHL all year, and we’re looking to show them why we should be No. 1.”

Adds fellow Hawks forward Chase De Leo: “Everyone’s been preparing for this, looking forward to this.”

Mike Johnston, Portland general manager and coach, said the tough U.S. Division would help prepare the Hawks (54-13-2-3, 113 points) for the playoffs, while Kelowna (57-11-0-4, 118 points) easily won the more mediocre B.C. Division.

But Johnston said that the Hawks being without their full complement of players shouldn’t diminish Kelowna’s four head-to-head wins.

“They have a good team — that’s why they beat us in those games,” Johnston says.

The Rockets beat the Hawks a combined score of 12-5 in two early-season games at Kelowna. Star Portland defensemen Derrick Pouliot and Mathew Dumba were not with the Hawks; Pouliot was still attending Pittsburgh’s NHL camp, and Dumba was with the NHL Minnesota Wild and not yet traded to Portland, anyway.

Kelowna won two games in Portland by a combined score of 16-5 (Dec. 31, Jan. 1), when Portland forward Brendan Leipsic was serving a suspension and Dumba hadn’t been acquired and was playing in the World Junior Championships, anyway, along with Pouliot, Petan and Leier.

Since squaring away their roster, the Hawks have gone 36-2, with a regular-season loss at Seattle after 21 consecutive wins and a playoff loss last week at Victoria.

But Portland won 28 of 29 to end the regular season and still couldn’t catch the Rockets for the best record in the West.

“They had a really good year,” Burke says. “If you look at our record, it speaks for itself. The second half of the year, we’re not the same team. We’re really playing well. We’re not thinking about the (previous Kelowna) games.”

Kelowna scored 310 goals and allowed 182 in the regular season; Portland scored 338 and gave up 207. Portland led the WHL in power-play goals (27.5 percent). Kelowna led in penalty kills (86.2 percent). The Rockets, in dispatching playoff foes Tri-City and Seattle, lead the league in power play (35 percent) and penalty kill (90.2). The Hawks have a 24.6-percent power play and a 80-percent penalty kill in the postseason.

The Rockets may have produced unprecedented scoring balance during the regular season. Portland had six players with 70 points or more, with both Petan and 50-goal scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand topping 100 points. Kelowna had one player with 70 or more points, Bell (42-35-77), and an astonishing 18 players with 20 or more points — from Bell and Ryan Olsen (30-34-64) down to plus-61 defenseman Colten Martin (0-21-21).

“They’re a great defensive team, and they score by committee,” Leipsic says. “It should be a great challenge.”

Indeed, the Rockets can clamp down on defense, backed by goalie Jordan Cooke, but also score with talent.

“They’re more of a transition team like ours,” Johnston says. “Kelowna and ourselves are built in very similar fashion. ... They’re four lines deep in talent, and their defensemen can score and skate and jump into the rush like our guys can.”