Winterhawks meet their match in Chiefs; on with the series
If not for a great overtime stop by Spokane goalie Bailey Brkin in Game 1, the Portland Winterhawks could be up 2-0 as their Western Hockey League playoff series shifts north.
If not for a fast start to Game 2, and timely saves from goalie Cole Kehler on both nights, the Winterhawks could be staring at an 0-2 deficit.
Such is the nature of playoff hockey — games are decided by the smallest of things.
But after two games at Memorial Coliseum, it's clear the Winterhawks and Chiefs are evenly matched — and in many ways similar.
"It's going to be a tough series. Anybody who watched these (first) two games is going to say there is not much difference between the two teams," Winterhawks coach/GM/VP Mike Johnston says. "Both can skate. Both can make plays. Both have skilled players. It's a tight series."
The series continues with games Wednesday and Thursday in Spokane before returning to Memorial Coliseum at 6 p.m. Saturday for Game 5. Game 6, if needed, would be on Monday, April 2, at Spokane, with a seventh game at Memorial Coliseum on April 3.
A long series would surprise no one. These teams are not only closely matched, they play with speed, which at times produces end-to-end hockey exciting for fans and nerve-racking for the coaches.
Both teams look for opportunities to spring a forward loose with a quick up-ice pass.
"They're similar to us and have a lot of top players," Portland forward Kieffer Bellows says. "On the rush, we can't be overly aggressive or else they'll counterattack us. We have to be really good on the back check."
Portland has done a good job against Spokane's most lethal line, which has accounted for one of the Chiefs' seven goals. That includes Ethan McIndoe's rebound goal on a power play late in the second period of Game 2, a goal that made Sunday's third period far more tense than it might have been.
But Spokane's scoring depth has been made clear. The Chiefs have goals from seven players — including the Game 1 OT winner from 16-year-old rookie Luke Toporowski. And perhaps the most impactful of the Spokane attackers has been Riley Woods, with a goal and three assists.
"Their third line has been good," Johnston says.
Portland has had six players score, with defenseman Dennis Cholowski the one Hawk with two goals. he scored twice in the second period of Game 1, both times by driving to the net — not the typical D-man's goal.
"It's mostly opportunity. When you get them, you have to be able to put them in, especially in the playoffs. I was happy to get those two," Cholowski says. "The net is where you have to be to score goals, and I was going to assert myself there."
One of the ways coaches can impact the game is by finding advantageous matchups. That's how the home-ice edge can be significant, since the home team gets to change players last during stoppages. Johnston played for line matchups more in Game 2 than he did in Game 1, and it helped get Portland's first goal. Cody Glass, Skyler McKenzie and Bellows were on the ice against Spokane's fourth line when Bellows opened the scoring.
It's more challenging for coaches to work for matchup advantages on the road, but Portland shouldn't be at a disadvantage at Spokane. The Hawks were the best road team in the WHL during the regular season (25-10-1-0).
n The shots on goal numbers reflect just how evenly played the first two games in the series were: Portland 70, Spokane 68.
Spokane has the advantage on power plays, going 2 for 5 to Portland's 1 for 7.
One big number from Game 2 was the Hawks' 33-25 advantage in faceoff wins, led by an 11-for-14 night from Jake Gricius.
n Bellows had a golden chance to end Game 1 early in overtime when the puck found him in front of Brkin, but the Chiefs goalie came up big.
"A great save," Bellows says. "I caught (the puck) on my back hand. I thought he was over-committing to my backhand so I pulled it to my forehand and took the shot. I saw a corner, but he made a fantastic save. Credit to him."
Bellows got a measure of revenge early in Game 2, taking a cross-ice pass from Glass and whipping a wrister past Brkin.
This is Bellows first taste of the WHL playoffs, but hardly his first big-game experience. Two games in, the 19-year-old compared the intensity of the WHL playoffs with that of the World Junior Championships and his United States Hockey League playoff experience.
"All those games really help me leading into this moment and dealing with the pressure," Bellows says.
n Connor Barley, a left wing who played three games for the Kootenay Ice as a 17-year-old two seasons ago, made his Winterhawks debut in Game 2 on Sunday.
A native of St. Andrews, Manitoba, Barley played most of the last three seasons with the Selkirk Steelers in the Junior A-level Manitoba Junior Hockey League. Added to the Winterhawks' 50-player list in December, Barley had 67 points in 58 games this season for Selkirk. When the Steelers were eliminated from their playoffs, Barley reported to Portland to provide needed depth.
"We need depth in the playoffs. If we're going to go very far we've got to have a couple of extra (defensemen) and a couple of extra forwards," Johnston says.
In his 19-year-old season (he turned 20 last month), Barley has decent size (6-0, 190) and the maturity not to be intimidated.
"We only have one extra (healthy) forward," Johnston says. "I thought I would try him in a game and see what he can do. He's got some skill, he can skate."
On Sunday, he skated with Gricius and Lane Gilliss on the third line.
Johnston says the Winterhawks will bring in several more listed players as their junior teams are eliminated from playoffs.