Farewell to one very good WHL team
It was no secret this season that at least one very good hockey team in the Pacific Northwest would not survive the first Western Hockey League playoff round.
Thanks to a Kieffer Bellows blast, that team turned out to be the Spokane Chiefs.
Mike Johnston, Winterhawks coach/GM/VP, praised the Chiefs after Portland survived to win Game 7 on Tuesday, posting a 3-1 victory that moved the Hawks into a second-round showdown with Everett.
"That Spokane team, they're a great hockey team," Johnston said. "You knew as the series went along that a very good hockey team was going to get beat out here.
"They're going to be good next year. They've built a real good strong foundation there in Spokane. It's going to be a nice rivalry."
The divisional format of the WHL playoffs means sometimes teams that finished with more regular-season points will be matched up sooner than they would if the bracket was seeded first through eighth.
Thus, we get Portland-Everett in Round 2 instead of potentially in the conference finals. Everett and Portland, in that order, were the top two teams in the Western Conference during the regular season.
The advantages of this divisional format make sense for a league like the WHL, since first-round rivalries can drum up interest while keeping travel reasonable in most matchups.
The format also, in theory, rewards the division winners, who get to face wild-card teams in the first round.
That theory didn't help the B.C. Division champion Kelowna Rockets, who were swept out of the playoffs by the Tri-City Americans. Tri-City, which finished fourth in the U.S. Division, will face Victoria in the other conference semifinals after the Royals won the final two games against rival Vancouver to take that series in seven games.
There also were two seven-game series in the Eastern Conference — as the two teams with the most points in the WHL during the regular season had to survive a seventh game to advance. Now Moose Jaw and Swift Current, the top two teams in the East Division and the Eastern Conference, meet in the conference semifinals, just as Everett and Portland do in the West.
One other note about this playoff format: It mirrors the format for the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs. Doesn't mean it's the most equitable system — it isn't. But don't blame the WHL for following the NHL format, especially given the travel challenges that arise in the WHL.
Power play comes up big
After converting on only 2 of 18 power plays through the first five games of the Spokane series, the Winterhawks scored three times on six power plays over the last two games, including two of three in Game 7.
Johnston made a switch in Game 6, returning forward Joachim Blichfeld to the top power play and dropping defenseman Dennis Cholowski to the second unit.
The move was not about chemistry or getting an additional forward onto the top unit. It was about replacing a left-handed shooter (Cholowski) with a right-handed shooter (Blichfeld). It gave Portland three right-handed shots (Cody Glass, Blichfeld and Henri Jokiharju) and two left-handed shots (Bellows and Skyler McKenzie) on the top unit.
"It just gives us more versatility," Johnston said. "Sometimes you're looking for players to put on the power play, and other times you're looking for the right shots. I just liked the combination of the shots we had the last two nights. We had a lot of poise, a lot of confidence. We had a lot more options."
Portland finished the series 5 for 24 on the power play. Spokane was 6 for 26.
Power-play chances helped the Chiefs rally from a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7. Spokane had a combined 11 power plays in Gams 5 and 6, and while it only scored on two of those, it meant less ice time together for Portland's top line and also contributed to the momentum of each game.
In Game 7, Spokane had only two power plays and didn't score on either. The second of those came with Portland protecting a 3-1 lead in the closing minutes and after goalie Cole Kehler was penalized for tripping.
With their goalie pulled, the Chiefs' had a six-on-four skater advantage for the later part of that power play, but could not squeeze in a second goal to up the pressure in the final minute.
The big chill
Fans might have noticed the chill in Memorial Coliseum when they entered for Tuesday's Game 7.
The temperature on the ice and in the old building was lower than usual as part of an effort to produce a good, hard, playing surface. Winterhawks staff, including President Doug Piper, expressed appreciation for the effort made by coliseum staff to make the surface was as good as possible for the decisive game.
Ice conditions at the coliseum can be a challenge because the building doesn't have the humidity and temperature controls available at Moda Center. Plus, it is a much older building, and a glass structure at that.
"Today was really good. They did a good job of working on it," Bellows said after playing Game 7 hero.
• Here is my all-series team from Portland vs. Spokane:
Cole Kehler, Portland
The 20-year-old lost only once in regulation and finished with a .907 save percentage. Take away Game 6, when Spokane scored five times on 27 shots, and his save percentage jumps to .919. And Kehler was big in Game 7, with reaction stops against Kailer Yamamoto in the second period and Ty Smith on a perfect back-door feed in the third standing out.
Ty Smith, Spokane
The rookie in his 17-year-old season showed why he is expected to be a first-round pick in this year's NHL draft. He logged big minutes against Portland's top line, finished the series at a plus-5, and was a key offensive threat with two goals and five assists.
Keoni Texeira, Portland
The 20-year-old team captain was a steady force for the Hawks and seemed to get stronger as the series progressed. His numbers (three assists, plus-2) don't reflect the impact he had.
(A ton of talent to choose from. These three made the most consistent impact for their team)
Cody Glass, Portland
The 18-year-old Vegas Golden Knights prospect led all scorers in the series with 11 points (three goals, eight assists). He was a leader on and off the ice and in Game 7 scored a "dirty goal" by getting to the front of the net to put Portland ahead 1-0. He also made the perfect pass for Bellows to blast home the go-ahead goal.
Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Spokane
The 18-year-old Los Angeles Kings prospect was a constant threat centering Spokane's top line and finished with nine points (two goals, seven assists) and a plus-5 rating.
Jake McGrew, Spokane
While Portland contained star Yamamoto (one goal, three assists, minus-3 rating), the 18-year-old San Jose Sharks prospect in his first WHL season provided scoring depth for the Chiefs (two goals, four assists) and had a team-best plus-6 rating.
WHL Western Conference semifinals
Game 1 — Portland at Everett, 7:30 p.m. Friday
Game 2 — Portland at Everett, 7 p.m. Saturday
Game 3 — Everett at Portland, 7 p.m. April 10 (Memorial Coliseum)
Game 4 — Everett at Portland, 7 p.m. April 12 (Moda Center)
Game 5 — Portland at Everett, 7:30 p.m. April 13, if necessary
Game 6 — Everett at Portland, 5 p.m., April 15 (Memorial Coliseum), if necessary
Game 7 — Portland at Everett, 7 p.m. April 17, if necessary
Winner advances to the Western Conference finals against the winner of series between Victoria and Tri-City.