Winterhawks head to nail-biting playoffs
The Portland Winterhawks played a lot of very good hockey on their way to 44 regular-season wins and the second-best mark in the Western Hockey League Western Conference.
Their reward? A first-round playoff matchup with a Spokane Chiefs team that played a lot of good hockey on its way to the fourth-best record in the conference.
They knew it would be this way.
The U.S. Division featured five good teams, most in go-for-it-now mode. The WHL playoff format has teams playing within their division for the first two rounds, which means two quality teams will be eliminated early.
The best-of-seven Portland-Spokane series starts with games at Memorial Coliseum at 6 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday.
"It's a very close matchup," Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston says. "Our styles of play are quite similar. Both us and Spokane are quick, puck-moving teams" that emphasize skill.
Spokane finished with the sixth-best record in the 22-team WHL. The Hawks (44-22-1-5) were fourth.
The Chiefs scored the fourth-most goals (282) and allowed the seventh fewest (240). The Winterhawks were sixth in goals (274) and allowed the third-fewest (214, one more than Swift Current after allowing nine total in losses to Seattle and Spokane to close the regular season).
Portland was 5-2-0-1 against Spokane in the regular season, but those numbers are meaningless since only one of those games — Sunday's 5-4 shootout win for Spokane — came after Jan. 5. Key players for both teams missed many of those games, including the Chiefs' player of the year, Kailer Yamamoto, who did not play against the Hawks this season.
Johnston says it's like facing a team from another conference and predicts the Hawks and Chiefs will be studying each other early in the series.
Plenty of NHL-drafted talent will be on the ice. Portland has seven drafted players plus goalie Cole Kehler, who has signed with the Los Angeles Kings. Countering Portland's three NHL first-round picks (forward Cody Glass and defensemen Henri Jokiharju and Dennis Cholowski), Spokane has five forwards who are NHL draft picks.
A Spokane native, Yamamoto played in only 40 games for the Chiefs after starting the season in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers, who made him the 22nd overall pick last summer. He posted 64 points in those 40 games (21 goals, 43 assists).
The Chiefs' other NHL draftees are 18-year-old center Jaret Anderson-Dolan (2017 second round, L.A. Kings), 20-year-old center Hudson Elynuik (2016 third round, Carolina), 20-year-old right winger Zach Fischer (2017 fifth round, Calgary) and 28-year-old right winger Jake McGrew (2017 sixth round, San Jose).
Spokane has battled injuries but should be at or close to full strength for the playoffs. The Chiefs' lineup might include Fischer, who last played Feb. 10. Yamamoto, who sat out the three games last weekend, is expected to be healthy.
Portland forward Lukus McKenzie (upper-body injury) is not likely to play in this series.
On defense, the Chiefs are led by Ty Smith, who turns 18 on Saturday. The No. 1 pick in the 2015 WHL bantam draft, Smith was third in scoring for Spokane with 73 points in 69 games (14 goals, 59 assists).
"There's really good talent on both teams," Johnston says. "It's going to be strategic. Do you play top lines against top lines or do you play a checking line? How are you going to handle the other team's good lines? How are you going to handle the other team's top defense group?"
Matching up is one advantage for the home team, which is allowed to change players a second before each faceoff.
But will home ice be an advantage? The Winterhawks, the best road team in the WHL this season (25-10-1-0), were inconsistent at Memorial Coliseum. Portland won only seven of its 20 games in the old building — though four of the losses came with a shorthanded roster in December.
Johnston has pointed to inconsistent ice conditions as one explanation. But he says he is confident that the ice, and his team, will be ready for these playoff games.
"The more time there is to prepare the ice, the better it is," Johnston says, glad that his team is practicing this week at the coliseum. "The weeks when we don't practice here and all of a sudden end up playing here are very challenging because the ice surface is being uncovered and maybe it hasn't been skated on. That's a lot more challenging to make good ice. But usually when we're here during the week it's a lot better ice, for sure, because we're practicing on it and using it every day."
Johnston says the playoff atmosphere created by Hawks fans is an advantage.
As for facing a tough U.S. Division rival right off the bat, Johnston says it's part of the cyclical nature of junior hockey to be in a strong division. He says the rivalries and shorter travel provided by interdivisional playoff series are good for the league.
"The good thing about our division is we're all used to playing hard games because we play each other a lot," Johnston says. "There's been no easy nights."