The two-time defending Western Conference champion Portland Winterhawks are embracing their status as the WHL’s “Evil Empire” heading into the postseason, and they are favoured to win the West for a third straight year. Resolve shouldn’t be an issue for the Hawks, as they battled through the loss of head coach Mike Johnston, who was suspended in November as part of the league’s unprecedented sanctions against the team.
With boos raining down from opposing fans and plane ticket jokes flying around Twitter, the Hawks didn't skip a beat under assistant Travis Green, who won 37 of his 47 games as the head man.
The Kelowna Rockets managed to have a great season and stay under the radar, letting the Kamloops Blazers soak up all the early ink from media early in the season. Though they are without key forward Colton Sissons for the playoffs, the Rockets are likely the main challenger to the Winterhawks.
Let’s take a look at the first round series out West:
(1) Portland Winterhawks (57-12-1-2, 117 points) vs. (8) Everett Silvertips (25-40-3-4, 57 points)
Season series: Portland 9-1-0-0. Odds favour: Portland 98 percent. Prediction: Portland in four.
Why Portland should win: The 60-point difference in the standings should be enough to convince anyone that the Winterhawks are about as heavily favored as a team could possibly be to advance. The Portland team that bowed out in seven games in last season’s WHL finals lost five of its top seven forwards (Sven Baertschi, Marcel Noebels, Brad Ross, Cam Reid and Oliver Gabriel) and a first-round defenceman (Joe Morrow), and somehow got better this season, setting a franchise record for wins and points. Portland led the league in goals (334) and set a new team mark for fewest goals allowed (169).
The Hawks feature the top three scorers in the WHL in Brendan Lepsic (49 goals, 120 points), Nic Petan (46 goals, 120 points) and Ty Rattie (48 goals, 110 points). Plus, Portland is loaded defensively with draft-eligible sensation Seth Jones, Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Derrick Pouliot, Team Canada alum Tyler Wotherspoon and recent Ottawa Senators signee Troy Rutkowski. Overage goalie Mac Carruth is already the team’s career leader in playoff wins.
How Everett could win: The Silvertips have been swept in the first round the last two seasons, and things look even more bleak this time around for Everett, which is rebuilding under GM and interim coach Garry Davidson. Davidson helped build Portland’s current team as the director of player personnel, and moved to Everett in the middle of last season to get the Silvertips back in shape. The arrow is pointing up, but there’s still a long way to go. The Tips are led by 19-year-old forward Josh Winquist (51 points in 51 games) and have good young talent in 16-year-old Tyler Sandhu (19 goals) and defenceman Mirco Mueller.
If the Silvertips can get a great performance from 17-year-old netminder Austin Lotz and take advantage of their limited quality chances offensively, the Tips can probably win ... a game. In Everett’s one victory in 10 tries against Portland this season, the Tips scored three goals on four shots in the third period. Things like that certainly could happen again, but nobody outside the Everett dressing room believes they have any reasonable chance to win this series.
(2) Kelowna Rockets (52-16-3-1, 108 points) vs. (7) Seattle Thunderbirds (24-38-7-3, 58 points)
Season series: Kelowna 3-1-0-0 (1 win in OT). Odds favour: Kelowna 97%. Prediction: Kelowna in four.
Why Kelowna should win: The Rockets were 7-6-2 through 15 games, but caught fire midway through the season and won 23 straight home games at one point. Only the Winterhawks scored more goals in the WHL than the Rockets’ 309, and Kelowna gets it done with tremendous balance — 14 different Rockets scored at least 10 goals. That should make the loss of Sissons (28 goals in 61 games) a little more palatable, given that they get contributions from so many places.
Converted defenceman Myles Bell had a breakout season (38 goals, 93 points) to lead the way offensively, and a defensive group that was overwhelmed in a first-round sweep at the hands of Portland last has matured into one of the best in the league. Though goalie Jordon Cooke is in the middle of the pack in terms of save percentage, the Rockets allowed the third fewest goals in the league by clamping down on their opponents’ big guns.
How Seattle could win: The Thunderbirds are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, which is a good step for the franchise, but Seattle has been a frustrating group all season. The Birds have decent talent all over the ice, and at one point in December looked like they might challenge Spokane and Tri-City for second place in the U.S. Division. But then a 15-game losing streak hit and Seattle was back in familiar territory, battling just to get a postseason slot. They’ve won just eight of 34 games played in 2013.
Latvian rookie Roberts Lipsbergs (30 goals) is the most dangerous scoring threat for Seattle, along with overage captain Luke Lockhart (25 goals). Shea Theodore, a projected first-round NHL pick, finished third on the team in scoring with 50 points. Still, with a young defense that gave up the second-most goals in the league, it’s hard to see the Thunderbirds putting up much more than token resistance.
(3) Kamloops Blazers (47-20-2-3, 99 points) vs. (6) Victoria Royals (35-30-2-5, 77 points)
Season series: Kamloops 4-2-1-1. Odds favour: Kamloops 84 percent. Prediction: Kamloops in five.
Why Kamloops should win: Remember when the Blazers started the season 16-0-1? They’d like to recapture some of that mojo, and late in the season they started to look a bit like the team that dominated the headlines in October and November.
We’ve known all along that Colin Smith (41-65-106), Tim Bozon (36-55-91), JC Lipon (35-53-89) and Brendan Ranford (22-65-87) would put up big numbers, but the key for Kamloops is getting an offensive contribution from other guys. Midseason acquisition Kale Kessy showed some ability to do that for the Blazers, and the return of Dylan Willick from injury as well as the emergence of Cole Ully gives Kamloops some secondary scoring they sorely needed. Goalie Cole Cheveldave hit a rough patch midway through the season, but seems to have righted the ship.
How Victoria could win: The end of the season was unkind to the Royals, who only won three of their last 17 games. Without leading scorer Alex Gogolev (65 points in 49 games), Victoria struggled. And Gogolev isn’t playing in this series, along with defenceman and team captain Tyler Stahl. No. 1 goalie Patrik Polivka has also been sidelined and may not be able to play.
That means the Royals will have to rely on scoring from Jamie Crooks (33 goals) and Brandon Magee (30 goals) and otherwise try to outmuscle the Blazers. Victoria led the league in penalty minutes (1,324), and certainly won’t be afraid to mix it up with their rivals.
The Royals are also playing their home games this series at 2,781-seat Bear Mountain Arena, as the Sav-On-Foods Memorial Centre is hosting curling. The Royals must hope their fans can turn the small barn into a nightmare for Kamloops.
(4) Spokane Chiefs (44-26-2-0, 90 points) vs. (5) Tri-City Americans (40-27-2-3, 85 points)
Season series: Spokane 7-3-2-0. Odds favour: Spokane 63 percent. Prediction: Spokane in seven.
Why Spokane should win: This is a series between perhaps the two most baffling teams in the Western Conference. The Chiefs have one of the most balanced teams in the league, but at times looked incapable of beating the league’s bottom-feeders. At their best, the Chiefs could keep up with Portland and Kelowna. If they get solid play from three lines, they could wear the Americans down over the course of a long series.
Mitch Holmberg’s 39-goal season wasn’t totally surprising, but Todd Fiddler’s 42-goal outburst this season was a huge lift. Mike Aviani (30 goals, +37) and Alessio Bertaggia, who scored 13 goals in 16 games after coming over from Brandon in a trade, provide further punch.
Defenceman Brenden Kichton led the team for the second straight season in scoring (22-63-85) and may have some added motivation to performa after declining to sign with the New York Islanders and becoming re-eligible for the NHL draft.
How Tri-City could win: The Ams have the best player on the ice in Justin Feser (44 goals, 106 points), but no other Tri-City player has more than Malte Strömwall’s 66 points. Connor Rankin (32 goals) is the other main goal-scoring threat, but the Americans really hit their stride in January and February when 20-year-old tough guy Jesse Mychan found his offensive touch. Mychan scored 16 goals in 18 games in one stretch, but finished the season with just two in his last 11 games.
Mychan, Rankin and others like Parker Bowles and Brian Williams need to chip in offensively to give the Ams life.
With goalie Eric Comrie sidelined the rest of the season due to injury, rookie Troy Trombley has played his way into the starting role. Trombley started out on fire, but has come back to Earth a bit. Still, Trombley’s .911 save percentage is better than either Spokane netminder.
This intense rivarly matchup tends to make for even series regardless of the team's records, as was evident last year when the top-seeded Americans needed seven games to get past the Chiefs in round two. Expect this to be the only series in the West with any sort of drama.