Fri May 06 12:55am EDT
Kootenay Ice (46-21-1-4 reg. season, def. Moose Jaw 4-2, Saskatoon 4-0, Medicine Hat 4-0) vs. Portland Winterhawks (50-19-0-3, Everett 4-0, Kelowna 4-2, Spokane 4-2)
Season Series: Kootenay won 5-3 on Dec. 1 in Portland in the only meeting of the season.
Playoff history: The teams have never met in the postseason.
The Ice have made the playoffs in each of their 13 seasons in Cranbrook, and won the WHL title in 2000 and 2002 and the Memorial Cup in 2002.
This is the ninth trip to the WHL finals for Portland, which is 2-6 in its eight previous appearances. The Winterhawks won league titles in 1982 and 1998, and lost in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1989, 1993 and 2001. Portland won the Memorial Cup as host in 1983, and as league champion in 1998.
Playoff leaders (stats): Kootenay - C Max Reinhart (14G-8A-22P), LW Matt Fraser (12-9-21), D Brayden McNabb (3-17-20), C Cody Eakin (8-10-18), G Nathan Lieuwen (1.96 GAA, .929 save pct.); Portland - LW Nino Niederreiter (8-15-23), C Ryan Johansen (11-11-22), LW Sven Bärtschi (5-16-21), C Craig Cunningham (7-9-16), G Mac Carruth (2.63, .927)
How Kootenay could win: Quite simply, by doing everything they've been doing since March 29. That's the last time the Ice lost a game. Since that Game 3 loss to Moose Jaw in the first round, Kootenay has won 11 games in a row, including the now-legendary sweeps of Saskatoon and Medicine Hat on the way to the Eastern Conference crown.
In the eight games against the Blades and Tigers, the Ice have scored 34 goals and allowed just 13.
If the Ice are going to keep momentum, they'll need to stay disciplined against a Portland team that eventually wore down a structured Spokane club.
As much attention as the acquisition of Cody Eakin drew for his offensive ability, Eakin's defense has set the tone for his teammates in this postseason run. He played a big role in shutting down Saskatoon's Brayden Schenn, and will have his hands full again with the likes of Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter.
Eakin's skill still remains his most dangerous asset, though, as he tallied the game-winning goal in each of the first three games against Medicine Hat and has lit the lamp in five straight games.
Max Reinhart and Matt Fraser have been better-than-advertised for the Ice, and if both continue to score at a clip of about a goal a game, Kootenay could be tough to stop. Reinhart's five goal explosion in Game 4 against the Tigers was the first five-goal game in the WHL playoffs since 1981.
The Ice also have an advantage in experience, especially at the blue line. Kootenay will skate 10 players born in 1990 or 1991, while the Hawks will have just six with Brett Ponich and Oliver Gabriel still out of the lineup.
But Brayden McNabb will have to elevate his game even further to succeed where fellow team captain defencemen Jared Cowen (Spokane) and Tyson Barrie (Kelowna) have failed against Portland.
Nathan Lieuwen has been outstanding in net for the Ice in the playoffs, leading the league in GAA and ranking third in save percentage, and he'll need to be sharp against a Winterhawks team that likes to rack up shots on goal.
How Portland could win: Spokane made it tough for the Winterhawks to score goals, but outside of an 8-3 shellacking at the hands of the Chiefs in Game 4, Portland showed a willingness to grind out wins. They'll need to do much the same against the Ice.
The Winterhawks only got to four goals once in the Spokane series (a 6-3 Game 6 win), but now have a 52-0 record when scoring at least four times.
Portland's top six forwards are as good as any in junior hockey, but coach Mike Johnston likes to use depth to keep the top guys fresh, and won't hesitate to use the third and fourth lines in a tie game in the third period.
Against Spokane, Johnston showed a willingness to separate top scorers Johansen and Niederreiter to force the Chiefs to use someone other than Cowen to deal with one of them. If the Hawks struggle to generate scoring opportunities, they could do the same thing this series to prevent McNabb from matching up against both.
Niederreiter was quiet for the most part against Spokane, but the line of Sven Bärtschi, Craig Cunningham and Ty Rattie came up huge in the last two games to spur the win over Spokane.
The Winterhawks get into trouble when they take too many penalties, something they did in Games 3 and 4 in Spokane. But the Hawks often get away with it because of an outstanding penalty killing unit that went 29-for-31 (93.5%) against the Chiefs. With the Ice having a middling power play, the Hawks could have the edge in special teams.
Goaltender Mac Carruth keeps having to prove he's not the weak link in the Winterhawks lineup, and he did it again against the Chiefs, outdueling Spokane's James Reid. His .927 save percentage ranks fourth in the playoffs, and if he can match Lieuwen save-for-save the Winterhawks should be in very good shape.
Prediction: This is another very tight series in the WHL. The Ice have won 11 in a row with a mix of disciplined play, timely goals and a little luck. But can they continue to grind out wins against such a big, tough team after a nine-day layoff? The Winterhawks have shown cracks this postseason, but ultimately have used depth and focus to wear down opponents -- and then finished them off with their tremendous skill.
Portland in 6