The Kamloops Blazers didn’t quite pull off a stunning rally from a 3-0 series deficit against the Portland Winterhawks last season, but just forcing a Game 7 in their second-round series reawakened Kamloops as a hockey town.
After more than a decade of dormancy, the Blazers are now relevant again and get a second shot at the Winterhawks, who are seeking a third straight trip to the WHL final.
The Hawks and Blazers are old, bitter rivals that faced off nine times in the playoffs between 1982 and 1995, but last year’s series was their first against each other in 17 years.
Portland won the first three games and led handily in Game 4 before the Blazers began their comeback. Even though Kamloops managed to squeak out a Game 4 victory and then hammered the Hawks in Game 5 in Portland, the Hawks again looked likely to close out the series in six games.
But the Blazers had one more rally in them, coming back from 5-2 down in the third period of Game 6 to win 7-6 on a goal with 20 seconds left in regulation. A year later, “Game 6” is still talked about as one of the greatest moments in franchise history.
Of course, Portland fans will point out that the Blazers don’t talk much about Game 7, a breathtakingly intense affair the Winterhawks won 2-0 behind a brilliant performance from goalie Mac Carruth and a third-period insurance goal from Brendan Leipsic.
The Blazers used the rally and eventual disappointment as fuel for this season, while the Winterhawks have mostly tried to forget the palpable sense of dread that permeated the Portland air as a three-game lead disappeared.
Now, they get to do it all over again, and if it’s anything like last year, players, coaches and fans for both teams are in for some sleepless nights.
Below, BTN's Cam Charron and Scott Sepich take a look at the Western Conference final.
(1) Portland Winterhawks (57-12-1-2, 117 points, beat Everett 4-2 and Spokane 4-0) vs. (3) Kamloops Blazers (47-20-2-3, 99 points, beat Victoria 4-2 and Kelowna 4-0)
Season series: Portland 3-1-0-0. Odds favour: Portland 79 percent. Most likely statistical outcome: Portland in 5. Prediction: Portland in 6.
Scott Sepich on the Winterhawks: If the rumours are true and both Tim Bozon and Colin Smith return from injury for Kamloops this series to skate with JC Lipon, the Blazers are the only team with a top line that can rival Portland’s trio of Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan and Ty Rattie, production-wise (each line accounted for 43% of their team's goals in the regular season).
That could make this series a battle of depth and secondary scoring. So far this postseason, the Hawks are getting at least a point a game out of second-liners Oliver Bjorkstrand (5-8-13), Chase De Leo (4-8-12) and Taylor Leier (5-5-10). If that unit keeps producing, the Hawks will be tough to stop. If they’re kept in check, the Hawks can become too reliant on their big three to bail them out.
Luckily for the Winterhawks, they also get a lot of offence out of their tremendous group of defencemen. Collectively, Portland blueliners have 40 points in the playoffs, compared to just 17 for all Kamloops defencemen. Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Derrick Pouliot missed most of the second half of the season with a high ankle sprain, but has returned to form in the postseason with four goals and 13 points in 10 games.
The biggest key for Portland is probably getting off to a fast start at home. The Hawks had the best road season in league history this year and are 5-0 away from home in the playoffs, outscoring their opponents 31-9. But Portland inexplicably lost twice at home to Everett in the first round, and doesn’t want to fall into that trap against a better team like Kamloops.
As for last year’s crazy series against the Blazers, Portland interim coach Travis Green told BTN’s Sunaya Sapurji he doesn’t expect it to be much of a factor this time around:
“A lot of people talk about the series last year, but we’ve always been a team where you play a game, you win, you lose, you move on to the next game. I’m not overly concerned at all about last year. I think it was a great learning experience, that series last year, for our group. The guys leftover this year, they know. We’ve talked about it in the past that game 4, the fourth win, is always the hardest to get. As far as that series goes it’s not really that far from my mind but it doesn’t really have anything to do with this year’s team or this year’s Kamloops.”
For Portland, this playoff season is markedly different than last year largely because of the absence of suspended coach Mike Johnston. But having a different voice in their ears in the room each night this year may actually be an advantage for the Winterhawks.
Green is considerably more boisterous than the calm, collected Johnston, and the Hawks have taken on a slightly different character with Green behind the bench. Is it better? That question is a bit unfair to Johnston, but this series will go a long way in showing what Green is capable of as a leader.
Cam Charron on the Blazers: Even the thickest blue-and-orange-coloured goggles wouldn't be able to convince Kamloops Blazers fans that their squad is deeper or more talented than the Portland Winterhawks. That's mostly a given. But Blazer fans could conceivably suggest that their team this season has a better chance than last in a rematch of one of the Western Hockey League's best seven-game series a year ago.
After Game 1 of last year's classic, goaltender Cole Cheveldave was run into and left the series. Enter Cam Lanigan, somewhat of a journeyman goaltender who found a home in Medicine Hat this season. He began the year in Portland (in fairness, he played for the Winterhawks ironically) but was thrust into the Kamloops pipes for the final six games of the series. Lanigan certainly didn't play poorly, but it takes something special, a Laurent Brossoit or a Nathan Lieuwen, to shut down these high-powered Portland offences and Cheveldave is something closer to that than Lanigan. Cheveldave gave Kamloops a couple of victories against Kelowna, and having a goaltender steal games is wholly important this time of year.
Seven games isn't enough to determine which team is better. Seven games is a long-enough time that it takes more than one good performance to pull out an upset. Unlike, say, the Everett Silvertips who needed a 55-save and a 43-save performance from Austin Lotz to win a couple of games against Portland, the Blazers do have a roster with hockey players that can help out Cheveldave.
Make no mistake: while the Winterhawks have a decided edge on defence and up front, Kamloops has shown throughout the playoff season that anybody can step up in the playoffs. Even without Colin Smith for three games and Tim Bozon for seven, the Blazers have earned some offensive performances from some unlikely sources.
Of course there's Lipon, who leads the WHL playoffs in scoring, but in the second round against Kelowna it was Kale Kessy that stepped up. He had a strong-enough performance that the Edmonton Oilers traded Tobias Rieder for his rights and signed the overage Shaunavon, SK native, who has spent much of his career as a checking winger and penalty-kill specialist. He had 19 goals in the regular season as a career high, but 11 already in the postseason including the clinching goal in overtime of Game 4 against Kelowna.
Then there's Dylan Willick, who has been good for a goal every second game and a breakaway opportunity every second period. Willick was a horse against the Rockets. His goal-scoring is an added bonus to the PK work he's been doing. While the team has killed just 27 of 35 opportunities in the playoffs, then went 10-of-11 against the Rockets, a percentage more consistent with their regular season record.
Smith will return for Game 1, and he could provide some scoring insurance in case Kessy or Lipon's scoring pace slows. Bozon practiced with the group earlier this week and that would also be a big boost for the Blazers, who have had to count on some scorers who aren't necessarily scorers in the first place.
On defence, the Blazers did a fine job converting Joel Edmundson from a defensive specialist to an effective powerplay performer and puck-mover in a less conservative offensive style. Big man Marek Hrbas has a big shot (play-by-play man Jon Keen describes him as a man who only knows how to score big goals: Hrbas got the Blazers going in Game 6 against Portland last season with the team facing elimination and losing 5-2. They won that game 7-6) and those two are probably the one and two guys on the Blazers, both '93s, who will have to play tougher minutes than they've faced in the postseason having to shut down Rattie, Petan et. al for the next couple of weeks.
This will be a very fun series, and hopefully for the 10s of thousands of fans in Portland and the 5000-or-so in the Loops who will turn out for the ride, the teams can duplicate the emotion from last season's series. The edge goes to the Winterhawks but stranger things have happened.