Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Despite the suggestion of the old adage, the two best teams in the WHL's Western Conference on paper are also the two who will meet up in the Conference final, a berth in the Championship Series on the line as they begin battle Friday night in Kennewick, Washington.

The yin: the defensively stingy Tri-City Americans, led by head coach Jim Hiller and goaltender Ty Rimmer. The yang: the high-flying Portland Winterhawks, loaded with offensive stars, led by their dynamic duo of Sven Bärtschi and Ty Rattie.

Tri-City finished as the best defensive club in the Western league this season, averaging just 2.64 goals against per game. That qualifies them as third best in the nation between Niagara, London and Shawinigan. Portland were the league's best offence by a long-shot, but finished just behind Québec's Victoriaville in the entire Canadian Hockey League as far as goals per game goes. They were last season's Conference champions, as well, and return many of their stars.

The teams appeared to be on a collision course at the start of the post-season, and despite the hiccups in their respective Western semifinal series', where both had to win Game 7s on Wednesday night. Despite this, the teams are focused for tonight, as both put in strong performances heading in. "I thought we played one of the best games we played all year on Wednesday night," Rattie told the Oregonian. "We're exactly where we wanted to be at the beginning of the year."

As for Tri-City, they put together a dominant performance in puck possession Wednesday, out-shooting rival Spokane (avenging last season's playoff defeat) 48-19 in the most important game of their season. Ams coach Hiller had some very positive things to say about the way both teams played:

"If you caught one of these games, you were treated to some of the best junior hockey entertainment you are going to see," Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. "Both teams did everything they could. What else can you ask?

"There wasn't one shift in the last 12 days or seven games that either team could have relaxed. Every game was decided by one goal — two goals was the empty net. No team had a lead of more than two goals. There was not once where you thought it was over." [Canadian Press]

Tri-City, you see, can also run and gun with the big boys. They do boast runaway WHL scoring champion Brendan Shinnimin and line mate Adam Hughesman as one of the stronger one-two punches offensively in the league. Shinnimin followed up his 134 points in 69 games regular season effort with 18 points in 11 games with the Ams in the first bit of the playoffs.

But that doesn't account for the best postseason performance. As mentioned above, the Winterhawks hold onto Rattie and Bärtschi, Rattie playing healthy after being bumped in Game 4 of the second round series and not playing at 100% at the admission of his coach Mike Johnston. Yet due to his dominant play before that, the St. Louis Blues draft pick has scored 23 points in 11 games, with 13 goals to lead the playoffs.

One factor in deciding the eventual winner might be which team keeps its cool in a rivalry tinged with dislike.

"In this series here, there's a lot of skill on both sides, so nobody wants to go over the edge," Johnston said. "Nobody wants to get into an area where you take too many penalties, because the other team's power play is very effective." [The Columbian]

Since the top-end talent on this team may be somewhat equal, it could be decided by more than star power, not like there's any lacking in this series. The two clubs accounted for four of the six players on the WHL Western Conference First All-Star Team, with Rimmer and Shinnimin representing the Ams, and Rattie along with two-way defenceman Joe Morrow, a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins last NHL Draft.

(1) Tri-City Americans (50-18-2-2, 104 pts, beat Everett 4-0 and Spokane 4-3) vs. (2) Portland Winterhawks (49-19-3-1, 102 pts, beat Kelowna 4-0 and Kamloops 4-3)

Season series: Tri-City 6-4-0-0. Odds favour: Portland by 51%. Prediction: Americans in 7.

Veteran Leadership: The Winterhawks had 11 players from last year's team that lost in the WHL championship series last season to the Kootenay Ice return this season, including overagers William Wrenn and Olivier Gabriel. Wrenn, the captain, acts as not only a foil for his fellow defencemen like Morrow who like to jump up into the rush, but he doesn't take a lot of penalties. A few timely shorthanded goals last series prevented their penalty kill from allowing a goal every game.

For Tri-City, their overage players all returned from last season's playoff defeat, in Shinnimin, Hughesman, and checking centreman Mason Wilgosh. Wilgosh, who scored just 9 goals in the regular season, has come alive in the playoffs with 4 already in the 11 games.

Advantage: Portland.

Goaltending: Tri-City has the obvious edge here. Ty Rimmer, as noted above, was one of the top goaltenders of the regular season, leading the league in save percentage and was second to Medicine Hat's Tyler Bunz in overall output. He had a rough outing in his last three playoff starts (although his team bailed him out and won two of them) allowing nine goals on 67 shots. Despite those hiccups, his save percentage of .922 has stayed consistent through the post-season, and he's the goalie who can both steal you a game, and you can count on to play consistently every night.

For Portland's Mac Carruth, to say he had a rough second round would be an understatement. After posting a .904 in the regular season, which was slightly above league average, Carruth stonewalled the Kelowna Rockets in Round 1 and stopped 103 of 109 in the first three games of Round 2. He then proceeded to allow 18 on the next 109, letting Kamloops back into the series, before stealing it with a shutout in Game 7.

Advantage: Tri-City

Special Teams:

You can't really fault a Portland penalty kill that scored two goals for every three it gave up in the second round (they gave up six, but two of their four shorthanded tallies were scored on an empty net), but keeping this group from taking too many penalties is something Johnston is going to have to look at. When you have players like Gabriel or Brad Ross who often play on the edge, they're going to give up opportunities to the other team. Portland's powerplay isn't something you want to face, but in the second round they fired at just 21.4% efficiency, which was above their 5th-ranked regular season powerplay that fired at 19.6%

But Tri-City had even more trouble in the second round on the powerplay, scoring just 3 goals in 26 attempts. The PP was a place that the Americans had trouble in the regular season, clicking at just 10th in the league, but they made up for it by being a dominant team at even strength. I don't have total powerplay numbers, but it's worth noting their games this postseason have seen considerably less overall special team's opportunities than Portland. Their games tend to be cleaner and they stay out of the box, winning games that way. Hopefully we see a lot of 5-on-5 action.

Advantage: Portland.

Why Portland should win: They're a powerful team whose offensive talents far exceed that of their opponent's. Aside from Rattie and Bärtschi, the man in the middle on the line, Marcel Noebels, is often left forgotten about, and he's picked up 11 assists in the playoffs thus far. Their depth is quite staggering with Ross, Brendan Leipsic and Cam Reid as players who can contribute on the second line, (in fact, Brad Ross is looking more and more every game like a player who will be in the NHL some day. Not only is he very skilled around the net, but he has that agitation edge to his game that rattles cages) and they also have two very strong puck movers in Morrow and rookie Derrick Pouliot.

While Pouliot is young and susceptible to turnovers, he still has the ability to move the play forward every step of the ice. Behind him, the defensive stability of William Wrenn and Tyler Wotherspoon made sure that Carruth saw fewer shots than the average league goalie this season (30.7 vs. 31.7). They aren't a team that has to rely on their goaltending, and the teams that make it the easiest for themselves are the ones that score the most goals and allow the fewest shots. Portland have the upper hand in both categories. They also threw 40 shots on Ty Rimmer's net four times during the season series, and cracked 50 twice. Despite losing both Ryan Johansen and Nino Neiderreiter from last season to the NHL, their carry overs haven't slouched.

How Tri-City could win: Simply, I think that Ty Rimmer is the kind of guy who can steal a series, and we haven't seen Tri-City's powerplay click as it could and should given the offensive talent they have available. Their depth isn't as stunning, but their second line with Wilgosh, Justin Feser and Swedish import Malte Strömwall has clicked for nine goals so far. They could give you a sneaky goal or two in what should be a wide-open series, maybe look for the smooth-taking Mitch Topping or big 6'0-200 Zachary Yuen to jump up in the play and catch the Portland D unawares.

With stronger goaltending, and knowing that they've outscored Portland in the season series (and put up 3.8 goals per game against them), does it concern them that Portland boast one of the best offences in the entire CHL? The shots they give up aren't as high quality as other teams', simply because they come at even strength. The Americans were still the second-least penalized team in the WHL this season, Jesse Mychan having calmed down since a trade brought him over from Everett, and not boasting a single 100-PIM player who spent the entire year with the team.

Discipline, goaltending, and top-end scoring. Portland may have the better team, but Tri-City are loaded with the type of pieces that can counter them effectively. It will be a great series, but in the end, I think it will be Tri-City going through to compete for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

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