Winterhawks advance, face WHL’s top foe

It may not be the matchup everyone hoped for, but it promises to be nothing less than spectacular.

On Thursday night, the Winterhawks completed their five game series over the Victoria Royals with a 5–1 victory, solidifying their fourth straight WHL Western Conference finals appearance. With that comes a date with the top team in the league—the Kelowna Rockets, owners of the best record and most points in all of the WHL.

It’s a battle of the top scoring teams (118 total points for Kelowna to Portland’s 113), the best records (57–11–0–4 for Kelowna, 54–13–2–3 for Portland) and two rosters loaded with NHL talent—but it’s not Portland-Seattle that fans were hoping for.

Nothing beats your rival, huh?

Opponent aside, the Winterhawks will be shooting to take it a step further after winning the Western Conference last season and making it to the Memorial Cup.
“It’s going to be a great series,” Portland coach Mike Johnston said after his team disposed of an undermanned Victoria Royals squad. “If the fans thought this one [against Victoria] was good, they’ll be highly entertained.”

Kelowna and Portland ran away from the rest of the league all year, using their depth to overpower teams as the season wore on. Portland, of course, is still battling sanctions handed down last season for violating player benefit guidelines, although it appears nothing has slowed them down—if anything, they look stronger.

During the season the Rockets dominated the Hawks, getting two victories by a combined score of 28–10 over the four games they played.

If you think Portland will roll over and die, you would be wrong. As Johnston points out, Portland was never healthy in their previous matchups, creating a unique scenario.
“We’ve never had our full team,” he said. “It’s a factor, but I’m not saying it’s why [Portland lost]. They have a good team.”

“It’ll be a good challenge for our group, going in there and trying to get game one. If we get that first one, it will change the tide of the series big time,” player Brendan Leipsic added.

One area where Portland will not be lacking comes in the form of experience. A veteran-laden team that is as comfortable in the playoffs as you could expect, the Winterhawks know what to expect and will not be rattled, no matter how tight things get.

“Every series is like a WHL finals,” Leipsic said. “It’s live or die, game by game. But we’re excited to get it going. [The Rockets] had a great season. They’re going to be ready to go, with us the defending champs. It’s going to be ours to lose, I think.”

Whoever survives what (hopefully) turns into a seven-game battle royale will still have one round to go, but with the top teams getting ready to go at it, this round takes on a slightly different feel.

As Leipsic said, “Every series is like a WHL finals.” Now, that becomes even more true.