Heading into their third round matchup with the Kamloops Blazers, the Portland Winterhawks will be ready for a battle. The Hawks may have taken their first round opponent, the Everett Silvertips, a bit lightly but given their track record with the Blazers, they won't make that mistake again.
In the first round, it took the Hawks six games to close out a team that had 32 fewer wins during the regular season. It was very apparent that Portland knew they were the superior team as they clearly lacked a sense of urgency throughout the lopsided matchup.
In the second round, the Hawks came to play. A 7-2 victory in game one set the tone for the series; a series in which the Spokane Chiefs never even sniffed at a victory. In game two the Hawks continued to show their supremacy as their goaltender, Mac Carruth, set the all-time WHL playoff wins record after he recorded a 3-0 shutout for his 39th career playoff victory.
The Hawks then continued their dominance as they traveled up to Spokane, winning games three and four by a combined score of 8-1. In game four, Carruth tallied yet another shutout during a 5-0 series-clinching victory, bringing him to a total of nine shutouts this season.
The Hawks' suffocating defense held the Chiefs to just three goals in four games, a stark contrast from the 16 goals they allowed in round one. However even though Portland appeared to take round one off, they were still able outscore Everett 32-16, which was an impressive offensive feat in itself.
Heading into the third round, fans can expect the same intensity they saw in round two as the Hawks are fully aware that Kamloops will be their toughest test so far this playoff season.
The Blazers are coming off a sweep of the Kelowna Rockets, who were the 5th ranked team in the entire CHL (the Hawks are currently ranked 2nd). While Kamloops did struggle a bit with their first opponent the Victoria Royals, they ultimately won the series in six games much like the Hawks.
Last year, it was Kamloops whom gave the Winterhawks their toughest test on their way to the WHL finals, pushing the Hawks further than anyone before them. After Portland jumped out to a 3-0 lead in round three, the Blazers rattled off three wins of their own to force a decisive game seven.
The Hawks ultimately won game seven 2-0, but the tight series was enough to expose the cracks in the Hawks' game which ultimately gave Edmonton the blueprint they needed to beat Portland in the WHL finals.
This season Portland will be looking to avoid making the same mistake, hoping to close the Blazers out as quickly as possible. That won't be an easy task however, as both teams will have more than enough time to prepare for one another.
By the time the two teams take the ice Friday, they will each have had ten days to think about and game plan for their Western Conference Finals opponent. Given how last year’s tight and physical series went, you can bet that all players involved a year ago have been thinking about this matchup for much longer than ten days. This should make for one heck of a battle over the next week or two.
Vince Tushner is on Twitter. Follow him at @SportsVince21