Who needs the NHL when you have this type of intense hockey? The Portland Winterhawks and Kamloops Blazers meet Friday in a best-of-7 Western Conference Finals. The winner goes to the Ed Chynoweth Cup Finals. The Winterhawks will try to take advantage of home ice in the 2-2-1-1-1 postseason series. Based on four regular season games, Portland has Kamloops number. The Winterhawks won three of those games, each by at least two goals.
Both goalies have played well this season, but Winterhawks goalie Mac Carruth shut down the Kamloops' shooters in three of those games.
The Blazers' Kale Kessy, who had a good series against the Rockets, is playing his best hockey of the 2012-13 season. Meanwhile, center Colin Smith should certainly improve -- he hasn't performed in the postseason like he did in the regular season, and many pundits don't expect the slump to last. Hopefully, if you're in the Blazers dressing room, Tim Bozon will be ready to put up some points -- his team will need him.
Meanwhile, Kamloops goaltender Cole Cheveldave will have his gloves full trying to defend the league's best shooters in Portland. Good thing Cheveldave has help in front of him. Coming off a CHL Player of the Week performance, left winger Brendan Ranford will team up with JC Lipon and try to make sure the Blazers continue their playoff momentum.
Of course, they'll face a Winterhawks team that has advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the third straight season. Right winger Ty Rattie, who has led Portland in goals, will look to continue his scoring and play-making magic, while centers Brendan Leipsic and Nicolas Petan each boast 10 assists in the playoffs thus far. Rookie Oliver Bjorkstrand will also try to maintain his impressive rookie playoff streak. Watch for Derrick Pouliot, a defensive force for Portland.
Here's how the schedules shakes out: Games 1 and 2 are set for April 19 and April 20 at Memorial Coliseum. Games 3 and 4 will be hosted by the Blazers on April 23 and April 24. Game 5, if necessary, would be played at the Rose Garden on April 26. Game 6 is scheduled for April 28 at Kamloops. A deciding Game 7 would be played April 30 at the Rose Garden.
As far as a series outlook, Winterhawks goaltender Mac Carruth will face his most difficult test yet. But this is really a series of matchups. The Winterhawks offense must outplay the Blazers defense if Portland wants to survive another round. And that should happen. I predict the Winterhawks will win a tight 4-2 series and head to the finals. Expect good, intense playoff hockey games that are decided by key mental mistakes or a lucky bounce of the puck. Yet, when it comes down to it, Portland has just too much firepower.
Portland wins, 4-2 in six games.
I think this article frames the series nicely. However, and I hate to sound like a homer, but this is going to be a short series, just as it should have been last year. Keep in mind that Portland won the first three games and took a three goal lead in the fourth before surrendering its first loss. After that, nerves took over until the all-important game 7, in which they returned to form and completely shut down Kamloops. This year, Portland has the winningest goalie in WHL history, the top three scorers in the league, the projected #1 overall draft pick solidifying a much-improved defensive core, the league's top rookie, and a core of young players that have made a big impact on the third and fourth lines. With a total of 14 players either drafted an/or under NHL contract, It's no wonder that the team finished 18 points ahead of Kamloops in the regular season. This is 5 games tops -- book it.