(1090 The Fan) — The Seattle-Portland rivalry is one that spans player tenures, coaches and even sports in addition to its two states and 170 miles along Interstate-5. After 12 more regular-season contests in 2014-15, a new chapter will be added to the storied rivalry as the two clubs meet in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs beginning Saturday.
The Winterhawks (43-23-2-4), finished second in the U.S. Division, a mere three points back of Everett, while the Thunderbirds (38-25-4-5) settled for third. Despite the inferior finish in the standings, and thus the forfeiture of home ice, the T-Birds won the season series 7-4-0-1 thanks primarily to a dominant early start when Portland slumped through the first two months of the season.
Meanwhile, the T-Birds finished strongly, winning all four games in the final week, and doing so in dominant fashion by a combined score of 23-10. Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk was pleased with the strong finish and believes his team is ready to go for the new season.
“It was sure a good finish,” Konowalchuk said on his weekly coach’s show Tuesday. “I thought our guys were really excited. You could sense as we were playing the games, the playoffs are coming close and the guys are excited . . . It’s nice to go in with a good feeling and some confidence.”
It’s a series the Thunderbirds truly are amped up for.
“(We want to) come out hard and show them they are going to be in for a long series,” Seattle forward Ryan Gropp said.
Despite its season-long success against the Winterhawks, Seattle knows it is in for an ardent battle the next two weeks. And while Portland didn’t necessarily hit the finish line with a flourish, losing four of its final six games, it remains one of the elite scoring teams in the league with a top-5 goaltender in Adin Hill. Any deficiencies the Winterhawks may have on the blue line, have been masked by an elite forward cast which includes leading WHL point man Oliver Bjorkstrand, who finished with 118 points in 59 games.
Seattle can’t match that scoring prowess. Where it can succeed, however, is in slowing that powerful offense of Portland down with the likely WHL goaltender of the year in Taran Kozun, sporting a 2.41 goals against average, and an experienced blue line led by Shea Theodore and Jerret Smith. That will be the main area of focus for Konowalchuk and his team over the seven-game series.
“All our defense(men) are going to have to be good,” Konowalchuk said. “They are going to double shift up that top line quite a bit who have been potent all year long. They have some other guys as well — (Miles) Koules, (Paul) Bittner and (Keegan) Iverson — so we’re going to need our depth . . . We’re going to need to be on our ‘A’ game, no doubt about it.”
What are the other keys for Seattle to pull off the first-round upset? Here are five:
1. Kozun Closin’
The Thunderbirds most valuable player needs to play like it. Over the course of his 60 games in 2014-15, Kozun showed the ability to play his best against the best teams. While he need not stand on his head so to speak, Kozun must play well and hold leads when Seattle is able to get them.
2. Second-Line Scoring
As we’ve seen over the last week of their season, the Thunderbirds can score. The key in their opening series with Portland will be finding consistent scoring from a second line behind the Mathew Barzal line. Konowalchuk won’t commit to Barzal and Gropp being paired together for the majority of this series. If Gropp is on another line, that line has to be productive. If the trio of Barzal, Gropp and Roberts Lipsbergs do end up spending most of their ice time together, then it falls on the shoulders of Scott Eansor and Donovan Neuls to get their lines going. Seattle won’t beat Portland no matter how good its defense plays if it doesn’t find consistent scoring from a second line.
3. Special Teams Specialty
In any playoff series, the man-advantage plays a tremendous role. The ability to stay out of the penalty box more than your opponent is as critical as the timing of any penalties that are taken over the course of a game. Yet, penalties will be doled out and the ability for a team to come through with penalty kills could be the decisive factor in winning one more game than your opponent in a seven-game series.
Portland enters with the fifth best power play in the WHL, scoring on 22.5 percent of its man-advantage opportunities. Seattle, meanwhile, ranked 11th on its power play with a 21.2 percent average and 11th on its penalty kill, killing at a 79.3 percent rate. Seattle needs to improve in both areas, making that its specialty in this series.
Smith echoed those sentiments, Tuesday.
“We’ve got to stay out of the box for sure,” Smith said. “They have a very good power play and we’ve got to limit mistakes against (Portland). They’re really good on the rush and they’re really good at getting opportunities off the mistakes you make.”
4. Contain Bjorkstrand
You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him. That said, on Bjorkstrand’s play the fate of the Thunderbirds does not rest. As we saw Saturday, Portland can be beat even while Bjorkstrand does his thing (three goals in the 6-3 loss). But, it will be important to limit the outstanding 19-year-old forward as much as possible. He’s a player that can energize the Hawks faithful and change momentum at a moment’s notice.
5. Shutdown The Supporting Cast
Unfortunately, the Winterhawks offense is not simply Bjorkstrand. They have a host of other elite forwards capable of beating you on any given night including Nic Petan, Bittner, Koules and Chase De Leo. If a Koules or De Leo has a great series, you can pretty much write off the Thunderbirds chances right now.
Prediction: Portland in 7
-Anthony Dion, 1090 The Fan
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