The Kelowna Rockets’ defense is regarded by many as the deepest, most talented blue line corps in the Western Hockey League.
The Portland Winterhawks possess what is arguably the league’s most explosive group of forwards.
Sparks are sure to fly when the two WHL forces go head-to-head in the best-of-seven Western Conference final, beginning Friday night at Prospera Place.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty cool matchup and definitely a tough challenge for us, but I think we’re going to be ready for it for sure,” said Rockets’ defenceman and captain Madison Bowey. “The (Winterhawks) have a lot of skilled players up front, it’ll be a good task for our defenseman to try and handle it. It’s going to be a fun challenge and our guys are looking forward to it for sure.”
The Winterhawks’ offense, which topped the WHL this season with 338 goals, is led by the likes of Nic Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Brendan Leipsic and Taylor Leier, who have already combined for 63 points in the playoffs.
Rockets assistant coach Dan Lambert said his defensive corps will have its hands full and will need to counter the ‘Hawks top weapons with aggressive, yet smart hockey.
“The biggest thing for us is that we can’t give them odd-man rushes,” said Lambert. “They love to create and make plays, and you can’t give them an inch or they make you pay. We have to be aggressive, but at the same time make sure we play intelligent, we’re sound defensively and try to limit their chances.”
On the other hand, Kelowna’s defence, spearheaded by Bowey and Damon Severson, can also cause plenty of stress for opposing teams with its proactive style of play.
The Rockets’ back end scored 56 goals this season, a statistic that hasn’t escaped the attention of Winterhawks head coach Mike Johnston.
“(Kelowna) is an explosive team, especially in the way they activate their back end,” Johnston said. “They’re a dynamic group that attacks well and counter punches just as effectively. You have two teams that play a skating, puck-moving style so it should be an exciting series.”
Kelowna swept the regular season series (4-0) outscoring the Hawks 28-10 in the process.
But in the last two games, the Winterhawks were without four of their top players, as Petan, Leipsic, Derrick Pouliot and Leier were all with Canada at the world junior hockey championship.
With the top two teams in the WHL close to full strength for the league seminal, Bowey expects a hard-fought series from start to finish.
“We haven’t played them with their full roster this year yet, so it’s definitely going to be cool to see what we can do against them,” said Bowey, who set a club record for goals by a defenceman this season with 21. “It’s going to be a good challenge, they’re a powerhouse team over there, so we can’t take it lightly at all. It should be a good series and I’m looking forward to it.”
The Rockets will be without Myles Bell (lower body) to start the series, while the Winterhawks’ leading scorer, Nic Petan, is recovering from an injury suffered in the final game of the Victoria series.
Petan, who was injured by a crosscheck from Royals’ forward Brandon Magee, practised with the Hawks on Monday and Tuesday and hopes to be ready for Game 1.
“Yesterday felt great, today felt even better and I’m looking forward to practicing on Thursday in Kelowna,” Petan told the Columbian on Tuesday.
The Rockets and Winterhawks will face off in Game 1 Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at Prospera Place. Game 2 goes Saturday at 7:05 p.m.