WHL Playoffs: (3) Portland Winterhawks vs. (6) Kelowna Rockets
The Portland Winterhawks have lost two straight, but have the second-most points in the Western Conference. The Kelowna Rockets are a nice challenge at number six, and will hope to expose a Portland squad that's missing Sven Baertschi.
At times, the Portland Winterhawks have looked invincible. In February, the team scored 34 goals over a four-game stretch, and won nine straight to climb into first in the Western Conference.
But, it's been relatively up-and-down, despite the Winterhawks' 102-point season. Ty Rattie led the way with 57 goals and 121 points this season, and Brad Ross, Cam Reid, Marcel Noebels, and Oliver Gabriel have been incredible.
The only worry for Portland, though, is the loss of Sven Baertschi, who had 94 points in 47 games before being called up by the Calgary Flames. We're not sure if Portland fans are Flames fans, but it would be nice to see Calgary get eliminated from the NHL Playoffs soon so the Winterhawks can welcome him back with open arms.
That said, the Winterhawks are one of the more explosive teams in the WHL and will be a heavy favourite to capture the WHL Championship in 2012, especially after falling short against Kootenay in last year's final.
By failing to nab first place, the Winterhawks put themselves in a tough spot against a very physical and very skilled Kelowna Rockets team.
While the Rockets haven't put together a start-to-finish season, they're capable of stealing games and of winning this series. There's a huge different between the Rockets in sixth and the Royals in seventh, and Kelowna will surely try to make that known.
Up front, Shane McColgan and Brett Bulmer lead the way offensively, while Colton Sissons, Zach Franko, and Carter Rigby add scoring depth. Tyson Baillie and Cody Chilkie can also catch fire at any time.
On defense, the return of Myles Bell and Mitchell Chapman will be key to the Rockets's potential success, and Damon Severson also chipped in with 37 points on the season.
Kelowna lost nearly 400 man-games due to injury this year, but if they can be healthy and be hard on the Baertschi-less Winterhawks, they have a chance.
Players To Watch:
Marcel Noebels and Oliver Gabriel (Portland)
Every time you see Ty Rattie involved in a highlight, he's normally flanked by one or both of these wingers. Both are point-a-game players, and have turned it on in the absence of Baertschi. We know Rattie will score, and contributions from Noebels and Gabriel will be key to Portland's cucess.
Brett Bulmer (Kelowna)
The big, hard-hitting winger also led the Rockets in goals this season with 34. He's the most noticeable of all Kelowna players, as is his patented wrist shot.
Kelowna has nothing to lose, and they'll be a tough out for the Winterhawks. The three-versus-six match-up is always intriguing, especially if the Winterhawks already have their eyes on Round 2.
That said, the upset is probably too bold of a call. Portland's an excellent team, and they should take this thing over once they figure out the Rockets.
Portland in six.
Game 1: Kelowna at Portland, Friday, March 23 (7 p.m. PST)
Game 2: Kelowna at Portland, Saturday, March 24 (7 p.m. PST)
Game 3: Portland at Kelowna, Tuesday, March 27 (7:05 p.m. PST)
Game 4: Portland at Kelowna, Thursday, March 29 (7:05 p.m. PST)
*Game 5: Kelowna at Portland, Saturday, March 31 (7 p.m. PST)
*Game 6: Portland at Kelowna, Monday, April 2 (7 p.m. PST)
*Game 7: Kelowna at Portland, Wednesday, April 4 (7 p.m. PST)
More Western Conference predictions...