The Kelowna Rockets and Portland Winterhawks were the Western Hockey League’s two best teams during the 2013-14 regular season.
The debate as to which is actually the better of the two will ultimately be decided before the end of the month.
The Rockets and ‘Hawks will square off for the first time ever in the Western Conference final, as the best-of-seven league semifinal begins Friday night at Prospera Place.
The Rockets, who set clubs record for wins (57) and points (118), finished five points ahead of Portland (54 wins) for top spot overall in the WHL standings.
Kelowna is making its first appearance in the conference final in five seasons, while the ‘Hawks—the defending WHL champs—are heading to the league semis for the fourth straight spring.
According to the numbers, there isn’t much that separates the two skilled, high-tempo teams.
The ‘Hawks were the highest scoring team during the regular season with 338 goals, while the Rockets were second with 310. Kelowna was third-best in the league in goals against (182) while Portland was tied for sixth (207).
The Rockets are coming off series wins over Tri-City in five, and a sweep of Seattle in round 2.
Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton, not surprisingly, expects the Winterhawks—who have lost just twice in the last 38 games—to provide his club’s toughest challenge yet.
“The (Winterhawks) are the defending champs and they’re very skilled,” said Hamilton. “Both teams play a wide-open, high-octane kind of game, neither team is going to trap, so it’s going to be pretty entertaining hockey.
“Our depth has carried us all year, so hopefully that will work for us in this series.”
The Winterhawks, who are coming off a physically demanding five-game series win against Victoria, may not be 100 per cent healthy against the Rockets. Leading scorer Nicolas Petan was injured late in the series finale against the Royals and, as of Monday, hadn’t yet practised with the Winterhawks.
Still, with the likes of Oliver Bjorkstrand (50 goals), Brendan Leipsic (91 points) and defenceman Derrick Pouliot (70 points) in the lineup, the Winterhawks remain a dangerous opponent.
Winterhawks’ head coach and GM Mike Johnston looks for the two WHL powers to put on a good show.
“I would expect it’s going to be a great series,” Johnston said. “If you’re a fan of our league the style these teams play, then I think it’s going to be pretty exciting. I think the speed and the quality of play are going to be exceptional.”
“Kelowna is an explosive team, with four solid lines, a strong defence that activates into the play and great goaltending,” he added. “They do everything well.”
The Rockets took down the Winterhawks in all four meetings during the regular season—6-2 and 6-3 early in October in Kelowna, and 9-3 and 7-2 in Portland.
However, in the last two games, the Hawks were without Petan, Pouliot, captain Taylor Leier and Matthew Dumba, all of whom were playing for Canada at the world junior hockey championship.
Game 2 in the series goes Saturday night in Kelowna. Games 3 and 4 are set for Portland on Tuesday and Wednesday night.
WHL Western Conference Final
Kelowna Rockets vs Portland Winterhawks
Friday, April 18 @ Kelowna 7:05 p.m.
Saturday, April 19 @ Kelowna 7:05 p.m.
Tuesday, April 22 @ Portland 7 p.m.
Wednesday, April 23 @ Portland 7 p.m.
Friday, April 25 * @ Kelowna 7:05 p.m.
Sunday, April 27 * @ Portland 5 p.m.
Tuesday, April 29 * @ Kelowna 7:05 p.m.
* If necessary