As the Chilliwack Bruins prepare for the start of their first round series versus the Spokane Chiefs, three other series are starting to roll in the Western conference playoffs.
PORTLAND vs EVERETT
The Portland Winterhawks (first seed) and Everett Silvertips (eighth seed) meet up in the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-05 season in what should be an interesting matchup.
A high-octane offense has been Portland’s hallmark this season. With stars like Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter and Craig Cunningham leading the way, the Hawks were able to out-gun their opponents on most nights.
The team had 11 players topping the 10-goal mark. Defensively, Portland ranked ninth in goals against, but owned the league’s fourth-best penalty kill.
Mac Carruth and Keith Hamilton performed well in the Hawks’ net, but both got used to facing plenty of shots. The Hawks hope Carruth will be ready for the post-season after missing most of March with an injury.
The Silvertips have made the playoffs in each of their eight seasons since joining the WHL in 2003-04, but Everett had to wait until the final weekend to sneak into this year’s dance.
Offensively, only the Calgary Hitmen scored fewer goals than the Silvertips. Tyler Maxwell had 41, but more will be needed from Landon Ferraro, Josh Birkholz and Ryan Harrison.
Defense has been a strength for the ‘Tips, who allowed the sixth-fewest goals in the league. 17-year-old Ryan Murray continues his rise to stardom.
He, along with veterans Brennan Yadlowski and Chad Suer, will be charged with shutting down Portland’s star forwards. In Kent Simpson, the ‘Tips boast one of the best goaltenders.
KELOWNA vs PRINCE GEORGE
The Kelowna Rockets (second seed) and Prince George Cougars (seventh seed) meet up for a playoff series for the first time since the 1999-00 season.
The Rockets are making their fourth straight playoff appearance, and enter the post-season as the B.C. Division champs.
Kelowna has advanced to at least the second round of the playoffs in seven of their last eight playoff appearances.
Led by Geordie Wudrick’s 43 goals, this year’s Rockets boast five players who topped the 20-goal mark and another five who topped the 10-goal mark.
On the back end, the Rockets own the WHL’s third-best defense and the third-ranked penalty killing unit. Tyson Barrie and Co. will need to find the level of play that helped the Rockets hold the Cougars to two or fewer goals in five of nine regular-season encounters.
Brett Connolly remains the heart and soul of the Cougars, but the supporting cast is strong. Charles Inglis enjoyed his most productive season, scoring 32 goals, while Taylor Stefishen notched 24 goals for the Cougars after leaving the NCAA in the off-season.
Defensively, the Cougars ranked 16th in goals against, but own the WHL’s fifth-best penalty killing unit.
Sena Acolatse, another former Blade, and Slovakian rookie Martin Marincin combined for 29 goals and 119 points from the blue line this season.
TRI-CITY vs VANCOUVER
The Tri-City Americans (fourth seed) and Vancouver Giants (fifth seed) meet up in the playoffs for a second straight year.
The Ams downed the Giants in six games in last year’s Western conference final.
The Americans are a strong offensive team with plenty of skill and speed up front.
Brendan Shinnimin heads up a forward contingent that features seven players who topped the 20-goal mark.
Carter Ashton, acquired from Regina in December, has been terrific for the Ams, providing size and power to a smaller-sized group while helping the team to the second-best power play.
Tyler Schmidt enjoyed his most offensively productive season from the blue line and, with 52 post-season games under his belt, is no stranger to the intensity of the playoffs. The addition of Matt MacKenzie from Calgary adds more experience to the Ams’ defense corps.
Goaltender Drew Owsley enjoyed another excellent season between the pipes for the Americans.
The Giants are in the playoffs for a ninth straight season, and have advanced to at least the second round in each of the last five seasons.
Up front, the Giants will lean heavily on Brendan Gallagher and Spencer Bennett, who combined for 81 of the team’s 236 goals this season.
Aside from veteran stalwarts Gallagher and Bennett, only Neil Manning, Brendan Rowinski and Michael Burns topped the 15-goal mark.
Injuries have definitely played a role in Vancouver’s descent from the top of the Western conference. On the back end, the perennially stingy Giants slipped to 11th in team defense, while their penalty killing unit slid to 16th in the WHL.
Manning and the Giants’ depleted defense corps will need to find a way to stop the Americans’ offense, which scored 19 times in four head-to-head meetings this season.
Mark Segal struggled to win just three of his final 12 starts down the stretch, but he shut out the Ams in the lone Giants’ victory in the season series.