Winterhawks back to playoff work

Portland hosts Kamloops for Games 1 and 2

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

Published:

 

PORTLAND -- There are better times for a hockey team to get a nine-day layoff than when its top line is scoring goals at a record pace.

But there are worse times for an extended break than to have it come early in what the Portland Winterhawks hope will be a long Western Hockey League playoff season.

Since their four-game sweep of Kelowna highlighted by 10 goals from Ty Rattie, the Winterhawks have focused on resting, conditioning, and fine-tuning. Starting today, their focus will be on a fast, hungry bunch of Kamloops Blazers.

The Winterhawks and Blazers commence their best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series with games today and Saturday at 7 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum.

Certainly, the Winterhawks’ preparation for this series included tactics to counter the Blazers’ speed-oriented forecheck. But Mike Johnston and Travis Green haven’t used the long intermission between series to cook up any new formula for success.

“I’m confident that we’re ready to play,” said Johnston, Portland’s head coach and general manager. “I’m confident we’ve been consistent enough in our games throughout the year. Really, the habits you have at this time of the year are built throughout the season.”

Rattie made a habit of scoring goals against Kelowna. His 10 goals were a franchise record for one playoff series, and he did it in the minimum number of games. That pace is sure to slow some, but if Portland’s top line of Rattie, Sven Bartschi and center Marcel Noebels can continue to be a threat the Winterhawks will like their chances.

“Just play like we played before,” Noebels said of the approach his line plans to take against Kamloops. “Play simple and work hard all the time and make some skill plays.”

In the regular season, Portland and Kamloops split four games with one of the Blazers’ wins coming in overtime. Rattie had two goals and five assists in those games. Bartschi played in three of those games and had three goals and six assists for nine points.

The chance to play on the same line with Rattie, and good friend Bartschi is special for Noebels, a German 19-year-old who spent his first season and half of this year with a Seattle team that ultimately missed the playoffs. Being in part of a powerful line adds to the excitement of this stage, he said.

“It’s fun. Sven and me had chemistry right away,” Noebels said, noting that he and Bartschi were youth hockey teammates in Europe. “We try to make some skilled plays and show some exciting hockey.”

Noebels, a fourth-found pick of the Philadelphia Flyers last June in the NHL draft, had eight assists in the first-round win over Kelowna. His size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and strength helps to open up space for his skilled linemates. And their talent gives Noebels more room to play aggressively, too.

Of course, it will take more than one hot line if the Winterhawks are to advance to the Western Conference finals.

If Portland follows its script, it will try to impose its will with a physical forecheck designed to wear on the Blazers’ defense as each game and the series progress. On the flip side, Kamloops is a quick team that thrives by using speed to pressure defensemen into mistakes in the defensive zone.

The Blazers, who won the B.C. Division and swept Victoria in the first round of the playoffs, aren’t particularly big up front, but their are feisty Johnston said.

“They get on you quick and pressure your defense,” the Portland coach said. “The other thing that’s good about their forecheck is they don’t get lost on the forecheck and give you easy outs out of your zone.”

Figure there won’t be any easy outs in this series, which features a Portland team that reached the WHL finals last season and a Kamloops club that just won a playoff series for the first time since 1999 -- a long wait for one of the WHL’s historically most successful franchises.

However it unfolds, the Winterhawks have faith in their foundation and experience.

“We don’t change our game,” said Brad Ross, now a veteran at 19 and a key second liner on these Winterhawks. “We may make a few adjustments, but we just go out there and play our game.”

PORTLAND vs. KAMLOOPS

(Best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal)

Friday, April 6

Kamloops at Portland, 7 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum

Saturday, April 7

Kamloops at Portland, 7 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum

Tuesday, April 10

Portland at Kamloops, 7 p.m.

Wednesday, April 11

Portland at Kamloops, 7 p.m.

Saturday, April 14

Kamloops at Portland, 7 p.m. at Rose Garden (if necessary)

Monday, April 16

Portland at Kamloops, 7 p.m. (if necessary)

Wednesday, April 18

Kamloops at Portland, 7 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum (if necessary)