PORTLAND — It is a classic matchup: Two of the most explosive offensive lines in the Western Hockey League; two strong-willed defenses; two battle-tested goalies.
Throw in the dislike that comes from a highly-competitive rivalry, and the best-of-7 playoff series that starts today between the Portland Winterhawks and the Tri-City Americans has the potential for great entertainment.
The first two games are today and Saturday at the Toyota Center in Kennewick. Games 3 and 4 will be on Wednesday and Thursday in the Rose Garden.
At stake is the Western Conference championship and a spot in the WHL finals.
“You’re going to be entertained by the skill, but you’re also going to see a lot of competing in the games,” said Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks head coach and general manager.
Headlining the show will be two terrific lines. Tri-City’s top line is led by a pair of 20-year-olds in center Brendan Shinnimin and winger Adam Hughesman, who have accounted for 12 goals and 32 points through 11 playoff games. Shinnimin led the WHL with 134 points (58 goals, 76 assists) in 69 regular-season games, and Hughesman ranked fourth in regular-season scoring (116 points).
Portland counters with the line of Ty Rattie and Sven Bartschi centered by Marcel Noebels. Rattie leads all WHL playoff scorers with 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists), and Bartschi is second at 21 points (five goals, 16 assists). In the regular season, Rattie was third in WHL points with 121.
“It’s going to be exciting times, to see our top line against their top line,” Bartschi said. “It’s going to be a big battle.”
Tri-City finished atop the Western Conference in the regular season, which is why the Americans have home ice for four of the potential seven games in this series. A big part of the Americans’ run to the division title was a fast start against Portland. The season series went 6-4 to the Americans, but Portland won four of the last five regular-season meetings.
One of the keys to Portland’s late-season success against Tri-City was keeping the Americans’ big guns from exploding.
“If their top line is going (well), then the rest of their team’s going,” Portland’s Cam Reid said. “I think the biggest key to this series is shutting their top line down.”
This much anticipated series wasn’t set up until each team survived a Game 7 on Wednesday. Facing elimination, Portland beat Kamloops 2-0 while Tri-City rallied past Spokane 3-2 with two late goals.
Johnston said he is anticipating that today will be the start of another extended series.
One factor in deciding the eventual winner might be which team keeps its cool in a rivalry tinged with dislike.
“In this series here, there’s a lot of skill on both sides, so nobody wants to go over the edge,” Johnston said. “Nobody wants to get into an area where you take too many penalties, because the other team’s power play is very effective.”
• Several Portland locations are hosting viewing parties for Winterhawks road games. The closest to Clark County is at the Kenton Station, in north Portland at 8303 N. Denver Ave. All Winterhawks games can be heard online through Winterhawks.com, or through the Winterhawks’ smartphone application.
• The winner of this series will advance to the WHL finals against the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between Edmonton and Moose Jaw. That series also begins today.