All games 7 p.m. All Portland home games at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Game 1 — Kelowna at Portland, Friday, March 23
Game 2 — Kelowna at Portland, Saturday, March 24
Game 3 — Portland at Kelowna, Tuesday, March 27
Game 4 — Portland at Kelowna, Thursday, March 29
Game 5 — Kelowna at Portland, Saturday, March 31 (if necessary)
Game 6 — Portland at Kelowna, Monday, April 2 (if necessary)
Game 7 — Kelowna at Portland, Wednesday, April 4 (if necessary)
PORTLAND — The Portland Winterhawks are optimistic this will be another special postseason.
Among the many solid reasons for that confidence are some rather special special teams.
Portland led the Western Hockey League in power-play production during the regular season, scoring 104 goals and converting 29 percent of their power-play chances. The Winterhawks 83-percent success rate killing penalties ranked third in the league.
“We are lucky enough to have great players who are good at both offense and defense,” team captain William Wrenn said.
Add in coaches who excel at teaching their NHL-style systems, and on-ice leaders to organize things, and the result are a power play and a penalty kill that are difference makers.
As the Winterhawks embark on what they hope will be a deep playoff run — beginning their first-round series against Kelowna with Games 1 and 2 on Friday and Saturday at the Memorial Coliseum — their effectiveness on special teams and their wealth of playoff experience are two sources of optimism.
“A power-play goal here or there, a power-play goal in the third period, could be the difference between going home early or moving on to the next round,” forward Ty Rattie said. “We’re really happy with our special teams right now, and it’s a big confidence boost.”
Rattie scored 26 of his team-leading 57 goals on the power-play this season. He also scored four short-handed goals. Rattie said coach Mike Johnston’s power-play philosophy plays to his strengths.
“He expects us to follow the system from our own end to the blue line,” Rattie said. “Once we get into their zone let your mind and your skill take over. I like that style. More creative players, more skilled players like that style of play.”
Johnston said that high-end skill is a big part of the success on the power play. Also significant, according to Johnston, is familiarity among teammates who have played alongside each other for several seasons.
Consistency is also a key ingredient to success killing penalties, Johnston said.
“The penalty kill has been a point of emphasis over the last two years,” the coach said. “A lot of it’s the result of drills, and instruction and video work. The penalty kill (success) has been more about working at it and trying to become better.”
The Winterhawks would love to be just a little bit better this playoff season than they were in 2011. Last season, Portland won the Western Conference championship but lost to Kootenay in the league finals. Many of the current Winterhawks participated in 34 playoff games over the last two years.
“The experience that I had last year and the year before has really made this a comfortable situation,” defenseman Joe Morrow said of the playoff experience.
Wrenn, a 20-year-old defenseman who joined the Winterhawks midway through last season, said that experience should help the team weather any struggles that appear.
“I’m positive there are going to be some times when it’s going to feel like things are not going our way and we can’t get anything going,” Wrenn said. “But the key is to keep working hard and keep shooting pucks and doing what (the coaches) tell us to do systematically, and bounces will start going our way.”
And add up to another long playoff run.
“It kind of seems like my season is just starting rather than ending,” Morrow said. “Just like last year, I don’t plan to be going home anytime soon. Just having that mindset calms you down and gets you prepared for the playoffs.”
• Morrow and Rattie are among six players named to the WHL Western Conference First All-Star Team, announced on Thursday. Sven Bartschi, voted Winterhawks MVP by his teammates, is on the second all-star team. Morrow finished second in both the conference and league in scoring among defensemen with a career-high 64 points (17 goals, 47 assists) in 62 games. Rattie registered a career-high 121 points (57 goals, 64 assists).
• The Winterhawks defeated Kelowna in six games in the second round of the playoffs last season. … One of the younger teams in the WHL this season, the Rockets are the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.
• Portland won all four meetings with Kelowna this season, but al were close — including one that was decided by shootout. The Winterhawks and Rockets last met on Jan. 13. … Only three Rockets scored at least 20 goals this season: Brett Bulmer, Colton Sissons and Carter Rigby. … Six Winterhawks scored at least 20 goals, with Rattie (57), Brad Ross (42) and Bartschi (33 in 47 games) leading the charge.