PORTLAND — The numbers are hard to ignore.
Statistically, the Portland Winterhawks have put together one of the most dominant seasons in the Western Hockey League.
But the heart of Portland’s success can be found much deeper than the gaudy numbers produced by Brendan Leipsic, Ty Rattie and Nic Petan. Even the productive power play and effective penalty-kill numbers don’t completely explain how Portland has powered its way into the Western Conference finals.
If the Winterhawks are to reach the WHL finals for a third consecutive season by beating the Kamloops Blazers in a best-of-7 series that begins Friday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, work from players whose names seldom appear on score sheets will be a big reason.
“It really comes down to sacrifice,” said veteran Troy Peters, explaining a key ingredient for Portland’s success. “If you’re willing to sacrifice a hit to make a play; if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of your body to block a shot and work that little bit extra to make a play work, that’s the kind of stuff that puts you over the edge.”
Peters knows about sacrifice. An overage forward (Peters turned 21 in January) in his fifth season with the Winterhawks, Peters’ role is to disrupt and discourage opponents. On another team, he might be scoring more goals.
“When I play (the video game) ‘NHL 2013’, I don’t play as a third-line grinder,” Peters said with a smile. “Points, there’s no better feeling in the world than getting points.”
For the Winterhawks, Peters makes his presence felt by wearing on opposing players and by being a prominent force when the Winterhawks are shorthanded. He also is one of the leaders who have helped a young group of Winterhawks perform like seasoned veterans.
Peters centers the Winterhawks’ third line, and during the playoffs has been flanked by 16-year-old rookies Keegan Iverson and Paul Bittner.
“If we’re getting in on the forecheck, we’re getting our hits in and we’re soaking up a lot of possession time in their zone, then you know we’re doling our job well,” Peters said.
The work from Peters’ line and the fourth line — which lately has 17-year-old Presten Kopeck, 18-year-old Adam De Champlain, and 19-year-old Joey Baker — has had the double impact of wearing down opponents while allowing Portland’s highly skilled players to rest.
“Our young guys have played well. They’ve played well all year,” acting coach Travis Green said. Green cannot recall dressing the same 20 players on consecutive nights all season. Lately, Dominic Turgeon, Joe Mahon and Alex Schoenborn have been healthy scratches up front, but Green said that’s because the players ahead of them are playing well.
“We have five lines here that can play, eight defense-men that are ready to go in. You’re lucky if you have that.”
This is the 12th time Portland and Kamloops have met in the playoffs. Each team has won five series, and there was one round-robin format. Nine of those series were between 1982 and 1995, but the teams played a memorable seven-game second-round series last season, with Portland winning the first three games but needing a seventh game to vanquish the Blazers.
Kamloops returns 11 players from the 2012 series, including most of its key people up front. But Blazers goalie Cole Cheveldave was knocked out of the series after a Game 1 collision that cost Portland’s Oliver Gabriel a four-game suspension. Ten current Winterhawks played in last season’s playoffs, but many are in more prominent roles now.
Portland’s Ty Rattie took a tough hit from JC Lipon in Game 4 last year that sent Rattie to the hospital with a neck injury and helped give the Blazers life when the Hawks appeared headed for a sweep. Rattie said there was nothing dirty about the hit, and no ill will between the two when they were Team Canada teammates at this year’s World Juniors tournament. … Rattie also noted that he has played against Cheveldave since they were both about 11 years old.
Both Portland and Kamloops are 8-2 this postseason. Each swept its second-round series, though the Blazers did so with overtime wins in the final two games. Colin Smith, Kamloops’ leading scorer, is expected to play this weekend after missing the previous series with a head injury. Another top Blazer, left winger Tim Bozon, is less likely to play this weekend because of a hand injury.