The Portland Winterhawks skated into Kelowna this past weekend to face what was supposed to be their biggest challenge of the season. The red hot Rockets had won 23 straight games at home, were scoring at a pace to match the Winterhawks and had been making some ground in the standings on Portland. Not only did Portland snap the Rockets home win streak but they pounded the Rockets in back-to-back games.
They made a statement.
That statement is that they are the best team in the WHL and the road to the Memorial Cup will have to go through the Rose City.
Kelowna seemed like the biggest challengers in the WHL to Portland and the Winterhawks made quick work of them by scores of 5-3 and 5-1. The Winterhawks have now pushed their record to 46-8-1-2. They have only been beaten in regulation eight times and it is hard to imagine any team beating them in a best of seven playoff series. They lead the WHL in goals scored with 263, given up the second fewest goals with 126, sport the sixth best power play, are second in the league killing penalties at 90% and have three of the league’s top five scorers playing on one line.
As good as that top line of Brendan Leipsic (101 points), Nic Petan (100 points) and Ty Rattie (86 points) they are equally as good on the back end. Led by captain Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Wotherspoon and Seth Jones they can shut down the opponent and push the play offensively. Mac Carruth is having the best season of his junior career making the Winterhawks close to as perfect a team as there is.
They are fast, they can score in bunches and are never out of a game.
Is there anyone that can beat them?
The Seattle Thunderbirds are the only team that has beat them more than once in regulation this season, having knocked them off two times. Seattle has also been hammered the other seven times the two teams have hooked up and while the Thunderbirds currently would be the first round playoff match up for Portland it would be a pretty massive upset if they beat them.
The obvious team out there in the WHL are the Edmonton Oil Kings. The Oil Kings lead the Eastern Conference and are the only team that has been more stingy than Portland has this year. They also have the confidence coming off of beating Portland in last year’s WHL Finals, in seven games.
Could Edmonton take them again?
We will get a look at what that match up looks like this year on February 27th as the two teams hook up for their only regular season tussle, in Portland. This year’s Portland team is far more dangerous than last year’s version. They have just as much scoring depth, may be even more explosive and have an improved defense. Mac Carruth is a year older now and you would think that he will have a better playoff showing than the inconsistency he displayed at times last year.
If not Edmonton then who? Can the London Knights get them in the Memorial Cup? The Halifax Mooseheads?
While Portland will be nearly impossible to beat in seven, the only hope for the rest of the junior hockey world may be in the one game and done pressure of the Memorial Cup. Anything can happen in hockey and London or Halifax certainly could step up and bite the Winterhawks, and they should be very happy that they don’t have to try and win four out of seven.