The Western Hockey League playoffs don’t officially start until the middle of March but as the Portland Winterhawks and Kelowna Rockets square off this weekend it will feel like they have begun early. The two teams are the class of the Western Conference and perhaps the WHL as a whole. The games Friday and Saturday feel like a preview of the Western Conference finals.
Both teams have been red hot and expect the Prospera Place crowd to be in full throat all weekend long. Both teams may have been looking too forward to this match up as they both dropped games on Wednesday night in uncharacteristic fashions.
Tale of the tape
The two teams are far and away the leading goal scoring teams in the WHL. They are separated by one goal as Portland has 245 to Kelowna’s 244. Portland has been slightly better in stopping the other team from scoring as they lead the league with fewest goals allowed. Portland goalie Mac Carruth, who you would expect to start both games, is 23-4-0-2 on the season with a minuscule 1.90 goals against average. The Rockets will need to get pucks on him and hope they can squeeze a couple by him.
Offensively both teams are loaded.
Portland has their super line of Nick Petan, Brendan Leipsic and Ty Rattie who are first, second and fourth respectively in the WHL in scoring. The three have combined for 103 goals and 261 points. The Rockets are led by Myles Bell who leads them with 31 goals and 72 points. Their back end is superb and their regular defenseman have combined for a plus 199 this year, all of them with double digit pluses.
Portland’s back end is not full of slouches either as Troy Rutkowski has 17 goals. They will be without last year’s Pittsburgh Penguins first rounder Derrick Pouliot who is injured but Seth Jones and Tyler Wotherspoon are healthy and are great in their own right.
The two clubs have met twice already this season and split the two games in Portland early in the season. At that point of the season neither team had really found their stride yet so come Friday those games are meaningless.
Kelowna has the advantage of playing these games at home where they have been lights out. They are currently in the midst of a 23 game home win streak and are one game away from tying their franchise record of 24 they racked up while playing in Tacoma. Not only would Portland love to end that bit of fun the Rockets have been having but this is a chance for them to send a strong message to Kelowna for any future playoff meetings.
For Kelowna the chance for message sending is just as strong. They are five points behind the Winterhawks in the Western Conference standings and a sweep would pull them to within one. If they lose both games it seems unlikely that they will catch Portland for the top spot and home ice in the conference finals.
Needless to say this is the biggest two game series in the WHL this year and all eyes will be on Kelowna for what should be two very entertaining games.