#WHLPlayoffs Preview: Kelowna Rockets vs. Portland Winterhawks
With the second round of the 2017 Western Hockey League Playoffs set to begin Thursday, April 6, WHL.ca provides a look in at each of the four head-to-head matchups across the league.
What fans can expect is a general introduction to the two teams, coupled with vital statistics and keys to the series. In our player-specific sections, we will highlight Players to Watch that do not serve as the usual suspects – the best of the supporting cast or perhaps the darkhorse playoff warrior.
Finally, we close each of our series previews with a quick look to the past for a brief historical take on the rivalry that exists – or stands to develop.
In our fourth and final second-round playoff previews, we examine an all-too-familiar matchup between the Kelowna Rockets and Portland Winterhawks.
The Portland Winterhawks might be the early story of the 2017 WHL Playoffs.
As the first wild-card seed in the Western Conference, Mike Johnston’s youthful club shocked the B.C. Division-champion Prince George Cougars, knocking them off in six games. Make no mistake, this isn’t the powerhouse Winterhawks squad of yesteryear, but boy, the pieces are in place for it to develop into something similar in the coming years and fans are beginning to see that potential.
With the likes of Cody Glass, Henri Jokiharju, Brendan De Jong and Ryan Hughes all eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft, there’s a strong core of talent that stands to remain for a few seasons, plus an equally promising crop of rookies like Jake Gricius, Lane Gilliss, Ilijah Colina and Brad Ginnell following in their wake.
As for the Kelowna Rockets, they survived another scrappy first-round series against their Interior rivals, the Kamloops Blazers.
The veteran-laden Rockets have their own crew of promising skaters eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft, led by right winger Kole Lind – who topped the team in scoring during the regular season – as well as defenceman Cal Foote anchoring the blueline. Beyond that, the experience of Dillon Dube, Nick Merkley, Reid Gardiner, Rodney Southam, Carsen Twarynski and Lucas Johansen might be second to none.
One needs not look far to find the post-season history that exists between these two perennial powers. Since 2011, the Rockets and Winterhawks have met four times in the playoffs. This year’s second-round series will mark the fifth clash between the two clubs over the past seven years. Over that span, each time these teams have met – regardless of the round – the victor has eventually gone on to compete for the WHL Championship. Will the same ring true in 2017?
— #WHLPlayoffs (@TheWHL) April 4, 2017
Game 1 – Friday, April 7 – Prospera Place, Kelowna – 7:05 p.m. PT
Game 2 – Saturday, April 8 – Prospera Place, Kelowna – 7:05 p.m. PT
Game 3 – Tuesday, April 11 – Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Portland – 7 p.m. PT
Game 4 – Wednesday, April 12 – Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Portland – 7 p.m. PT
*Game 5 – Friday, April 14 – Prospera Place, Kelowna – 7:05 p.m. PT
*Game 6 – Sunday, April 16 – Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Portland – 5 p.m. PT
*Game 7 – Tuesday, April 18 – Prospera Place, Kelowna – 7:05 p.m. PT
Oct. 29 – Kelowna (5) at Portland (3)
Oct. 30 – Kelowna (3) at Portland (2)
Jan. 21 – Portland (1) at Kelowna (4)
Jan. 28 – Portland (5) at Kelowna (4)
|Kelowna Rockets||vs.||Portland Winterhawks|
|45-22-5-0 (95 points||Record||40-28-1-3 (84 points)|
|Sixth Place||WHL Standing||12th Place|
|Fourth Place||Conference Standing||Seventh Place|
|Second Place – B.C. Division||Division Standing||Fourth Place – U.S. Division|
|283 (Third)||Goals For||278 (Fifth)|
|206 (Fourth)||Goals Against||256 (15th)|
|25.2% (Third)||Power Play||24.8% (T-4th)|
|801.% (Ninth)||Penalty Kill||80.2% (Eighth)|
|Eliminated in Conference Final||2015-16 Playoffs||Eliminated in First Round|
|Kole Lind – 30-57—87||Leading Scorer||Tyler Wong – 51-58—109|
|Calvin Thurkauf – 33-37—70||Second Leading Scorer||Cody Glass – 32-62—94|
|Nick Merkley – 23-40—63||Third Leading Scorer||Skyler McKenzie – 42-42—84|
|Calvin Thurkauf – 33 goals||Top Goal Scorer||Keegan Iverson – 26-44—70|
|Cal Foote – 6-51—57||Top Scoring Defenceman||Caleb Jones – 9-53—62|
(33-15-3-0, 2.78, .904, 2 SO)
|Top Goaltender||Cole Kehler
(32-17-0-3, 3.10, .910, 2 SO)
|2-1||Playoffs – Home Record||2-1|
|2-1||Playoffs – Road Record||2-1|
|14 (2.33/game)||Playoffs – Goals For||20 (3.33/game)|
|12 (2.00/game)||Playoffs – Goals Against||22 (3.67/game)|
|19.1% (11th)||Playoffs – Power Play||26.9% (Eighth)|
|96.9% (First)||Playoffs – Penalty Kill||70.0% (14th)|
|Reid Gardiner – 5-1—6||Playoffs – Leading Scorer||Cody Glass – 2-4—6|
(4-2, 2.00, .928, 2 SO)
|Playoffs – Top Goaltender||Cole Kehler
(4-3, 4.02, .894)
Key to the Series – Kelowna Rockets
Depth and experience: The Regina Pats over in the Eastern Conference might be the only team with equal or greater depth of experience throughout the lineup. Up front, the Rockets roll out a quality complement of players that take care of both ends of the rink with Dillon Dube serving as the glue of it all. The Calgary Flames prospect was dynamite in his team’s first-round series win, scoring at even strength, on the power play and short-handed. Mix in the return of Reid Gardiner – who buried the Kamloops Blazers with a Game 6 hat trick – along with youngsters like Nolan Foote and Erik Gardiner and there isn’t a line that doesn’t have the ability to make an opponent pay for its lapses.
Key to the Series – Portland Winterhawks
No expectations: Realistically, there isn’t a whole lot of outside pressure on this Winterhawks’ club to challenge, particularly to the same degree as it has done in previous years. For a young club with nothing to lose and everything to prove, that should be a welcome reality. They already knocked off the B.C. Division-champion Prince George Cougars and now they’ve got a shot at the high-powered Kelowna Rockets. Having already exceeded the expectations of most, the Winterhawks are in a prime position where everything from here on is gravy, so don’t surprised if they put a real scare into the Rockets.
Forward to Watch – Kelowna Rockets
LW Carsen Twarynski (2-2—4): Acquired prior to the WHL Trade Deadline from the Calgary Hitmen, the 19-year-old Twarynski has stepped up his game in the post-season and that’s exactly what he was brought in to do. After notching 21 points in 36 games with the Hitmen to start the season, the veteran Calgary product rattled off 22 points in 28 games upon his arrival in Kelowna and he has continued to product, all while maintaining a pesky presence, during the post-season.
Forward to Watch – Portland Winterhawks
C Ryan Hughes (2-3—5): The 17-year-old product of Edmonton might not be the biggest guy out there, but he plays with a lot of heart and a lot of skill. That’s been enough to get him noticed by NHL scouts, as he was listed 177th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting in its midterm rankings. At 5-foot-7 and 152 pounds, Hughes has to battle for every inch of ice he sees, but 57 points (27G-30A) in the regular season and near point-per-game production in the post-season proves he has the compete level to make things happen offensively.
Defenceman to Watch – Kelowna Rockets
Braydyn Chizen (0-0—0): He isn’t flashy, but that isn’t what he is relied upon for. Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing in at 196 pounds, the 18-year-old product of St. Albert, Alta., has a long reach and physical approach to the game that makes life less than fun for opposing forwards. His combination of size and ability was enough for the Minnesota Wild take a flyer on him with a seventh-round pick (204th) at the 2016 NHL Draft. While Lucas Johansen, Cal Foote and Devante Stephens will do the bulk of the heavy lifting, Chizen can hold his own and will punish anyone who tries to challenge that.
Defenceman to Watch – Portland Winterhawks
Brendan De Jong (1-1—2): Looking ahead to the 2017 NHL Draft, most of the talk – particularly when it comes to the Winterhawks – revolves around the high-scoring Cody Glass and smooth-skating Finnish import Henri Jokiharju. Let’s not be quick to look past De Jong. The 6-foot-5, 193-pound product of Victoria has come into his own this season, posting 23 points (8G-15A) in 72 regular season games. He’s been involved to this point in the playoffs and is vital to helping alleviate pressure off the likes of Caleb Jones and Jokiharju. De Jong was rated 109th among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings.
Goaltender to Watch – Kelowna Rockets
Michael Herringer (6 GP, 4-2, 2.00 GAA, .928 SV%, 2 SO): The 21-year-old product of Comox, B.C., was the WHL’s March Goaltender of the Month for a reason. Going head-to-head with Blazers counterpart and recently-signed Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Connor Ingram, Herringer came out ahead by blanking the Blazers twice over the course of six games. He made an eye-popping paddle save that made the rounds on social media and has upped his game since the calendar rolled over from the regular season to the post-season. Expect nothing less than the same in round two.
Goaltender to Watch – Portland Winterhawks
Cole Kehler (6 GP, 4-2, 4.02 GAA, .894 SV%): His numbers might not be fantastic, but make no mistake, Cole Kehler came to play in a first-round upset of the Prince George Cougars. In fact, the Winterhawks very likely wouldn’t have gotten past Prince George if not for the play of the 19-year-old product of Altona, Man., who saved his best for when it mattered most. With the Rockets playing some of their best hockey of the season, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Kehler will have to do the same in order to give his underdog Winterhawks a shot in the second round.
Playoff History – Kelowna Rockets
The Kelowna Rockets are owners of four WHL Championships (2015, 2009, 2005, 2003), the most recent of which came back in 2015. Kelowna was dangerously close to a second consecutive appearance in the championship series, having fallen to the Seattle Thunderbirds in last year’s Western Conference final. In 2014, the Rockets fell in the Western Conference final yet again. There’s no question winning is synonymous with the Kelowna Rockets as conference final appearances have almost become the minimum expectation out in the Okanagan.
Playoff History – Portland Winterhawks
The Portland Winterhawks are owners of three WHL Championship titles, the most recent of which came back in 2013. Prior to that, the club was crowned in 1982 and 1998, when it also went on to win the Memorial Cup. It’s not that long ago this franchise made four consecutive appearances in the WHL Championship series – 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Even in 2015 when they failed to advance to the Ed Chynoweth Cup final, the Winterhawks still managed to take the Kelowna Rockets to six games in the Western Conference final. That kind of post-season success is tough to maintain in the cyclical existence of major junior hockey. While they’re not quite the powerhouse they were a few years ago, the pieces exist for this team to make some noise in the post-season.
Head-to-Head Playoff History – Kelowna/Tacoma Rockets and Portland Winterhawks
2014-15: Kelowna Rockets defeat Portland Winterhawks 4-2 in Western Conference final
2013-14: Portland Winterhawks defeat Kelowna Rockets 4-1 in Western Conference final
2011-12: Portland Winterhawks defeat Kelowna Rockets 4-0 in Western Conference first round
2010-11: Portland Winterhawks defeat Kelowna Rockets 4-2 in Western Conference semifinal
1994-95: Portland Winterhawks (3-1-0) advance as Tacoma Rockets (1-3-0) are eliminated in West Division round-robin
1993-94: Portland Winterhawks defeat Tacoma Rockets 4-0 in Western Conference semifinal