With the 2018 WHL Playoffs set to begin Thursday, March 22, WHL.ca provides a look in at each of the eight head-to-head matchups across the league.
With a general introduction, vital statistics and keys to the series, we’ve got everything you need to know heading into the 2018 WHL Playoffs. While the usual suspects are known, our ‘Players to Watch’ section will take a deeper dive into some of the supporting characters set to take on a big role in the post-season.
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 ignite.
In our fourth of eight opening round 2018 WHL Playoffs previews, we examine what is sure to be a fierce divisional battle between the second seed Portland Winterhawks and the third seed Spokane Chiefs.
For those on the outside looking in, the U.S. Division was an enjoyable spectacle every night. For the players, it’s nothing short of a 72-game battle — the division title was up for grabs until the final weekend — just to earn entry into the 2018 WHL Playoffs. Getting through the next two rounds will be a challenge where only the strongest will prevail.
The Winterhawks are brimming with offensive talent in the trio of Cody Glass (Vegas Golden Knights), Kieffer Bellows (New York Islanders), and Skyler McKenzie (Winnipeg Jets), possess a solid blue line that includes a pair of first round NHL Draft picks in Henri Jokiharju (Chicago Blackhawks) and Dennis Cholowski (Detroit Red Wings) while another NHL prospect in Brendan De Jong (Carolina Hurricanes) has also anchored the defence for the Winterhawks this year.
In net, Cole Kehler (Los Angeles Kings) has been the go-to-guy for the majority of the year while backup Shane Farkas has performed well in 24 games for Portland.
Countering for the Chiefs, playoff-bound once again after missing the cut last year, are a trio of talented NHL prospects up front in Jaret Anderson-Dolan (Los Angeles Kings), Hudson Elynuik (Carolina Hurricanes), and Kailer Yamamoto (Edmonton Oilers). Defenceman Ty Smith has continued to prove himself as a capable hand on the team’s blue line and will have plenty of scouts watching his progressing in the playoffs ahead of the 2018 NHL Draft.
In net for the Chiefs is Dawson Weatherill, who put together a strong season that allowed the Chiefs to hold down their playoff spot and quietly recorded 12 wins in the final month and a half of the regular season.
While the Winterhawks scored early and often in the first five games of the season series, it was the Chiefs responding by winning the final three meetings of the regular season, creating plenty of tension between the two clubs heading into their 12th career playoff meeting.
The series will get underway at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, March 24 (6:00 p.m. PT) and continue with Game Two Sunday, March 25 (5:00 p.m. PT) in Portland. The series will then shift to the Washington and the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena for Game Three on Wednesday, March 28 (7:00 p.m. PT) and Game Four on Thursday, March 29 (7:00 p.m. PT).
Special teams provides special results: Looking at the percentages, the Portland Winterhawks have the advantage when it comes to the power play and the penalty kill, ranked fourth and fifth in the league respectively.
The Winterhawks didn’t allow a power play goal against the Spokane Chiefs until their sixth meeting of the season, a stretch were the Chiefs put up a goose egg on 26 power play opportunities. Their special teams game got away from them in the three losses during the season series so understanding the need to correct that during the series will be a big ask of the Winterhawks. Will they recover their prowess on the special teams in enough time to capture the advantage?
Key to the Series – Spokane Chiefs
Remember remember the fifth of…January?: While the Portland Winterhawks won the season series, they closed out the season series with three straight victories, including a 9-3 drubbing on January 5. Eleven different players recorded points in the victory for the Chiefs as they shelled Kehler with 50 shots in the game. This was a Chiefs team that also didn’t feature Kailer Yamamoto while he was still playing at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. Whether they simply caught the Winterhawks on an off-night or unlocked some sort of secret to beating the second best team in the Western Conference, replicating that type of effort four times could pay dividends for the Chiefs.
Forward to Watch – Portland Winterhawks
Cody Glass (37-65—102): As one of just two 1999-born players to surpass 100 points this season, the Vegas Golden Knights prospect is already a star in the WHL and will be a driving force in the playoff hopes of the Winterhawks this season. That’s eight points better than his campaign last year and he was especially dangerous against the Spokane Chiefs.
Granted, the Winterhawks weren’t victorious in every game of the season series, but for each of the seven games he played in, he had at least a point, finishing with 11 points (3G-8A) in seven games. That was second among Winterhawks forwards in the season series this year to only Skyler McKenzie (Winnipeg Jets), who had 14 points (6G-8A) in eight games against Spokane. Considering that six skaters – five forwards and one defenceman – produced at a point-per-game pace or better during the season series, it seems almost unfair to just a few players to focus on. This is a deep Winterhawks team that is expected to go far.
Forward to Watch – Spokane Chiefs
Kailer Yamamoto (21-43—64): There’s a number of deserving candidates from the Chiefs that could occupy this section, including Jaret Anderson-Dolan (Los Angeles Kings) and Hudson Elynuik (Carolina Hurricanes), but it’s the Edmonton Oilers prospect Kailer Yamamoto earning the attention in this case. After an extended stay with the NHL club to begin the season, Yamamoto’s production didn’t match his 99-point career year from last season. Named to the United States’ team for the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, Yamamoto returned from the tournament as a man on a mission.
Not only did he lead his team in scoring during that time period, he was fourth in WHL scoring as well, collecting 52 points (19G-33A) in 27 games. Finishing with 64 points (21G-43A) in 40 games, Yamamoto’s point-per-game pace ended up at 1.60, higher than his average from last season. If he has anything left to prove, you can bet he’ll be a handful to deal with in this series.
Defenceman to Watch – Portland Winterhawks
Henri Jokiharju (12-59—71): The social media channels of the Portland Winterhawks used the presence of Denmark’s Joachim Blichfeld (San Jose Sharks) and defenceman Henri Jokiharju (Chicago Blackhawks) to introduce ‘Words of the Day” from their respective cultures. Entering this year’s post-season, the Winterhawks have arguably one of the strongest defences in the entire league and the team is hoping it’s part of the guiding force for them to score plenty of voitto (that’s Finnish for victory).
With seven points (1G-6A) in six games during the season series against Spokane, Jokiharju was the lone defenceman from either team to average a point-per-game or better while playing in the majority of the series. With 20 multi-point games, including a pair of four-point efforts throughout the regular season, Jokiharju is an intimidating force on the Winterhawks’ blueline.
Defenceman to Watch – Spokane Chiefs
Ty Smith (14-59—73): The prestige of being selected first overall in the WHL Bantam Draft can come with a lot of pressure, but it’s safe to say 2015 first overall selection and 2018 NHL Draft Prospect Ty Smith has handled those duties magnificently. He finished second in WHL defensive scoring as a 17-year-old (he turns 18 in two days) and played a big role in helping the Chiefs return to the 2018 WHL Playoffs.
Of his career season, just five of his points came during the season series against the Winterhawks, though that more likely due to him playing minutes against the Winterhawks’ talented cast up front. How Smith handles the rigors of a seven-game series certainly won’t define his junior hockey career, but by playing in a different season, we’ll get to see what the first glimpse of Smith in a different element.
Goaltender to Watch – Portland Winterhawks
Cole Kehler (53GP, 30-16-1-4, 2.77 GAA, .904 SV%, 4 SO): At the beginning of the season, the Spokane Chiefs may have come to dislike the Los Angeles Kings prospect more than beyond the usual divisional rivalry as he started the season 7-0-0-0, including three victories over the Chiefs to quickly set the tone for the rest of the season.
With a 5-2-0-0 record against the Chiefs this season, along with a 2.87 GAA and a .922 SV%, and one shutout, Kehler has raised his game more often than not against the Chiefs. There’s nothing worse for an opposition in the playoffs than a hot goaltender, a spot the Chiefs could quickly find themselves in if Kehler recreates his regular season success (43-save shutout, 47 saves on 48 shots, 30 saves on 31 shots).
Goaltender to Watch – Spokane Chiefs
Dawson Weatherill (46 GP, 26-12-3-3, 3.09 GAA, .893 SV%, 2 SO): The last two months of any WHL regular season is always a time when teams rise or fold under the pressure of the playoff push. Thanks to Dawson Weatherill, the Spokane Chiefs gradually held off the two U.S. Division clubs below them in wild card spots while bringing his team closer to overtaking the Winterhawks. His 12 wins after February 1 is tied with only two other goaltenders (Everett’s Carter Hart and Regina’s Max Paddock) throughout the entire WHL.
Yes, wins are more of a team stat, but he’s allowed two goals or fewer in eight of those 16 games, helping his team score wins over the Everett Silvertips, Kelowna Rockets, and Victoria Royals — three of the top teams in the WHL when it comes to home records — while his team served as the away side. No goalie is without their faults of course, though he’s not the only goaltender in the league to have a bad night or a stat line he’d rather forget. Still, he’s been consistently good for the Chiefs, never losing back-to-back games in regulation during the course of the season.
Playoff history – Portland Winterhawks
As a five-time Ed Chynoweth Cup Champions and two-time Mastercard Memorial Cup Champions, playoff success and the Portland Winterhawks are synonymous. Having qualified for the playoffs in eight straight seasons, the Winterhawks have won 17 playoff series, including four trips to the WHL Championship Series. The Winterhawks are certainly in a period of upswing at the moment, given that before this stretch started, they had just three playoff series victories in the 11 seasons combined after their victory at the 1998 Mastercard Memorial Cup. With a talented forward core, deep defence and superb goaltending, can the Winterhawks contend for the right to raise the Ed Chynoweth Cup one again?
Playoff history – Spokane Chiefs
Like the Winterhawks, the Spokane Chiefs have enjoyed prosperous runs in the WHL Playoffs, winning a pair of Ed Chynoweth Cups and also capturing the Mastercard Memorial Cup in both 1991 and 2008. As the competitive U.S. Division has gotten continually stronger, the Chiefs have faced a much tougher road out of the Pacific Northwest with a pair of second round exits, three first round exits and most recently missing the 2017 WHL Playoffs. Following an 88-point campaign this season, their best since 2012-13, could things be looking up for the Chiefs in the post-season once again?
Head-to-Head Playoff History – Portland Winterhawks and Spokane Chiefs 2012-13: Portland Winterhawks defeat Spokane Chiefs 4-0 in Western Conference Round 2
2011-12: Portland Winterhawks defeat Spokane Chiefs 4-2 in Western Conference Round 3
2010-11: Portland Winterhawks defeat Spokane Chiefs 4-3 in Western Conference Round 1
2002-03: Spokane Chiefs defeat Portland Winterhawks 4-3 in Western Conference Round 1
2000-01: Portland Winterhawks defeat Spokane Chiefs 4-1 in Western Conference Round 3
1997-98: Portland Winterhawks defeat Spokane Chiefs 4-3 in Western Conference Round 3
1995-96: Spokane Chiefs defeat Portland Winterhawks 4-3 in Western Conference Round 1
1994-95: Spokane Chiefs (3-1) and Portland Winterhawks (3-1) advance from Western Conference Round Robin
1991-92: Spokane Chiefs defeat Portland Winterhawks 4-2 in Western Conference Round 1
1986-87: Portland Winterhawks defeat Spokane Chiefs 5-0 in Western Conference Round 1
1985-86: Portland Winterhawks defeat Spokane Chiefs 5-4 in Western Conference Round 1