Thursday, April 28, 2011

Leipsic Lifts Hawks to 2-1 Series Lead

Brendan Leipsic's overtime winner last night lifted the Portland Winterhawks to a 3-2 victory over the Spokane Chiefs in Game 3 of the Western Conference Championship Series. Leipsic, a 16 year old forward from Winnipeg, Manitoba, picked up a chip pass by Taylor Peters and carried down the left wing on a 2-on-1 with Peters. Leipsic's patience caused Spokane goaltender James Reid to make the first move, and then Leipsic beat Reid to the nearside post to cause the Hawk bench to pour onto the ice. Peters, who picked up an assist on the play, also scored the Hawks first goal, a shorthanded marker just 66 seconds after the Chiefs took an early 1-0 lead. The goal by Peters was the 9th goal the Hawks have scored in the postseason within 1:10 of clock time after a goal by either team. In fact, the Hawks have outscored their opposition 9-1 in the playoffs in those scenarios and 44-18 in the regular season and playoffs combined.

Last night's contest was very different than the first two games down in Portland from a special teams perspective. While the two teams combined for just 12 powerplays in the two games in the Rose City, there were 11 powerplays last night. And while the powerplays were perfectly even in the first two games combined, last night the Chiefs had 7 more (9-2) than the Hawks did. But, the Portland Winterhawk penalty kill outscored the Chief powerplay 1-0, killing off all 9 opportunities for the top ranked powerplay in the WHL's regular season. Taylor Jordan shut down Jared Cowen at the point, not allowing the Ottawa Senators' first round pick get pucks through to the dangerous areas. Taylor Peters, Ryan Johansen, Craig Cunningham, Brad Ross, and Nino Niederreiter also contributed up front for the Hawks when they were a man down. On the back end, the Winterhawks were led by Taylor Aronson, William Wrenn, and Tyler Wotherspoon, all of whom logged significant minutes on the penalty kill. Aronson, in fact, made a tremendous block on a backdoor play that would have given the Chiefs a 2-1 lead at that point early in the third. But Aronson came sliding across and helped out Mac Carruth, who made 41 saves on 43 shots. Any of about 12 Winterhawk penalty killers could have been in the 3 stars last night.

And now the two teams have a day off here in Spokane before facing off at the Spokane Veterans' Memorial Arena on Friday night in Game 4. The Hawks come into the game proud of incredible work ethic on the penalty kill, timely scoring by Ryan Johansen, who has goals in all 3 games of the series, and knowing that a 6th straight postseason win in Spokane would give them a stranglehold on their first conference title since 2001. The Chiefs on the other hand are looking to rebound from what was clearly a missed opportunity to take another lead in this series and defend home ice in the playoffs, something they haven't done against the Hawks since game 7 of a first round series on April 2, 2003. Tune in on 95.5 The Game with myself, Andy Kemper, and John Kirby bringing the action your way, starting with the pregame show at 6:30 or 6:35.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Game 3 Tonight

The Portland Winterhawks and Spokane Chiefs enter into Game 3 tonight tied at one game a piece in their Western Conference Final Series. In a series between two teams that scored 300+ goals in the regular season, goals have been few and far between. In Game 1 Spokane scored the lone powerplay goal of the game and won 2-1. In Game 2 Portland scored the lone powerplay goal of the game and won 2-1. But now the series shifts from the Rose City to Spokane Veterans' Memorial Arena. The Hawks come into this building with a bit of confidence, having won 3 games in the Arena this year, and all four playoff games in the building last year on their way to a first round victory over the Chiefs.

Tune in tonight to our pregame show on Freedom 970 as myself Andy Kemper, and John Kirby will dissect the matchup between the two teams. You'll hear from both coaching staffs, a bit about the uniqueness that is the bench setup in Spokane, and what we view as the intriguing matchups and keys to victory for each team. The pregame starts at 6:35!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Game 4 Tonight

As I sit here in the business centre (yes, we're in Canada, it's a centre) preparing for tonight's broadcast, a few things come to mind:

First, great effort by the Hawks last night in securing the 5-4 victory in game 3. They battled hard, capitalized on powerplay opportunities, and deserved the victory. Ryan Johansen and Joe Morrow continue their hot play, with Johansen notching 3 assists, and Morrow chipping in a goal and an assist. Back-to-back multi-point nights for both of those players.

Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter each eclipsed the 30 point plateau for their postseason careers. Now both averaging more than 1.5 points per game in the playoffs over the past two seasons. They elevate their play when things get tighter in the postseason, and almost seem to thrive on having less time and space to make their decisions. Columbus and the Islanders have to be excited on the way their prized 2010 NHL draft selections are progressing.

Brad Ross has now served 2 games of his 3 game suspension for the charging major that sent Zach Franko to the sidelines in game number 1. Neither player has played since the hit occurred. My two cents on the hit are that in today's atmosphere of hockey, where concussions and head checks are at the center of the consciousness, a hit like the one Ross delivered is almost automatically a suspendable offense. I don't believe there was any additional ill-intent by Ross in the check, it was an attempt at a physical play in what is turning out to be a very physical series. Franko never saw the hit coming til the last second, and though the WHL doesn't have a rule in the books against blindside hits to the head like the NHL does, it is still a dangerous play that is looked at severely by the league. The positive that fans of the Winterhawks can take out of this is the fact that the Hawks just continued with the gameplan despite the fact they were missing a point per game player in the regular season, a player who had scored in all 4 games of the Everett series. I'm sure Ross will be looking to add to that total when game 5 rolls around on Friday night.

Game 4 tonight at Prospera Place. Keys to the game for me are faceoff play, neutral zone discipline, and compete level in the corners. The Hawks have dominated the circle in games 2 and 3, which has directly led to 5 of their 11 goals in the last two games. The Hawks are difficult enough to cover in normal play, if you don't mark up on them at the dot, it is almost like gifting goals to one of the most talented teams in the league. In game 3 the Rockets capitalized a few times off of neutral zone turnovers by the Winterhawks, either to gain scoring chances or draw penalties. The two teams have seen what the other likes to run in their controlled breakout system, and now the time is coming for adjustments to those systems. Don't be surprised if the Hawks throw a new wrinkle or two in their neutral zone play tonight to try to break through Kelowna's defense. And I'd expect Kelowna coach Ryan Huska to do the same.

This series has been a physical one, and the corner play and battling is taking its toll now on both teams' defense corps. Now the time has come for the players to show true toughness in the corners. Toughness doesn't mean fighting, or charging halfway across the ice to finish a check. Now the type of toughness these teams have to show is the ability to take a check to make a play. Or to have a good second effort in the corner if you lose an original battle. Last night's contest saw 3 separate checking from behind penalties, and players were occasionally going over the edge on both sides. So which team comes back tonight and is willing to go into the corners hard again, knowing they may be blasted into the unforgiving endwalls? Don't be surprised if a defenseman or two on both sides is hesitant to go back and retrieve the puck. If they bail, they may pay on the scoresheet. Grit and a willingness to take punishment will be key.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hawks Players, Staff Receive Accolades

The Winterhawks got some accolades for their performance this season with some recognition from the WHL's postseason award nominations and all-star selections.

Ryan Johansen was selected to the Western Conference's first team all-stars. Johansen, from Port Moody, BC finished his second season in the WHL with 92 points. Johansen's 92 points led the Winterhawks in scoring, and was 7th in the league despite playing only 63 games. Johansen, the Columbus Blue Jackets' fourth overall NHL draft selection in 2010, averaged 1.5 points per game in the WHL this season. As arguably Team Canada's second best forward at the World Junior Championships, Johansen drew the attention of the hockey world this season, and helped explain why his draft stock went through the roof in the second half of last year. Part of that was because his play elevated last season in the playoffs. If Johansen's numbers jump similarly in this postseason, he may lead this Winterhawks team deep into the postseason this year.

Johansen won't have to do it alone, as he'll be joined by the Western Conference's rookie of the year Sven Bartschi. Bartschi, the 18 year old freshman from Switzerland, led the WHL in Goals, Assists, and Points. Teaming up with fellow 2011 NHL draft prospect Ty Rattie, Bartschi led the team in goals for the majority of the season. Bartschi, like teammate Nino Niederreiter, represented his team at the World Junior Championships, and helped them remain in the A pool for another season. Rattie and Bartschi combined for two outstanding seasons in their draft year, and in fact both put up better numbers offensively than Johansen and Niederreiter did last season in their draft years. With Bartschi's work ethic, speed, and shooting ability, some NHL team will be rewarded with undoubtedly an impact NHL player this summer at the draft in Minnesota.

Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks' Head Coach and General Manager, was named the Western Conference's Executive of the Year. Johnston has been in charge of the team since the fall of 2009, and in his brief 2 and a half years has returned the Winterhawks franchise back to their former glory. Johnston has proven that he's a quality recruiter in his time in the WHL, bringing impact players to Portland. He's also shown he's not gun shy in the trade market either, acquiring impact players Luca Sbisa last year and Craig Cunningham this year. With the former NHL assistant coach and known as one of the smartest men in the business at the helm, the Winterhawks fans can be assured that this team will continue to thrive for years to come.

One final note: The pipeline show blog has done a profile about which WHL defenseman should go first in the upcoming NHL draft. A compilation of scout opinions are there, and many have good things to say about Hawk defenseman Joe Morrow. To read the blog, go here:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Playoff Time!

When looking at what to write this week in the interim between the regular season and the playoffs, I've decided to just put a mix of all my thoughts about all things hockey, as well as some predictions for the first round of WHL playoffs:

First off, what an amazing accomplishment by the Portland Winterhawks this season to wrap up their first division title since the 2001-02 season. It's been a long time in Hawkville since a banner was raised to the rafters in the Memorial Coliseum for accomplishments on ice. When looking at the Winterhawks' roster this season, many experts in the junior hockey game thought a division title was a certainty. However, what actually transpired was one of the best races for a division title in recent memory. The Hawks didn't secure their crown until Game 71. Until the injury bug hit the Tri-City Americans in the last month of the season, any of 3 teams could have skated away with the title. The games between these teams down the home stretch were played at a high level, and the Hawks and Spokane Chiefs were two of the hottest teams in the league in the second half of the season. Over the final 10 games of the season before the 72nd game between the teams, with the division title obviously on the line for both clubs, each stepped up their play big time. The Hawks and Chiefs both went 9-1-0-0 over these games. Clearly both teams play their best when the pressure increases, and that may poise them both for extended playoff runs.

Now a prediction from yours truly about 7 of the 8 playoff series (I won't predict the Hawks-Silvertips series. Since I'll be calling those games, and cannot claim to be impartial about that series)

Eastern Conference:

1. Saskatoon Blades (115 pts) vs. 8. Prince Albert Raiders (67 pts)
This series, on paper, looks to be heavily lopsided in favor of the Blades. With 11 more points in the regular season than any other team in the league, Saskatoon comes into the playoffs the clear favorite. However, upsets occur, and in a similar matchup last season between Calgary and Moose Jaw, the Warriors pushed the Regular Season and Postseason champion Hitmen to 7 games. However, I don't see the Raiders being able to stop the Blades' potent offense. The Blades had 4 80 point players this season, and none of them were named Brayden Schenn. Raiders will be lucky to steal one game in this series. Saskatoon in 4

2. Red Deer Rebels (104) vs. 7. Edmonton Oil Kings (69)

This series, to me, comes down to defense. The Red Deer Rebels gave up 93 fewer goals in the regular season than the Oil Kings. Darcy Kuemper tied the league record for most shutouts in the history of the league with 13. Edmonton has to match the defensive intensity of the Rebels, and it's imperative they don't allow top draft prospect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins too many opportunities on the powerplay. Edmonton puts up a fight, but Red Deer closes this series out in 5 close games.

3. Medicine Hat Tigers (100) vs. 6. Brandon Wheat Kings (73)
Medicine Hat comes into this series hot, going 8-1-0-1 in their final 10 regular season games. They have league leading scorer Linden Vey, as well as Anaheim Ducks 1st round pick Emerson Etem. The Wheaties have put up goals in bunches ever since the trade that sent Brayden Schenn to Saskatoon. This series will be the most offensive in the league in the first round in my opinion. Brandon pushes it 7, and anything can happen in a game 7, but Medicine Hat will pull it out thanks to the experience advantage they have in net with Tyler Bunz.

4. Kootenay Ice (97) vs. Moose Jaw Warriors (86)
3 weeks ago, I'd have said that this series would be an upset for the Warriors. They have Dylan Hood who's very hot up front and first round pick Dylan McIlrath anchoring their defense. The Kootenay Ice on the other hand had stumbled through late February and early March, and looked very much like a team struggling to adjust to deadline acquisition Cody Eakin. However, near the end of the season they've looked close to figuring it out. This series goes 7, and I could see either team winning that game 7. However, Eakin is a big-game player, and he'll have a big game 7. Kootenay advances.

Western Conference:

2. Kelowna Rockets (87) vs. Prince George Cougars (70)
This series looks to be a wash in skill on the front end, with Prince George perhaps having the slight advantage. Kelowna has a group of forwards who work hard, and Geordie Wudrick has captured his sniping form in the second half of his 20 year old season. Brett Connolly has been healthy this season, and has shown why Tampa Bay decided to select him as the 6th overall NHL selection last summer. Both teams have skilled defensemen, with Tyson Barrie leading the Rockets, and Martin Marincin leading the Cougars. In the end, goaltender Adam Brown for the Rockets will be the difference. His play has been outstanding in the second half, and he'll lead the way in a long series against the Cougars. Kelowna wins in 6.

3. Spokane Chiefs (103) vs. Chilliwack Bruins (74)
The Chiefs missed out on the division and conference title by just one point. They have the second leading scorer in the league in Tyler Johnson, the tied for leading scorer among defenseman Brendan Kichton, and first round NHL draft selection and massive anchor on defense Jared Cowen. They tied for most goals scored in the league with the Saskatoon Blades. They had the second most shutouts in the league as a team behind the Red Deer Rebels. They finish the season with the top ranked Powerplay and Penalty Kill. But they have to start the series on the road, and Chilliwack has shown they're dangerous on home-ice. And the Bruins have Lucas Gore, who was credited with 77 saves last week in a game against the Chiefs. Ryan Howse, Roman Horak, and Brandon Manning are top flight players in this league. But the Chiefs will be too much for the scalding hot Bruins. Chilliwack will put up a great fight, and Gore will steal them a game. But unfortunately for the Bruins, he won't steal the series. Spokane in 5.

4. Tri-City Americans (92) vs. 5. Vancouver Giants (75)
The Americans floundered a bit down the stretch, suffered injuries to key players like Adam Hughesman and Drew Owsley. The last month of their season didn't go as planned, and the Americans were unable to defend their division crown. But Owsley's back, and they're playing the team that comes into the playoffs as one of the coldest in the league in the Giants. However, the Giants lost many of those games without Brenden Gallagher. He's back, looks healthy, and is ready to lead his team deep. You can't bet against a Don Hay coached team in a series, no matter who the opponent is. But the Americans had the goaltending and skill to get past the Giants last season in the conference final. I think the Americans are better built for the playoffs than they were last season, and the Giants aren't as good this year as they were last. Tri-City in 5...

So, I picked the higher seed in all 7 series profiled. So much for being bold. Bring on the Games!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Everett Liveblog 3/12/11

With Dylan not available to run a Live Blog for the second Everett game, I'll be hosting it on this site. Since I'll be color commentating as well, comments will not be posted immediately as i won't be able to really focus on the blog... However, once I give you pre-approval it will be business as usual!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

10-5. A 2011 Blowout: A 1980 Typical Wednesday

The Portland Winterhawks rolled through the Spokane Chiefs, exploding for 5 goals in 1:59 in the first period and skating to a 10-5 victory Wednesday. The Hawks got a 5 point night from Ryan Johansen, and a hat-trick from Brad Ross to lead the way offensively. The victory extends the Hawks' lead over Spokane to 7 points in the standings, and are now 8 points ahead of the Tri-City Americans leading up to their showdown Friday night in the Memorial Coliseum.

The Hawks victory last night, however, is nowhere near the most lopsided in the history of the two cities. Let's look back now to another time and era in the Western Hockey League: The 1980-81 season. That season, the Western Hockey League had 13 teams, 8 in the Eastern Conference and 5 in the Western. And whereas the league currently has parity, with teams rotating in and out from the top of the standings year by year, and the U.S. division arguably the strongest top-to-bottom in the league, the early 1980's were a very different story. In the early going of the WHL, teams didn't select players in a drafting system. In fact, the bantam draft wasn't initiated until 1990, and even then was only 2 rounds. The disparity between teams in the early seasons of the league was shocking. In particular, teams that attempted to make it in the United States had a very difficult time finding and recruiting western Canadian talent to come to America to pursue hockey. The Great Falls Americans only lasted 28 games before folding as a franchise. The Spokane Flyers lasted a bit longer, surviving a season and a half from the start of the 1980 season until December 2, 1981. It was in this time of turmoil that the most lopsided game in Winter Hawk history occurred.

The lone full season of the Spokane Flyers saw their franchise achieve 35 points in the 72 game 1980-81 season. That season, the Winter Hawks, already established in the WHL thanks to Brian Shaw's clever ownership decisions, finished second in that regular season with 113 points. Shaw, unlike the rest of the teams who came into the U.S. in those times, negotiated a key advantage in acquiring players. Shaw had relocated the team from Edmonton to Portland, taking a big risk in coming into the U.S. Having not moved into a market rich in young players of a high calibre, Shaw wanted to keep the advantages they had built in recruiting in Edmonton after the relocation of the franchise. What resulted was a "protected area" that the Winter Hawks had within a 90-mile radius of the city of Edmonton. Within the first few years the Hawks were in Portland, in order to establish the franchise, the Hawks had first crack at any players coming out of that area. What resulted was an influx of talent to the Hawks in their early going, culminating in the franchise's first Memorial Cup in 1983.

With these two vastly different groundbreaking U.S. teams squaring off, it was a definite case of David vs. Goliath. The Hawks, with their protected area and the hockey knowledge of fans in Portland thanks to the Portland Buckaroos playing in the city previously, were considered one of the league's powerhouses. The Flyers, in their brief history, never defeated the Hawks in 12 tries, being outscored 92-32. Never was this more evident than on December 10th, 1980. That night, Ken Hodge, who was upset previously at the Spokane franchise (in particular having 8 players on a last place team who would finish the season with over 175 PIMs), said before the game he would score 20 goals that night. The Hawks came out firing, and by late in the third period held an 18-2 lead. That's when Hodge decided that he would do anything in his power to come true on his word and score that 20th goal. So, he pulled his goaltender in order to do so. Not exactly sending your fourth line out in a powerplay late in a blowout like we see often today. Hodge made it very clear that he didn't hold the Spokane organization in the highest regard, and wanted to make a statement. However, one may argue, poetic justice was served, as the Flyers scored twice into the gaping net to cut the deficit to 14. In a bit of a twist, the two teams played in Portland just 3 nights later. That game saw the Hawks narrowly defeat Spokane by a count of 4-2, and in fact took the Hawks to overtime in Spokane less than a month later. Perhaps Hodge's pulling of the netminder motivated the opposition in the next few contests between the sides. Or perhaps not, as the night before the overtime game in Spokane, the Hawks defeated the Flyers 11-2.

Clearly the early seasons of the WHL were full of turmoil, with teams often having to cease operations in the middle of campaigns. The teams that attempted to become expansion franchises occasionally had owners with a false belief of knowledge about running a junior hockey franchise. What resulted was a climate where the established franchises, such as the Winter Hawks who scored 18 goals on the Flyers, or the Saskatoon Blades who scored 5 goals in 1:16 against the expansion Prince Albert Raiders, dominated the weak.

Perhaps we would see franchises in Billings or Grand Rapids currently if the league had provided expansion drafts, competitive leveling of the playing field, and bantam drafts for incoming players. Or perhaps the owners who had the foresight and knowledge about hockey survived. Those who hired the intelligent hockey people, smart marketers to sell tickets, and were clever businessmen. Perhaps teams like the Spokane Flyers had to fold, so that teams like the Spokane Chiefs could thrive and create something special, in the same market, only 5 years later. Saskatoon dominated Prince Albert in 1982, but the Raiders are still alive today. Perhaps it was the job of teams like Saskatoon and Portland to show no mercy to the weak. Like pulling the goaltender in an 18-2 hockey game.