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.