WRITTEN BY KYLE MARTINAK
After an incredible comeback resulting in a Game 6 upset, the Portland Winterhawks are headed for round two of the WHL playoffs. The next adversary is the Kelowna Rockets, and despite soundly defeating the Prince George Cougars–the leading team in the BC Division–this may be the most difficult week of the postseason for the Hawks.
Kelowna finished their regular season with 9-1-0-0 in the last ten games, trailing Prince George by only one point for the division lead. And with a rigorous first round against their biggest rivals the Kamloops Blazers behind them, the Rockets have shown some serious lasting power. It’s likely that Portland has spent the break in between series to pause and reflect on what will be needed to keep up with Kelowna.
In general, Kelowna is a more physically intimidating team and the Winterhawks should expect some aggressive hits along the boards. This could work to the Portland advantage, however, as the Rockets are also from a division with a tendency to breed more penalty minutes. Their 87 penalty minutes within the playoffs outweighs Portland’s 74, which is already abnormally high for the US Division, where the average is closer to 54 minutes at this point.
So the Hawks might get some advantage from the power play. Every little bit helps. But the staggering counterargument to that is Kelowna’s impeccable special teams. At home, the Rockets have an impressive 82.6 percent success rate on penalty kills, which is at 93.8 percent within the confines of the playoffs. With games 1 and 2 in Kelowna, it might be wise for the Winterhawks to nix attempts to draw a penalty and just focus on staying upright.
Another must for Portland to keep up with their latest adversary: Dillon Dube needs to be shut down. The 18 year old forward is capable of tremendous breakaway and short timer goals, and the Winterhawks are vulnerable with their scrambled, unkempt back checks and chaotic positioning in their defensive zone. Dube also has plenty of power play goals under his belt this season, which should encourage the scrappiest of Portland players to keep things clean and stay out of trouble.
This would be more than enough to put Dube on the “most wanted” list heading into this weekend, but the really remarkable aspects of his game are his playmaking abilities; in the 2016-2017 regular season, the Alberta native had 20 goals and 35 assists. He’s offensively dangerous even without the puck, and he is more focused on the game score than his own stats.
Winterhawks fans will likely feel more comfortable with this matchup once the series transfers back to Portland for games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday, but in the meantime the Winterhawks have a trial-by-fire to attend. The WHL playoffs are a time of year where hard work and perseverance are rewarded with more work to do. Let’s all hope there is still some gas in the tank.