The Winterhawks are ready for a tough series with T-Birds
It’s often said that a playoff series breeds intense rivalries. When the Portland Winterhawks and Seattle Thunderbirds kick off their first-round, best-of-seven playoff series on Saturday, the intensity will already be there.
The rivalry between the two franchises has been long established and doesn’t need a playoff series to get it going. This playoff series will be like throwing gasoline on an already raging bonfire. They’ve played each other 12 times already this season and now will fight to win four more.
Portland ended the season by playing eight games in 11 days and ended up just short of clinching its third straight U.S. Division title. That’s a tough schedule to play down the stretch but now the Winterhawks get a week off to prepare for the T-Birds to come calling. For Portland star Nic Petan, the tough end to the season is now in the past.
“Winding down the regular season we kind had a couple of off games,” Petan said. “But I think that will help us in the long run. We get to play Seattle and all the guys are excited. Obviously, it will be a great matchup and pretty intense.”
Winterhawks first-year coach Jamie Kompon got his team to respond after a slow start to the season. They rebounded and were one of the hottest clubs in the WHL during the second half when they made a big charge to nearly win the division. They have two of the most dynamic players the league has to offer in Petan and Oliver Bjorkstand. It will be a tough matchup for the T-Birds, who had some success during the regular season against the Winterhawks.
The playoffs are a whole new season, however, and what happened in the regular season doesn’t matter as much.
“You’re dealing with everything magnified, the intensity level ramps up,” Kompon said of the playoffs. “Playing them 12 times, they didn’t have some of their guys at key times and we didn’t have some our guys. I think we played a handful of games where we had the full contingent on both sides. So it should be a great series. We’ve played them pretty well, they’ve played us pretty well, it’s been an intense series and we’re looking forward to it.”
Along with the elite skill players that Portland features, Kompon also has experience on his side. While it’s his first WHL playoff run, his core players have been here before. Portland’s roster has 446 playoff games under its belt compared to only 146 for Seattle. That’s a huge advantage and Kompon said he’s leaned on his veteran players to work with the rookies and first-year guys to make sure they’re preparing the right way.
Nobody in this series has as much playoff experience as Petan. The Winnipeg Jets draft prospect has played 71 playoff games in his illustrious junior career. Every year he has been in the league he has made it to the WHL Finals. With this being his last year in Portland, he’s looking to go out on top.
“Just to finish off my career, I think it just makes sense to do it again,” he said. “Every year I’ve been there and I don’t see why we can’t do it again.”
The Winterhawks are tough team to match up against in a series where matchups are going to be key. Their top line of Petan, Bjorkstrand and Paul Bittner has combined to score 112 of Portland’s 287 tallies this year. Seattle will try to counter that line with the Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Calvin Spencer lineup front and Shea Theodore with Jerret Smith on the back end. The problem for Seattle is that it won’t have last change on the road so there could be some mismatches at play.
“Whoever we are matched up against I think it’s important to work them,” Petan said. “Get them tired and wear them down a little bit. We’ve had success in the past with just working hard, keeping pucks on our sticks. Doing that can wear them down.”
Petan’s line has been as good as any in the league. Bjorkstrand scored 63 times and has seven goals in his last two games against Seattle. In their final game this past Saturday, Kompon moved Bittner down to a line centered by Chase De Leo to mix things up. Can we expect that during the series?
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Kompon said. “That line is a known commodity and we know that Bittner, Nic and Ollie have produced all year … I’m comfortable with moving Paul around but at the same time I’m not going to commit one way or the other where we’re going to start.”
When you play a team as many times during the season as these two have, you know what you’re going to get from each other. There won’t be any secrets and the Winterhawks know what the T-Birds are going to bring to the table.
“They play with a lot of structure and they play the right way and it’s going to be a great series,” Kompon said of the T-Birds. “They’re a hard team to play against because they play with a lot of intensity and tempo, and they play hard. We’re expecting nothing but their best and then some.”
Emotions have run high during regular-season games between these two squads and with everything at stake in the postseason, things could get even more heated. This series could come down to which team maintains its composure the most.
“Obviously, you’ve got to play hard but the most important thing is that you stay disciplined,” Kompon said. “You can’t let your emotions take over. It is going to be an emotional series, you expect seven games and in that seven games there’s going to be some bad blood, but you’ve got to remain composed and disciplined.
“This time of year it’s not about retaliation or getting even, it’s about doing the right things and putting the team first.”
There is a general sense of dislike amongst these teams on the ice, but off it there is a different story. Petan grew up in Delta, a suburb of Vancouver, and has known Shea Theodore since they were kids. The two were also teammates with Team Canada and won gold at the World Junior Championships in January.
Petan said all that friendship ends on the ice.
“I think maybe we’ll throw some laughs aside since it’s playoff time,” he said with a chuckle. “We’ll be a little more serious, but always off the ice we’re good friends.”
Things will be loud in both buildings during this series as well. Portland and Seattle usually draw big, rowdy crowds when these two are getting together. Kompon joked that he can judge how loud the crowd is by how raspy his voice is after the game. He usually is hoarse after playing Seattle since he has to yell so his guys can hear him on the bench.
The crowds are just one more element that could make this series something special.
“The fans are unbelievable here in Portland, I can speak for that,” Kompon said. “In turn the fans in Seattle, they’ve got a great group of fans. The ‘Portland Sucks’ thing gets old but it’s fun and it’s a great time of year. Everyone is energized and it will be a great energy and great atmosphere in both buildings.”
Game 1 gets underway Saturday evening at 6 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland.