Since we call them our home team anyway then the WHL story for the prospects really starts and stops with the Portland Winterhawks. Forget that we prop the heck of Nino Niederreiter (NYI 2010 5th) but you are looking at a team that has 10 NHL draft picks and 1 with a NHL UFA contract on it's roster (even the owner's son was an NHL draft pick).
11 players who register 10 or more goal during the 2010-11 season and boasts two 40 goal scorers. This is a high powered offense that not only can put up numbers but they can do it in a hurry.
But the Winterhawks enter the playoffs with some warts of their own which could cost them the WHL title. The first one is going to be is Mac Carruth ready to play or is he still suffering "concussion like" symptoms along with a suspect groin? We like Keith Hamilton the back up but Hamilton is not going to take this team more than a round or 2.
The other wart is on ice discipline as the Winterhawks may have the WHL's 4th best penalty kill but that is because they racked up 1429 PIMs during the season. A Championship team has to have a defense that is almost as good as it's offense.
In a playoff series Portland will not get past a Spokane or Tri-City team if they give up 5-7 power plays a game. First up for the Winterhawks will be the Everett Silvertips who the Winterhawks had took 18 out of a possible 20 points from during the regular season from.
The Silvertips also have Craig Hartsburg behind the bench as the former NHL coach knows how to win in the CHL and he will have the Silvertips playing above their heads. That being said the only way Portland loses this series is if they give it away as they have too much of everything but goaltending for Everett to overcome.
Portland in 6 games
Roman Horak (NYR 2009 5th) and his Chillwack Bruins have one chance at defeating the Spokane Chiefs and his name is Lucas Gore. The 6th seeded Bruins have to have their goalie steal this series as they just do not have enough firepower to trade goals with the WHL's best offense.
The Bruins also have to do something they were not able to do during the regular season which is stop taking penalties. The Bruins were the most penalized team in the WHL during the 2010-11 season and if they keep up that trend against Spokane it will be 4 and out.
As much as we like the Bruins they are in reality a one line team and they will not get past Spokane. The Bruins in order to have any hope of beating Spokane have to take advantage of Spokane being kicked out of their arena until game 3 and steal both home games.
We do not see that happening as the odds are better that Roman Horak will be in Hartford before the Whale regular season is over.
Spokane in 5 games
In the WHL's Eastern Conference, David Toews (NYI 2008 3rd) and his Brandon Wheat Kings are the team nobody really wants to face in the WHL playoffs. Over the last 2 months, the Wheat Kings have risen to the 6th seed handing the Saskatoon Blades (the team with the WHL's best record) 3 losses in their last 4 meetings.
Against the Medicine Hat Tigers, you have a pretty evenly matched up series with Brandon having a little more size than Medicine Hat. Toews we believe has to step up his game for Brandon to defeat Medicine Hat.
Toews needs to deliver especially on the power play and if he does then Brandon has a chance. The problem Brandon really faces is that their home games will be played in Winnipeg due to a Winter Fair kicking them out of their own home.
Sorry but despite what anyone says you do lose something when you are not playing in your own arena as you know the ice surface, the boards and your home crowd. If Brandon did not have to play on the road basically for this entire series we would have picked them to defeat Medicine Hat.
Medicine Hat in 6 games
Dylan McIlrath (NYR 2010 1st) and his Moose Jaw Warriors are a huge question mark entering the WHL playoffs as we do not know which Warrior team will show up. We do know this much as Moose Jaw has to get someone else to do their enforcing for them as if I am the Kootenay Ice I send someone out looking to goad McIlrath into a fight every chance I get.
The Warriors lack overall playoff experience so it is key for McIlrath (one of their few playoff vets on the blueline) to remain on the ice. McIlrath's play on the blueline is going to be a big key as if he can repeat his performance from last season against Calgary then Kootenay is in trouble.
To be honest, McIlrath has the most to gain as well as lose in this season as Ranger fans will be watching how he does. A strong playoff will go a long way to showing the Ranger universe that his selection at number 10 was the right move.
Offense wins games but defense wins championships and McIlrath's presence on the ice can force the Ice to change their attack. That is on the ice presence which is why we say McIlrath needs to let someone else handle the fighting as much as possible.
Moose Jaw wins in 7 if they play disciplined hockey, if it turns into a parade to the penalty box then they will lose.
How the West will be won
In the WHL's Western conference, Portland has all the stars but Spokane and Tri-City have the playoff experience. If Portland can avoid reading their headlines and play with good discipline they can make it to the WHL finals.
The key to Portland is to start with their foot on the gas pedal and never let it up. The Winterhawks can go 3 lines deep for offense which is hard to ask of most WHL teams but if they can keep getting the secondary scoring then they are virtually unbeatable.
For Spokane and Tri-City their problem is each other as this is the expected 2nd round matchup and it will be a war. These 2 will beat up on each other so badly that the winner might not have anything left in the conference finals.
In the Eastern Conference, Saskatoon has not been challenged this season by any of the other teams in the east. It is hard to see that changing during the playoffs as the only way we do not see Saskatoon not make it to the WHL finals is if they beat themselves by playing sloppy hockey.
In the WHL finals, the question is going to be which team of Saskatoon or Portland loses it composure first. The Blades due to their record will have the home ice advantage but what Portland does have is 4 key weapons, the 4 letter word line (Nino/Brad/Ryan) and one Craig Cunningham who has 42 points in 58 WHL career playoff games.
Cunningham helps turn the Winterhawks into a 3 line deep team and the team that can roll as many lines as possible in the playoffs has the best chance at winning. The shorter your bench then the more tired your stars will become over 5-6-7 game series.
What Saskatoon does not have either is Nino Niederreiter who we have seen over the last 2 years live for the big games. If you think 14 goals in his last 11 games is not enough then 32 points in your last 20 games should be.
Portland in 6 games because "El Nino" has elevated his game and that makes the entire Winterhawk roster that much better.
Forgive our bias but it is more than just Niederreiter as since the beginning of the season we have seen the making of something special in Portland. From Mike Johnson the coach to a very underrated Joe Morrow this is simply too talented and too deep a team.
We see Portland adding another banner to their collection.
The playoffs get underway Thursday night, the NCAA's on Friday and while the Rangers are fighting for the playoffs and the Islanders out to ruin the playoff hopes of other teams then life is about to get very interesting.
(Memorial Cup courtesy of the CHL)