Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hawks Sweep Giants; Advance to Second Round For 5th Straight Year

2009-10 was a great season for the young Portland Winterhawks. It was the first full season under new Head Coach and General Manager Mike Johnston and it was the Winterhawks first time making it back into the playoffs since 2005-06 under then Head Coach Mike Williamson. The Vancouver Giants mowed through the Hawks in the second round of the playoffs in 2006, on their way to the Memorial Cup. In Portland's triumphant return to the playoffs in 2010, they would take them out in 6 games.

Derrick Pouliot, as a 15 year old played 7 games with the 2009-10 Hawks, notching an assist. Little did he know that the trip to the playoff round would be the start of a juggernaut in the Western Conference and the WHL. Pouliot would be a part of 3 straight Western Conference Championships and last year's WHL Title. This year is almost guaranteed to be his last year with the Hawks, meaning that he will be the quintessential Winterhawk as far as their rebirth as a premier power in the WHL. He added to his legacy last night in taking his Hawks to at least the 2nd round for all 4 of his years in Portland and his assist gave him 47 career playoff points, tying him with Glen Wesley for the most playoff points for a Winterhawks D-man.

Pouliot and the Winterhawks made short work of the Vancouver Giants in this series, closing out the overmatched team with a 6-1 win last night at the Pacific Coliseum.

Predictably in Game 4, the desperate Giants carried play early in the game and tested Portland's Brendan Burke. Burke again was up to the task and should be alleviating a lot of concerns amongst the Hawks coaching staff and among the fans that have questioned him for most of his WHL career.

The one shot he was not in position for came from Vancouver D-man Brett Kulak, who missed an open net opportunity on a crazy play in front of the Hawk's net. At the end of that play Giants forward Trent Lofthouse took a goaltender interference penalty. This set up the potent Portland power play. Brendan Leipsic hammered home a one timer from Oliver Bjorkstrand all but ending any hopes for the Giants to take an early lead.

32 seconds after the Leipsic goal Adam De Champlain deflected home a Paul Bittner shot and the Giants were reeling. Goals from Alex Schoenborn, Keegan Iverson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Chase De Leo would round out the scoring for the Hawks, while Carter Popoff scored the lone marker for the Giants.

Brendan Burke had an extremely shaky game one but seemingly has improved in every post season game since. He stopped 25 of 28; most notably stoning Ty Ronning and Cain Franson all alone in front in the first. He stopped 85 of 92 total in the series for a .924 Save % and a 1.75 GAA.

Payton Lee had been one of the Giants best player, giving them a chance to win in Game one and keeping them in Games 2 and 3 far longer then they should've been but he was yanked in the first period, 17:05 in after Schoenborn's goal. He stopped 10 of 13 and 119 of 135 in the series for a .881 Save % and a 4.89 GAA. Jared Rathjen came in despite needing stitches to close a wound on his face last Saturday, after taking a puck to the face on the Giants bench. Rathjen stopped 29 of 32 in relief.

Game Notes:
-The 3rd line of Dominic Turgeon, Alex Schoenborn and Keegan Iverson was in fine form for the Hawks Wednesday night. On one play the three of them forced Defensemen Mason Geertsen, Arvin Atwal and Center Thomas Foster right back into their own goalie setting up several scoring chances. This set the tone in the game and led to both Schoenborn and Iverson notching a goal apiece in the game.
-Brendan Leipsic had a goal and an assist meaning that he has 9 points in these playoffs, 2nd in the WHL. Leipsic now has 54 career playoff points, 7th for the Winterhawks all time. He is 2 points behind Todd Robinson for 6th all time.
-Pouliot sits tied for 11th with Wesley and 1 point behind Dan Woodley for 10th.
-Coach Mike Johnston is now 38-22 all time in the playoffs. His win % if .6333, tops amongst Hawk's coaches that have coached at least 2 playoff years.
-Not a single Vancouver player had more than one goal vs. the Hawks in the 4 games. Most notably absent from the score sheet outside of Game 1, was Edmonton Oiler prospect Jackson Houck.
-Portland's defense was much better on Wednesday night, as the mistakes of Tuesday night were not repeated.
-Mason Geertsen had a very forgettable series as he finished -8 in only 4 games and was out there for a majority of Portland's power play goals. He didn't seem capable of playing physical against the likes of Iverson and Turgeon and fast enough to contain Leipsic.
-Cain Franson finished his Vancouver Giants career with an okay series. He scored only one assist but was denied on countless scoring chances by Burke.
-Portland was 2/8 on the power play Wednesday and 6/27 in the series, including 4 for their last 13.
-Vancouver scored their only power play goal of the series after 14 chances.
-Dalton Thrower's absence was very notable in the series as his physical play may've helped limit the 3rd lines influence and his capabilities as the power play quarterback, would've surely faired better then Arvin Atwal running it.

3 Stars:
#3- Brendan Burke- Game one seems all but a distant memory as he has not allowed a cheap goal since that strange bounce resulted in a "goal" for Brett Kulak.

#2- Brendan Leipsic- He obviously loves playing against teams like this that can't get consistent back-check pressure leading to him having room to operate in the other team's zone.

#1- Oliver Bjorkstrand- 1 goal and 2 assists for the Danish sniper, as he is right behind Leipsic in playoff points with 8 (tied for 4th in WHL).

-Spokane was shellacked by Portland's likely second round opponent the Victoria Royals 6-1 behind 3 points apiece by Austin Carroll and Brandon Magee. The Royals look to close out the Chiefs in 4 tonight in Spokane. Mitch Holmberg got his first point in the first 3 games (an assist).
-Kelowna took game 4 from Tri City and the 3-1 series lead behind a 3 point night from Tyson Bailie. Myles Bell left the game and their is little word about if he is ready for Game 5 Friday.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bittner Good to Go? Game 3 Lineup Notes

Paul Bittner skated during warm ups and could go tonight in Game 3 for the Winterhawks. The listed scratches included Adin Hill (3rd Goalie), Justin Greer (Depth D-man), Skyler McKenzie (along for the experience) and Layne Viveiros (awful Game 1 plus solid Game 2 for Josh Hanson means no ice time). That left the final forward scratch to be either Ethan Price, Tyson Predinchuk or Bittner, if he cannot go.

Bittner left in some discomfort fairly early in Game 2 and was replaced on the top line with Alex Schoenborn. Schoenborn was tried early in the season with Leipsic and Petan with mixed results. His season didn't really start clicking until he was placed on a 3rd line with Dominic Turgeon and Keegan Iverson (Bittner's line mates last season). If Bittner is scratched, it would mean splitting up two different lines that were really clicking and could give the Hawk's their first challenge to their depth this post-season. This could even have a lasting impact on the first round series as Portland looks to bury the Giants in a 3-0 hole.

For Vancouver, Ty Ronning is a big help retuning from flu like symptoms and missing the first 2 games. He has been inconsistent this season but his return does give them another skilled forward on a team that is lacking scorers. In a surprise move, rarely used D-man Shaun Dosanjh was replaced with (1998 born) Matt Barberis (played in only 3 games this season). In my opinion, when Dosanjh saw some action late in the game, he was one of their better D-men. He played aggressive and took away a few scoring chances. It is clear this move was meant to give the (hockey age) 15 year old some playoff experience, though Russian import Dmitry Osipov is way more replaceable in the lineup. When players like Keegan Iverson initiated contact with Osipov in the first 2 games, he shied away from them and turned the puck over in bad spots. This could be a move Don Hay will regret, if he is even playing for this season.

It is interesting to note that Giant's owner Ron Toigo admitted that he is trying to land the 2016 Memorial Cup. He said that his team is out to prove, this post-season that they will be competitive for years to come, something the Board of Governors takes into consideration when they vote for the host.

Nic Petan will be playing in front of some friendly faces, as his parents made the trip north from Delta B.C. to watch their son play. He has 2 points in the first 2 games of the series, which is under his season average of nearly 2 points a game.

Puck drop goes at 7pm at the Pacific Coliseum.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dumba Back to Minnesota? and Other Winterhawks News

News shook the Twittersphere earlier today, when the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that they were looking into the feasibility of calling up 19 year old Defenseman Mathew Dumba. After playing 13 games with the Wild earlier in the season and having his WHL rights traded to the Winterhawks, Dumba was sent down by the Wild.

Minnesota recently lost, former Tri City Americans Defenseman Clayton Stoner (2002-05)  for possibly the entirety of the season (10 games). This, to go along with Keith Ballard's (groin injury) absence, meant the Wild were down to 5 Defensemen. They called up Jonathon Blum (former Vancouver Giant 2005-09) from the AHL and started making phone calls to the NHL offices, to see if it would be possible to call up Dumba on an "emergency basis." Since he is under contract, but in the WHL, the Wild must be in a situation where they have under the requisite 6 D-men to qualify.

Blum was the first option over Dumba, because he has NHL experience and has played this season. No their D-men on their AHL affiliate have.

As long as Blum, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon (former Spokane Chief 2005-10), Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Nate Prosser stay healthy in these last 10 games or long enough for Ballard to return, Dumba appears to be staying put with the Winterhawks for what will be assuredly be a long playoff run.

In other Minnesota Wild news, they inked Swedish D-man Gustav Oloffson to a 3 year entry level contract. This is news for Hawks fans because Oloffson's WHL rights are owned by Portland and reportedly Minnesota had been pressuring him to move to the WHL from Colorado College, where he spent this past season (Colorado's season is over). Oloffson will move on to play in the AHL. He will be a hockey 20 year old next season, otherwise there would surely be rumors that he would come to play in Portland.

Moving on to news regarding the 7 game series with Vancouver: 16 year old Giant's Forward Ty Ronning is reportedly skating after suffering from flu like symptoms and hopes to be back in the lineup for Game 3 Tuesday. Missing from practice was veteran Goalie Jared Rathjen, who took a puck to the face while seated on the bench during Saturday's Game 2. 15 year old Ryan Kubic will probably take his place backing up the red hot Payton Lee Tuesday.

Not much news out there concerning Paul Bittner's absence from the last 2 periods of Game 2 for the Hawks. Alex Schoenborn took Bittner's place on the top line, while Alex was replaced by Adam De Champlain on the "checking line." One would think, Layne Viveiros may continue to be scratched, as he had an awful Game 1 and Josh Hanson, replaced him and played much better.

Elsewhere in the WHL's Western Conference, Victoria, Seattle and Kelowna also carry 2-0 series leads. Victoria got another OT winner, this time from Logan Nelson on the backhand.

Friday, March 21, 2014

First Round Preview: 2)Portland vs. 7)Vancouver

Portland Winterhawks (54-13-2-3, 113 pts) vs. Vancouver (32-29-7-4, 75 pts):
-The Portland Winterhawks look to claim their 4th straight Western Conference title and 2nd straight WHL title this season. Their first obstacle is a well coached, young team in the Vancouver Giants.

Season Series:
-January 12th 2014: Portland 5 @Vancouver 4 (SO)
In their 3rd straight win, of what would be a 21 game win streak, Portland chased starting Goalie Jared Rathjen 22 minutes into the game with 3 goals and then after giving up a short handed goal to Dalton Sward, they got a late short handed goal of their own from Adam De Champain to force the extra session. Then Derrick Pouliot and Taylor Leier both converted in the circus, while Corbin Boes (in his 2nd game with the Hawks) stopped Cain Franson and Domink Volek for the win. Case De Leo had 2 points for the Hawks, while Brett Kulak had two as well.

-January 15th 2014: Portland 5 vs. Vancouver 2
Three days later the Hawks dispatched the Giants, again. This time in much more convincing fashion as they controlled most of the play, pumping 43 shots on net. Corbin Boes again was able to beat the Giants, getting 36 saves on 38 shots and being named the game's second star. Brendan Leipsic led the way for the Hawks with 1 goal and 3 assists, while Carter Popoff set up both Giant's goals.

February 15th 2014: Portland 7 @Vancouver 4:
One month later, the Hawks dominated play pretty much from the get go and were held off the scoreboard by Goalie Payton Lee in the first period, when he stopped all 12 Portland shots. The Hawks broke through in the second though and coasted to a 7-1 lead before giving up 3 late, to make it a close one. Boes stopped 31 of 34 to give him his 3rd win over the Giants, while Lee was chased 46 minutes in after giving up all 7 goals. Most of these were not his fault as Vancouver's defense coughed up a lot of turnovers. Alex Schoenborn, Dominic Turgeon and Oliver Bjorkstrand all had 3 points each for the Hawks, while Vanouver was led by Tim Traber's 2 late goals.

March 8th 2014: Portland 4 vs. Vancouver 1:
Having already all but locked up playing each other in the first round, this was as close to a playoff preview as you will see, except of course Portland started 3rd stringer Adin Hill. The Giants tried to send a physical message right away and added with a ton of blocked shots, they kept this game closer than it should've been. Portland finally put it away late in the 3rd period. Both Bjorkstrand and Leipsic had 2 points apiece for the Hawks, while Joel Hamilton had the Giant's lone goal.

Head to Head Leading Performers:
-Nic Petan-2-3-5pts

-Boes-3.97 GAA and .900 Save % in 3 games
-Hill-1.00 GAA and .966 Save % in 1 game.

-Ty Ronning-1-2-3pts

-Lee-4.57 GAA and a .874 Save % in 2 whole game and parts of the other 2.
-Rathjen-5.00 GAA and a .833 Save % in parts of 2 games.

History in the Playoffs:
-2005-06 Western Conference Semi-Finals:
Cain's older brother Cody Franson and Gilbert Brule led the way offensively and Goalie Dustin Slade held Portland to only 6 goals in 5 games, as the Giants won 4 games to 1 and ended up winning the WHL Championship, before losing in the Memorial Cup. Portland was led by Brandon Dubinsky and Jannik Hansen that post-season with 15 and 13 post season points respectively.

-2009-10 Western Conference Semi-Finals:
In an exciting 6 game series, in wich every game seemed to be s hoot out, the Hawks fell in 6 games to the Giants, who would go on to lose in the Western Conference Final to Tri City. Vancouver was led in the post season by Craig Cunningham and Brendan Gallagher. The Hawks were led by the young duo of Ryan Johansen and Nino Nieddereiter. This series was noable in that Vanoucver outsciored Portland 16-10 in just the first 2 games in Portland.

How They Match Up:
-Few teams can match up with the Winterhawks on this front they roll out 5 forwards that nothced 79 or more points in Petan, Bjorkstrand, Leipsic, De Leo and Leier. It is pretty difficult for most teams to slow down the top line of Petan-Leipsic and Bittner, let alone have another shut down d-paring to contend with De Leo-Leier and Bjorkstrand. Then coming along late in the season the thired line of Turgeon-Schoenborn and Iverson give them a checking line that can also pot a few goals when needed. If Adam De Champlain gets healthy, they have a 4th line cneter that plays aggressive and has game breaking speed. 16 year old Ethan Price and 20 year old Adam Rossignol should round out the 4th line with another pair of campable wingers that can also play strong in their own zone.

Vancouver has a top line of Hamilton-Franson and Jackson Houck that is certainly capable of scoring a few timely goals, but has not shown consistency over the season. Their second line should be some combination of 16 year old rookies Ty Ronning and Alec Baer along with Carter Popoff and 20 year old Tim Traber. Dalton Sward gives them a solid 2-way center to set up their 3rd line with most likely some combination of Trent Lofthouse and Dominik Volek (if healthy) and 17 year old Thomas Foster usually lines up as their 4th line center. Health is defintely a major factor for this forward unit as Volek, Lofthouse, Franson and Travis McEvoy are all listed as "day to day" while Jakob Stukel and 15 year old top Bantam Pick Tyler Benson are out for the season. De Champlain is the only Hawk's Forward out at this time.

Edge: Portland and it's not even close.

-Portland definetely had their defensive issues early in the season, but the emergence of Anton Cederholm, Layne Viveiros and Garrett Haar, as reliable puck moving D-men, has really helped them stick to their system of controlling the play and getting more scoring chances than their opponent. Also, those 3 were awful at turning the puck over in their own zone and making life difficult for Goalie Brendan Burke. In the last 2 months, the Hawk's Defense still does this far too often but has definetely improved at recovering and keeping the other tam from having second and third chances. Mat Dumba has also beena  godsend for top D-man Derrick Pouliot, as it gives him someone to share the load with. They have been split up for the most part as Pouliot has spent most of the season with Cederholm and Dumba has split time with Haar and 16 year old Keoni Texeira. Look for them to only be paired together when the Hawk's are clinging to a late and asmall lead. Dumba defintely has not been as physically imposing as he showed earlier in his career with Red Deer, but this is most likely by request of the coaching staff. You can certainly not argue with the results on the offensive end as he has scored 24 points in only 26 games with the Hawks.

Vancouver was led most of the season by their reliable tandem of Kulak and Thrower. The likely absence of Thrower means that Mason Geertsen will likely try to fill this role. Thrower pumped in 39 points in only 42 games, so that point production along with his leadership and strong defensive play is going to assuredly be missed by the Giants. Arvin Atwal and Tyler Morrison are adequate defenders against most teams, but they were victimized consistentnmly against the fast Winterhawks system. They were a combined -10 in those 4 games, with one assist on the offensive end. They will also play many more minutes in the absence of Thrower, something Vancouver fans will not be looking forward to. Top import pick Dmitry Osipov has had trouble transitioning to the North American game this season and will certainly struggle against the Hawks.

Edge: With Thrower healthy it would be a lot closer, but since he is likely out this one also goes to Portland by a large margin.

-The most important pplayer for the Hawks to make a deep playoff run, is Brendan Burke. He has very limited post-season experience but has played lights out lately, despite suffering from an illness that caused him to miss a bunch of games. This illness, along with the arrival of 20 year old backup Corbin Boes, actually means that shoudl be well rested and prepared for the long haul of the playoffs. Burke has not yet faced the Giants, which actually could benefit him, as at the WHL lelevel it takes awhile for some players ot get used to Goalies tendencies.

Payton Lee's numbers against the Hawks are horrendous, but it could certainly be argued that he has not actually played that bad. He made several huge saves in both the latter games, that kept Vancouver in games far longer than they should've been. He has no playoff experience though and will be relied upon to pull a couple wins out of nowhere for the Giants to even hope this is a series. He is backed up by Rathjen, should he be healthy and 15 year old Ryan Kubic, should he not.

Edge: Portland, because of Burke and Boes' play lately.

Special Teams:
-Portland sports the best power play in the WHL with an astounding 27.5 %. Look for this to continue despite their struggle against the Giants on the power play in the regular season. They went only 3 of 20 over 4 games. Their special teams will defientely be key in this series as Vancouver will look to slow down the Hawks with a physical game that is sure to warrant a few penalty calls. Vancouver's penalty kill is 9th in the WHL with 9 short handed goals; 6 of which were scored by top pker Dalton Sward.

-On the other side, Vancouver's PP is actually a solid 24.2 % good enough for 5th in the WHL. Franson is the heart and soul of this unit with 10 PP goals. Portland is 4th in the league with a PK at 81.2% and also sports a couple strong short handed threats with Bjorkstrand and Leier, who both notched 4 apiece. Nic Petan also notched 3 for the Hawks. The giants went 5/25 on the power play against the Hawks in the regular season and will look to continue this sccess, as 5 on 5 they do not have much hope of going goal for goal vs. Portland.

-It is fairly obvious that the Hawks will stick to their usual game plan of getting the puck out of their zone fast, controlling play and setting up quality scoring chances. I have been impressed time and tiem again with how patient some of the Hawk's goal scoreres have been this season and this will be needed more than ever agaisnt a team that blocks a lot of shots and will try to muck up the play. If the Giants are able to take this series to 6 or 7, it will be because they got some Portland players to lose their cool and had far more power play chances, resulting in some timely goals.

I have faith however, that Portland will continue to be patient and control play enough to just get many more chances than the Giants. On the other end, this is not a series that Burke has to be spectacular in, but rather just stop the pucks he is supposed to.

I see this one going to 5 games, due to Vancouver probably stealing one up north of the border.

Prediction: Hawks in 5

Winterhawks Survive Giants in Game One: 4-3

It was a wild one at the Mode Center on Friday night, as the second seeded Portland Winterhawks were given all they could handle from the Vancouver Giants, despite controlling most of the game and out shooting the Giants 45-16. Vancouver, well coached under 3 time Memorail Cup champion coach Don, Hay, took advantage of a couple generous bouces to make this game far more interesting for the 9,756 in attendance then it really should've been.

The Giants tied the game at three, 7:16 into the third period, when a Brett Kulak dump in took a bounce off of the boards behind Portland Goalie Brendan Burke and slowly rolled in off the back of his skate and then into his own net. This would've been a series changing moment, were the Giants to win. Instead after sustained pressure, Portland forced a Vanouver icing and a subsequent time out, Oliver Bjorkstrand found a rebound off a Mat Dumba point shot and skillfully flipped it to his fore hand in order to flip it into the gaping net. The Giants pressured late in the game, but Derrick Pouliot and the Hawk's defense stood and held serve on home ice 4-3.

Game Notes:
-Brendan Leipsic was a human dynamo out there tonight for the Hawks. He scored twice, hit one post and set up countless other scoring chances as his play was inspired.
-Mat Dumba and Layne Viveiros, paired together for large chunks of the game, were victimized on two of the Giant's goals and allowed a couple other golden scoring chances. Vancouver's first goal was scored when Dumba was beat to a a puck along the boards by Carter Popoff, who then slipped it past Viveiros and to Jackson Houck in front of Burke. Houck, who is the Giant's best sniper, tipped it past Burke for the 1-0 lead. On the Giant's second goal, Cain Franson, with his back to Viveiros, fed Thomas Foster in the slot for the one timer, tying the game at 2 late in the "first period." Viveiros ended the night as a -2.
-Another crazy moment happened in this one, when the player's bench gate became broken with 2:52 left in the first, prompting the officials to call an end to the period and just play the last 2:52 at the start of the second. This could not happen at a better time for the Giants, as they were getting overwhlemed and a 2 goal lead seemed inevitable for the Hawks. Instead they got a breather and managed to actually tie it up.
-Keoni Texeira was fantastic as he seems to be really getting better with every game. It was his drive on the net that set up a rather flukey Oliver Bjorkstrand wrap around goal, giving the Hawks a 2-1 lead. Look for 19 year old Josh Hanson to continue to get benched in favor of Texeira.
-Keegan Iverson, who earlier in his career really played on the edge, often taking dumb penalties, got under the skin of some of the Giant's players; namely Defenseman Mason Geertsen. He drew a couple penalties with some after the whistle shenanigans. His physical play also helped the Hawks set the tone in a way that let the Giants know their phyiscal style would not let them run rough shod over the Hawks.
-Leipsic and Nic Petan had one of the prettier plays of the year when their give and go goal worked so well, that Payton Lee did not weven know which of them was even shooting the puck.
-Look for the Giants to start burying Dmitry Osipov on their defensive rotation, as he made several poor plays and almost seemed afraid to get hit on one segment of play.
-It was great to see Adam De Champlain back and playing well after a 4 week absence.
-Burke stopped 13 of 16 and really only made a few good saves. He will definitely need to be better or he may ned up getting the hook for Corbin Boes at some point.
-Lee stopped 41 of 45 for the Giants and made about 5-6 great stops on Grade A scoring chances.
-Both teams were not able to convert on the power play as Vancouver went 0-2 and Portland 0-5. Portland actually gave up about 3-4 solid short handed scoring chances. The Hawks power play will have to improve.

3 Stars:
#3- Payton Lee- He really had a great first playoff game for the Giants. This game may've been put out of reach late in the first period, were he not able to stone wall the Hawks.

#2- Oliver Bjorkstrand- 2 goals for the Danish sensation, including the game winner. The presence of mind on that game winner, to flip it to get a better shooting angle is really something that you only see NHL caliber talent do.

#1- Brendan Leipsic- 2 goals for the 19 year old with the fresh hair cut, as he got 21st and 22nd career playoff goals. He really seems to be just too fast for Giants Defensemen, not named Brett Kulak,. Look for him to continue potting some points in this series.

Tomorrow night, we do it all again as the Hawks host the Giants for Game 2 of their first round match up.

The only other game was another Game One as the 4th seeded Medincine Hat Tigers beat the 5th seeded Swift Current Broncos 2-1, behind 25 stops on 26 shots by Marek Langhammer and goals by Curtis Valk and Chad Butcher.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

First Round Playoff Preview: An In Depth Look at the Vancouver Giants

Cain Franson
Vancouver Giants: 32-29-7-4, 75 points, 7th in the West:
New Blood:
The Vancouver Giants were the worst team in the WHL last season, sporting their worst record since their inaugural season back in 2001-02: 21-49-0-2-44 points. They also missed the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. Veteran Coach Don Hay; who led the Giants to a Memorial Cup win in 2007, was in the middle of a rebuilding process.

They took consensus top prospect Tyler Benson with the #1 overall pick in the 2013 Bantam Draft then with the #1 CHL Import Draft pick they took ('96 born) Russian Defenseman Dmitry Osipov. Though Benson (at 15) could not play until later in the season, Osipov and "97 born rookie Forwards Ty Ronning (son of NHL great Cliff Ronning) and Alex Baer were immediately thrown into the lineup. Ronning, Baer and Osipov were joined in the lineup by offseason acquisitions: ('94)Joel Hamilton, an undersized Center  from the Red Deer Rebels, ('93) born Defenseman Dalton Thrower, who had just played in the Memorial Cup with Saskatoon and ('93) power forward Tim Traber from the Victoria Royals.

These new parts of the lineup failed to gel right away, leading to Vancouver losing 9 of their first 10 games. Once Thrower was able to find chemistry with ('94) Brett Kulak, they were able to make one of the best top defensive pairings in the league, on both sides of the ice. Thrower finished with 39 points in 42 games, before an ankle injury sidelined him late in the season. Kulak meanwhile finished with 60 points in 69 games, good enough for 4th on the team in scoring and a recent contract with the Calgary Flames.

Ronning and Baer had up and down seasons, but are now slotted among the top 6 forwards. Ronning finished with 20 points in 56 games, while Baer had 18 in 60. Though they have inconsistent, they have both proven that they are going to be the Giants leading scorers in the coming years. Baer's bestnight was a 3 point effort vs. Calgary in October, while Ronning had a 2 goal game late in the season vs. Kelowna.

Hamilton, was cast away by Red Deer and took awhile before finding a home with Cain Franson and Jackson Houck on the top line. He only had 15 points going into 2014, but has scored 31 in the 2 and a half months since. He also has filled in admirably helping run the point with Kulak on the top power play unit. Traber at 6'2" 192 lbs has always known how to throw his weight around, but in Vancouver for his overage season, he had his best offensive outing yet with 23 points in 64 games (only getting suspended once).

Osipov has taken awhile to figure out the North American game and had only 3 points (all goals) in 54 games in his first season with the Giants. He is also second worse on the team in plus minus with -16. Particularly against skilled teams like Portland he has struggled immensely in reading where the next play is going to go. He may be in for a long series, unless he can make gigantic leaps in his defensive game.

Besides Kulak and Thrower, the heart and soul of this team has got to be ('93) Cain Franson. He has been the model of consistency in Vancouver the past 3 seasons with 58(4th on team), 54(2nd on team) and 63 (2nd on team) points in the past three seasons. Franson seems to do just a little bit of everything including scoring or setting up a goal when they really need it. He is not a guy that has the talent to take him to the NHL, but he is the type of guy who will rise to the occasion in the playoffs. The only question mark regarding Franson in the playoffs is whether or not he is even healthy, after missing the Giants last 2 games of the season. Franson recently finished his WHL regular season Giants career as 4th in career goals and 5th in career games.

Carter Popoff ('95) took a huge step forward this season, from 27 points to leading the team with 64 points, while playing in all 72 games. Popoff has fallen off a bit late in the season with only 8 points in his last 20 games, but his set up abilities are probably the best on his team and he provides the Giants with a solid #2 Center.

Edmonton Oiler drafted Winger Jackson Houck ('95), led the team in goals with 34, game winning goals with 9 and game winning goals with 6. Simply said, he is a sniper and should the Giants need a goal late in the game, he is hands down the most likely guy to pot one. Houck had 6 multi-goal games on the season, including 2 hat tricks. If the Giants fail in imposing a physical game on the more talented Winterhawks, Houck will need to have an electrifying series, for them to stand a chance and keeping up on the scoreboard.

The guy that has the job of helping contain Portland's point men on the power play is ('94) Dalton Sward. He has to be one of the more underrated 2 way Forwards in the league. He, very quietly ended up second in the WHL in short handed goals with 6 and his combination of stick work and speed will make him a threat to break a game open with a shorty in a crucial spot. The Hawks also have shown that they are prone to short handed goals with 11 against them on the season.

Lack of Defensive Depth?:
It is obvious that as far as the Forwards go, Vancouver just cannot compete with the amount of talent. That is why they have to rely upon Kulak, as well as, ('95) Mason Geertsen, ('95) Tyler Morrison and ('95) Arvin Atwal to contain the Hawk's bevvy of offensive talent and provide some scoring as well. Geertzen seems the most ready to jump into the role of top pairing D-men with Kulak, but the Giant's willingness to go after Thrower in the offseason, speaks to the fact that they do not have a ton of faith in his consistency. Geertsen and Morrison both had 23 points, while Atwal added 22. Since Thrower's injury though, when these 3 have been asked to play many more minutes and in crucial spots, they have just not been consistent enough. Geertsen has 3 points in his last 8 games, while Morrison and Atwal have only 1 apiece. Should they want to contend with Portland. Not having a lot of consistent point production from the back end wouldn't be a terrible thing, if their defense was able to shut down the opposition consistently. This, however, is not the case, as of the 8 playoff teams, they are 7th in goals against.

Speaking of goals against, Payton Lee ('96) was the real x factor this season for the Giants. He pretty much played the way you would expect a 7 seed Goaltender to play. He was inconsistent, only providing 1 shut out and that was against the worst team in the league (Lethbridge). Lee, is in his draft season and has shown potential to become a star for the Giants, but just has not put it together enough. He was ranked as a "C" Goalie in the last CSS rankings, meaning he is projected to be a late round pick, if drafted at all.

Lee is backed up by journeyman Goalie Jared Rathjen ('94). Rathjen has actually better numbers 2.98 GAA and .898 Save % in fewer games (47-29), but he has been battling a lower body injury and was listed as "day to day," during the last WHL weekly report. If Rathjen is unable to go, look for the Giants to ride Payton Lee, even if he is not playing well, rather than go to ('98) 3rd stringer Ryan Kubic.

Building for the Future:
Despite having a playoff bound squad with dreams of upsetting the former champs, Vancouver's deals this season, seemed more destined for competing for the title in a couple seasons. This coincides with their attempts to host the Memorial Cup in 2016. Vancouver acquired a total of 10 draft picks over the next 3 seasons, including three 2nd rounders. This was because they gave up several players that would help them win right now in Marek Tvrdon, Anthony Ast, Blake Orban, Reid Zalaitch, Taylor Vickerman, Scott Cooke, Tristan Sieben and Jake Kolhauser. Tvrdon especially is the type of power forward that the Hawk's defense may have struggled with, while Blake Orban would've been a great second pairing Defenseman to have. The cupboard is definitely stocked for General Manager Scott Bonner to trade some of these picks for assets or just stock up on young talent, to go along with Benson and hope to make a run in 2016.

The Giants did acquire depth forwards Trent Lofthouse ('94) and Dominik Volek ('94) for this season though and they have provided 15 and 12 points respectively. Both of them play the aggressive style that Coach Don Hay loves.

Though they made a nice little step forward this season, it really does seem that the Giants are looking 2 years down the line and are just happy for any success that they are able to find this season.

Monday, March 17, 2014

First Round Playoff Preview: 5 Burning Questions

The Portland Winterhawks will begin their pursuit of repeating as WHL champions and a 4th straight Western Conference Title, Friday night vs. Vancouver. I will be breaking my long hiatus this week, by previewing their series with the Giants.

First, there are really 5 burning questions entering this series for both teams:

Portland Winterhawks:

  1. Goaltending...Goaltending...Goaltending- This is really a two parter: Can the Hawk's Goalie(s) get and stay healthy? and: Can a completely inexperienced playoff Goalie in Brendan Burke handle the pressure in the playoffs and provide a stalwart and consistent presence as their last line of defense? Well Burke responded from his illness with stopping 76 of 80 shots over 3 games, in one of the best 3 game stretches of his career. Since over-age Goalie Corbin Boes was acquired at the trade deadline, Burke has not lost a game; going 12-0 with a 1.42 GAA and an amazing .948 Save %. Included among those 12 games were his only 4 shut outs of the season. I really do not think his illness will continue t be an issue as he proved last weekend, getting a nomination for CHL Goalie of the Week. The real question is whether his 20 year old backup Boes can get healthy. Boes has the only WHL playoff starts on the roster and he was added for just this reason. Boes went out with a lower body injury March 7th vs. Seattle. He has not played since then though he did backup 3rd stringer Adin Hill on Sunday against Everett. Burke and Boes will both have a few days of rest before game one on Friday and they should be both at or near enough to full strength to be the Hawk's 1-2 punch for the playoffs. As far as the Burke in the playoffs bit: I do not see this as an issue as he has grown so much this year and his inconsistency earlier in the season was due in large part to shaky defense in front of him.
  2. How will the Hawk's inexperienced playoff Defensemen fair? Were the Giants a team that could throw much more offensively at the Winterhawks, this might be a concern. In the WHL playoffs, sometimes the lower seeds can force a long series with a top seed by getting a consistent fore-check on D-men not used to the intensity of the playoffs and taking advantage of a lot of turnovers. Outside of the top line of '95 born LW Cain Franson, ('94) Center Joel Hamilton and ('95) RW Jackson Houck, the Giants cannot throw enough consistent scorers and playmakers at the Hawks to make this a major concern. In the early part of the season, D-men: Anton Cederholm, Garrett Haar, Keoni Texeira and Layne Viveiros could be almost counted on to make Burke's job hard for him by coughing the puck up in problem areas. Since the traded deadline though, they have been astoundingly better at upping the tempo and getting the puck out of their zone fast. The Hawks outshot the Giants in 3 of the 4 games (the other they tied) and controlled most of the play in all 4 (all wins). How much they can continue this in the playoffs we will see, but all 3 of these D-men have to be candidates for most improved Winterhawk of the year, that's for certain.
  3. Will the Hawks stick with the same lines they used for most of the year, or will they change it up? I really do not see much chance of Coach Mike Johnston changing the Petan-Leipsic-Bittner and De Leo-Leier-Bjorkstrand lines unless goals become really hard to come by. My opinion on the reason he experimented with Leier(in place of Leipsic) and then Bjorkstrand(in place of Bittner) on the top line, was more of a chance for him to see if he could create a little secondary magic, if those 2 lines (which have both played with each other for almost the entire season) failed to create consistent scoring chances in the playoffs.The Hawk's bottom 6 stayed consistent ever since the midway point in the season and there seems to be no reason why they would get swapped around unless things got desperate either.
  4. Will Dalton Thrower play?
    This one is an interesting one, as the Giant's Captain ('93) and arguably their best player went out with a left ankle injury in a game on January 24th against Lethbridge. Since his injury the Giants have gone 9-13, giving up 4 or more goals 11 times. Thrower tried to rush back in a practice 2 weeks ago and re-injured the ankle sparking speculation that he would be done for the season and thus finish out his WHL career. However, as far as I could tell, this has never been completely been confirmed by the team. Whatever the speculation, though, it seems certain that he will not play in the series with Portland, however the length. The impact of losing him is huge for Vancouver as he set up a formidable shut down defensive pairing with ('94) Brett Kulak and also was nearly a point per game player with 39 points in 42 games. His absence also means that Taylor Leier won't have to worry about getting his head taken off with a cheap hit.
  5. Can Payton Lee pull an Austin Lotz and steal a couple games? His season numbers aren't great with a 3.44 GAA and a .881 Save %, but he has been stellar as of late with a 2.92 GAA and a .917 Save % this month. Lotz had already stolen a game in the regular season prior to the playoff series with Portland and was even hotter going into the playoffs. The argument against Lee pulling a Lotz and keeping his team in the series is that the Hawks seem to have figured him out. They beat him all 3 times he started and chased him from the game once. They scored at least 4 goals every time they faced him. Lee has just not gotten hot enough to warrant deep worry within the Hawk's fan base.