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.

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