As the Kamloops Blazers prepare to face the Portland Winterhawks in Round 2 of the WHL playoffs, there is one over-riding question:
How will the Blazers deal with the Portland line that has Ty Rattie between Sven Baertschi and Marcel Noebels?
That threesome ransacked Kelowna to the tune of 32 points in a four-game first-round sweep of the Rockets. Rattie, the pride of Airdrie, Alta., leads the WHL playoffs in goals (10) and points (13); sheesh, he outscored the Rockets 10-9 in that series.
Baertschi has 11 points, while Noebels, a Jan. 10 pickup from the Seattle Thunderbirds, 'only' has eight points, all of them assists.
As much as the hockey world has focused its attention on that trio, the Blazers are more concerned about Portland's defencemen. That, the Blazers feel, is where Portland's success starts.
Four Portland defencemen combined for 196 regular-season points - Joe Morrow (64), Derrick Pouliot (59), Troy Rutkowski (45) and Tyler Wotherspoon (28).
The Blazers' strength has been its ability to get pucks in behind the opposing defence, then use the skating ability of the forwards to get in deep and create havoc, turnovers and scoring chances.
Which is what the Winterhawks can expect when this best-of-series opens Friday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland. With video scouting being what it is today, you can bet the Winterhawks know exactly what's coming.
"We don't need to change," Kamloops head coach Guy Charron said after Wednesday's practice at Interior Savings Centre. "Obviously, they are a good hockey team and there are things that we respect. A lot of their offence comes from their defence.
"Yes, they do have a potent line. . . but as far as how we need to play . . . we have to play Blazers hockey."
The Blazers have worked hard this season at creating an identity as an attacking team that is heavy on the forecheck. Having already played 76 games this season, Kamloops isn't about to change that.
At the same time, though, the Blazers are aware of the roll that the Rattie bunch is on.
"With the success they had against Kelowna," Charron stated, "I would hope that we can minimize the success of that line. It's going to be difficult to just focus on them because of the power plays and all the other aspects of the game.
"But if 5-on-5 we can keep them from creating momentum and get them a little bit frustrated, then that would be what we would try to do as much as possible . . . if we can do that."
Forget about the Blazers doing that by matching lines. With three solid forward lines and not a designated checking line, that hasn't been in Kamloops' game plan to this point. Instead, like a lot of teams, the Blazers will try to do it with a shutdown defensive pairing, in this case Austin Madaisky and Tyler Hansen.
"On the road, it's tough without last change," Charron said. "But we can certainly try to have the right defence out there and I think that's what we are gonig to try to do."
The other question mark hovering over the Blazers has to do with the absence of forward Chase Schaber, who had his season come to an end when he suffered a skate cut to his left leg on March 27 in Game 3 against the host Victoria Royals. Schaber had been playing on a line with Matt Needham and Dylan Willick, a slot that Charron said will be filled by Brock Balson, an 18-year-old native of Kamloops who joined the Blazers 20 games into the season from the BCHL's Salmon Arm SilverBacks.
Balson, who has been a healthy scratch in eight of the club's last 10 games including the four playoff games, put up six points in 42 games, but Charron said he is "very conscious defensively."
"He's big and strong enough to play well down low in our zone," Charron said. "He's going to have a challenge this series and if he rises to the challenge he'll get more ice time and more of an opportunity to play. If not, changes will have to be made.
"But because of his size and his ability to skate . . . now we've got three lines and all three lines should be able to play."
JUST NOTES: The Blazers' bus was scheduled to leave last night at 11 o'clock; they are to practise in Portland this morning at 11. . . . Rattie took just four games to set a franchise record for most goals in a seven-game series, breaking a standard that was set by F Brian (Bunny) Shaw in 1982 when he scored nine times in six games against the Seattle Breakers. . . . F Dan Woodley holds the Portland single-season record for playoff goals, having scored 19 in 19 games in the spring of 1987. . . . Baertschi, Rattie and Noebels finished a combined plus-31 against Kelowna. . . . Portland G Mac Carruth holds franchise playoff records for victories (22), games played (36) and minutes played (2,105).
THE WAY IT WAS
The Winterhawks and Junior Oilers/Blazers have met in the playoffs on 10 previous occasions, including one round-robin series. Here’s a look:
1994-95 – They each went 3-1 in a first-round round-robin series — splitting two games between themselves — that eliminated Seattle; the Blazers then beat the Winterhawks 4-1 in a conference semifinal.
1993-94 – Kamloops beat Portland 4-2 in conference final.
1992-93 – Portland beat Kamloops 4-1 in conference final.
1988-89 – Portland beat Kamloops 5-3 in conference final.
1986-87 – Portland beat Kamloops 5-3 in conference final.
1985-86 – Kamloops beat Portland 5-1 in conference final.
1984-85 – Kamloops beat Portland 5-1 in a conference semifinal.
1983-84 – Kamloops beat Portland 5-0 in conference final.
1981-82 – Portland beat Kamloops 4-0 in a conference semifinal.