Broken down, hockey is a game of one-on-one battles. Win the majority of the battles and, in theory, you win the game.
The Kamloops Blazers lost the first two games of the WHL's best-of-seven Western Conference final with the Portland Winterhawks in no small part, according to head coach Guy Charron, because they lost too many battles.
"When we're in their end, cycling and working deep," Charron said after practice at Interior Savings Centre on Monday, "we lose battles deep, and we get all three guys caught. . . . Portland's transition from defence to offence is as good as I've seen on any team in the league."
The Blazers, then, are looking to be more disciplined when the series resumes tonight at ISC. Game time is 7 o'clock.
"It's not going to be easy," Charron admitted. "The way Portland is playing right now . . . they're playing very hard at both ends of the rink. We can't have any passengers and our best players have to be our best players."
In describing the first two games, Charron all but sang a paean to the Winterhawks as he discussed how well the team that finished atop the WHL's overall standings is playing right now.
"Their work ethic," he said, "is really, really good. They work hard at both ends of the rink. Their backchecking . . . from a forechecking situation, they outnumber us on a counter-attack. We get caught three deep and they get rushes like 3-on-2, 4-on-2. . . ."
The Winterhawks' power play is 3-for-11 in the two games and it isn't a case of a malfunction with the Kamloops penalty killers.
"They are executing well," Charron said. "They aren't fanning on too many opportunities. Whatever they try works."
Of course, the Blazers also have to find a way to solve Portland goaltender Mac (The Truth) Carruth, who is 7-0 in April.
"Some people say we need more traffic, but he's made saves in traffic," Charron said. "What we need to do is find ways to get more than just first chances. We haven't been getting second and third chances."
So . . . from a Kamloops perspective, what's the answer?
"We just need to be more disciplined," Charron said, "and play more our game . . . and not give up outnumbered situations the way we are."
The players talk about being more disciplined, too, and not just in staying out of the penalty box.
"When we got the puck in their zone and in behind their defencemen, we generated a lot of chances," veteran defenceman Tyler Hansen said. "But in the neutral zone and defensive zone, we were a little too passive. We know they're a good team and we respect them, but I think we almost respected them a little too much. We gave them too much time. If we're a little more aggressive and take the body a little bit more, we'll be more successful here at home."
At the same time, Hansen recognizes that the Blazers "were a little undisciplined" in the first two games.
"We were almost trying to make a statement," he said, "but I think that was their plan and they kind of lured us into that. If we're physical and play hard between the whistles, we'll be better."
Charron also pointed out that the Blazers haven't been very good in the faceoff circles.
"We need to be better," he said. "We're chasing versus having possession."
Blazers captain Dylan Willick agreed.
"It comes down to competing and battling," Willick said, "and it's not just the centremen; the wingers aren't getting in there quick enough sometimes and they're beating us to the pucks.
"We're chasing from the draws so we're chasing the game."
Even with all of that, and with having been outscored 8-1 in the two games, Charron said Portland had only a 44-37 edge in scoring chances over the two games.
"Where they dominated," he said, "was on the power play, where it was 17-8.
"If we play the way we can, we can beat this team. We can play with this team and we can have success against this team."
Of course, hovering over this series is a ghost from one season ago when the Winterhawks won the first three games of a second-round series between these teams and held a 4-0 lead in Game 4. However, the Blazers came back and took the series to seven games, with Portland winning the last one 2-0 at home.
Naturally, the Winterhawks aren't dwelling on what happened a year ago.
"I don't think it's worthwhile to analyze it," Travis Green, the Winterhawks' interim GM and head coach, told Paul Buker of The Oregonian. "You worry about the games in front of you, not the games behind you. They're a good team, they play well at home, and I'm sure they will play well (tonight)."
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