Portland vs. Seattle – Mismatch or Miracle Waiting To Happen?

By Michael Conkey

There’s only one thing better than seeing two rivals battle it out in a game during the regular season…

Seeing two rivals battle it out in a playoff series.

The I-5 rivalry will heat up yet again when the Portland Winter Hawks play the Seattle Thunderbirds in game 1 of their WHL 1st round series on Friday. Portland has had a decisive edge in this series, winning nine games, losing once in regulation, losing once in overtime and getting one tie against them. Portland has outscored Seattle 55 goals to 35 goals in the 12 game series. With all this as evidence, it’s clear that Portland should have absolutely no trouble with the Thunderbirds, right?

Realistically, the Hawks should take this series as long as they come to play. But lets not forget, this is the playoffs. There are no definites in the playoffs. Just take a look at last year, and you’ll see how unpredictable the playoffs truly can be. Seattle was the sixth seed in last year’s Western Conference playoffs, back when they only had six teams in the West. They played the first seed Kelowna Rockets in the first round, and subsequently beat them. This gave the Hawks the bye in the second round, as they were the highest seeded team to make it past the first round. This year, however, there are no byes. With the addition of two teams to the Western Conference, there are 8 teams in this year’s playoffs, and no byes will be given to any team. Portland finished 3rd overall in the West, but they’ll play Seattle in the first round because the first round matchups are divisional.

These teams are not exactly on the best of terms with each other. As is typical with Portland-Seattle series’ both teams racked up a ton of penalty minutes. To be exact, Portland amassed 381, and Seattle got 407 penalty minutes. There have been a number of fights, though this hasn’t been the most fight-filled season series these teams have ever played against each other.

Portland’s strength against Seattle has come mostly from their top lines. Here are some of the big scorers against the Thunderbirds this season:

Josh Olson: 6 goals, 12 assists, 18 points, 12 GP

Jozef Balej: 11 goals, 4 assists, 15 points, 9 GP

Shawn Roed: 5 goals, 10 assists, 15 points, 12 GP

Paul Gaustad: 10 goals, 4 assists, 14 points, 12 GP

Jakub Klepis: 3 goals, 10 assists, 13 points, 12 GP

The scoring for Seattle against Portland has been a little more spread out, but there are some players who have done more than others in this series:

Brooks Laich: 7 goals, 6 assists, 13 points, 9 GP

Dustin Johner: 4 goals, 6 assists, 10 points, 12 GP

Tyler Metcalfe: 1 goal, 8 assists, 9 points, 12 GP

Trevor Johnson: 2 goals, 5 assists, 7 points, 7 GP

Matthew Spiller: 2 goals, 5 assists, 7 points, 12 GP

While the stats don’t favor Seattle in this instance, there is something that the Thunderbirds can look to as a good omen going into the playoffs. Seattle has played Portland much closer late in the season than the early season blowouts the Hawks gave them. The last game up in Seattle was dominated by the Thunderbirds for the first two periods. They’ve given the Hawks some problems early in games, seemingly coming out with more energy and more determination.

Portland needs to focus on some things to make sure they take care of business in this series. The first thing is to keep this series as more of a finesse series than a physical matchup. Seattle will try to draw the Hawks into taking stupid penalties, giving the Thunderbirds a chance to take advantage of having the extra man. The Hawks need to pay more attention to scoring goals than to what their opponents are doing. Also, Portland is at their best when they’re playing a quick transition game. The Hawks should be able to outskate the Thunderbirds whenever they want to. Another thing to consider for the Hawks is their problem with falling behind in games early. It has happened far too often in the regular season, and it can be flat out deadly to a team in the playoffs.

Seattle needs a few things to steal this series away from the Hawks. First of all, they need to slow down the tempo of the game. Dump and chase is the strategy these guys need to use. Their ideal situation is where they grind with the Hawks on the boards, knock the puck loose, and pass into the slot where an open T-Bird is sitting, waiting to fire a one-timer. Another key will be to take a lot of shots. Seattle only has a couple true snipers, so they need to rely on working to get rebounds and stuffing them back in to score their goals. If the T-Birds get out to an early lead, it will allow them to play a more defensive style of game, which is exactly what they want here. Brooks Laich has to have a strong series too. The Hawks have had little to no answer for him in the regular season series.

So, does this mean Seattle can pull off the upset? Well, anything’s possible.

As for what will happen, Portland wins this series in five games. The Hawks have more talent, better coaching, and I don’t think we’ll see the lack of determination that plagued the Hawks towards the last couple weeks of the season. And the goaltender matchup between Lanny Ramage and Nick Pannoni is good. These two know each other pretty well. How well? Let’s just say after their three career fights against each other, real well. In terms of actual talent, it’s pretty easy to tell which is better. Ramage was nothing short of awesome in the playoffs last season. If he repeats that performance this year, the Hawks can go far. Pannoni can also have some good games, but he’s easily rattled, and often gets out of position too easily. Ramage does have one weakness that some teams have tried to exploit. Early on this season, he was letting in some softer goals that went in over his glove. In the last few weeks, however, he’s improved greatly since then. If both defenses play equally well, Ramage should have the matchup won.

Prediction: Portland in five. No prediction of a sweep because Seattle will likely take one up in the Key Arena. Seattle will have some confidence coming in on Friday night. Portland just has too many weapons.