By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
All signs point to the Kamloops Blazers being the underdogs when they open the WHL’s Western Conference final against the host Portland Winterhawks on Friday.
While the Blazers put up the WHL’s fourth-best record (47-20-5) during the regular season, the Winterhawks finished atop the overall standings, at 57-12-3.
Portland also led the WHL in offence (334 goals) and was second in defence (169 against). The Blazers were seventh on offence (261) and fourth on defence (180).
“We have to respect the season they’ve had and the kind of team they are,” Kamloops head coach Guy Charron said after Tuesday’s practice at Interior Savings Centre. “You don’t accomplish what they’ve accomplished . . . we have to show respect to these guys.”
Of course, there’s respect and there’s too much respect.
A year ago, the Winterhawks finished two victories and three points ahead of the Blazers. Then, when they met in the second round of playoffs, the Blazers were hanging by the fuzz on their chins — down 3-0 in games, trailing 4-0 in Game 4 — when they awoke from their slumber and forced Portland to a Game 7.
“The good thing,” Charron said, “is that we have played them before . . . last season. It was a good experience and in some ways we have learned what their strengths are. Hopefully, we have learned and can be better at what we need to do to be successful against them.”
What makes the Winterhawks tick isn’t an international secret.
“Their top four (defencemen) are as good as anybody in the league,” Charron said.
Freshman Seth Jones almost certainly will be the first player taken in the NHL’s 2013 draft. Derrick Pouliot, who is wrapping up his third season, was taken by the Pittsburgh Penguins with the eighth pick of the NHL’s 2012 draft. Troy Rutkowski (Ottawa Senators) and Tyler Wotherspoon (Calgary Flames) have signed NHL contracts.
Led by Pouliot’s 13 points, the four Portland defencemen have combined for 37 points in 10 playoffs games. In the regular season, they totalled 204 points.
“We paid attention quite a bit to their defence last year and our philosphy hasn’t changed,” Charron said. “We can’t afford to have them be the impact players that they can be.”
In other words, when they don’t enter the offensive zone on the rush, the Kamloops forwards are going to have to get pucks deep, regain possession and not allow the Portland defencemen to start the transition game at which the Winterhawks are so good.
The Winterhawks took three of four games from the Blazers, with the last two of those played after the trade deadline.
On Jan. 30, the host Winterhawks overcame a 2-0 first-period deficit and posted a 5-2 victory. Moments after taking that 2-0 lead, Kamloops lost defenceman Joel Edmundson to a checking-to-the-head major and game misconduct.
Portland’s top line of Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan and Ty Rattie combined for three goals and three assists, while each member of what was then the Blazers’ No. 1 line — Tim Bozon, Colin Smith and JC Lipon — was minus-4.
On Feb. 20, the Winterhawks skated into Kamloops and beat the Blazers, 3-0. The Blazers mounted 27 shots on goal in that one but Portland severely limited the good scoring chances.
“We played shinny. We played to their game,” Charron said of those two losses. “We can’t do that if we want to be successful. We have to be much better defensively.”
Charron feels that he has seen improved defensive play as the playoffs have progressed.
One thing that doesn’t concern him is playing on the road, where the Blazers were 20-13-3 during the regular season and are 4-1 in the playoffs. Of course, the Winterhawks had the WHL’s best regular-season road record (29-5-2) and are 5-0 in the postseason.
“I think we’ve played better on the road than we have at home,” Charron said. “The players get excited to play at home; we have good support here. Maybe they feel that because they’ve played well on the road it’ll be easier at home. But in the playoffs, that’s not the case.”
The Blazers are taking a different approach to this road trip, by leaving today for a Friday game. They will ride the bus to Everett and spend the night there, then continue on to Portland on Thursday, arriving in time for an on-ice session.
“The nine-hour bus ride makes for a long day,” Charron explained. “Your recovery time is tough. It makes it more sense to do this going there.
“It’s a situation I think will leave us fresher.”
JUST NOTES: Kamloops F Tim Bozon (hand) did conditioning drills after yesterday’s practice. . . . Blazers G Cole Cheveldave was absent, as he attended a funeral. He is scheduled to return today. . . . The Winterhawks have added D Keoni Texeira to their roster. Texeira was Portland’s first selection in the 2012 bantam draft, taken 26th overall. From Fontana, Calif., Texeira, who turned 16 on March 24, played this season with the L.A. Jr. Kings U16 AAA team. The 6-foot-0, 195-pounder had 24 points in 32 regular-season games.
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