Although the Stanley Cup playoffs are the main focal point of hockey fans, there is another series filled with intrigue.

The WHL Western Conference Final begins tonight (Friday) in Kelowna featuring arguably the top two teams in the league and the entire CHL. The Rockets have home ice advantage, however, the Portland Winterhawks carry the intangible of experience on their side.

This match-up is a rarity because the odds would suggest a pick-em series.

I watched the Rockets play the Prince George Cougars four times this season at CN Centre and was on hand to witness the Winterhawks play twice. In addition, I have seen both teams occasionally on television.

The Cougars had much more trouble with Portland losing to the Winterhawks 9-2, 8-4, 6-4 and 5-1 (total 28-11).

Kelowna took seven of eight against P.G. but most of those games were competitive. The Rockets won 3-2, 7-6 (shootout), 4-1, 5-2, 4-2, 4-2, and 9-5 while the Cougars won 2-1 in their second last meeting (total 37-22).

The overall records of Kelowna and Portland are mirror images of each other. Both teams are 8-1 in the playoffs and the Rockets were a league best in the regular season at 57-11-0-4, just five points better than the Winterhawks second best mark of 54-13-2-3. Portland has faced slightly tougher competition in the post-season; Vancouver and Victoria, compared to Kelowna’s opponents of Tri-City and Seattle. (The Rockets swept Seattle despite not having their top scorer, 20-year-old
Myles Bell, due to an injury).

The Rockets success is based on strong defensive play and solid structure while the Winterhawks counter with firepower and creativity.

Kelowna appears to have a significant edge in net with 20-year-old Jordan Cooke (2.28 GAA and .922 save percentage) over 18-year-old Brendan Burke (2.75 GAA and .911 save percentage). Burke backed up Mac Carruth in each of the past two seasons. In nine playoff games though, the numbers are comparable: (Cooke 2.34 GAA and .929 save percentage while Burke has a 2.01 GAA and .923 save percentage). The eyeball test favours Cooke with a more decisive advantage than the stats suggest.

On the blue line, both teams have a number of pro prospects. The Rockets are led by Damon Severson (13 points, plus 5 in nine playoff games) and Madison Bowey (10 points, plus 8) while the Winterhawks counter with Derrick Pouliot (16 points, plus 9 in nine playoff games) and Mathew Dumba (9 points, plus 13). Each team has an excellent supporting cast.

The Winterhawks have a leg up in the forward position, with significant depth. For instance, Portland won 8-4 at CN Centre on Feb 10th, and its leading scorer, Nic Petan, only had one assist. Petan, who suffered a knee injury against Victoria, and 50 goal man Oliver Bjorkstrand highlight an offense that had five players in the top 21 of WHL regular season scoring, all of whom tallied at least 35 goals.

On the other hand, Kelowna did not have one sniper amongst the top 21 point leaders. The Rockets score by committee, but as a team only scored 28 less goals than the Winterhawks over 72 games while allowing 25 fewer goals against.

Portland is the “hot” team as the Winterhawks are 36-2 in their last 38 overall games. They had a 21 game win streak snapped on March 1st.

Kelowna boasts a record of 4-0 against Portland in the regular season, winning those games convincingly (6-2 and 6-3 in Kelowna on Oct. 4 and 5, and 9-3 and 7-2 in Portland on Dec. 31 and Jan. 2). However, the Winterhawks did not have a full complement of players in those four match-ups. Petan, Pouliot, and Taylor Leier were all playing for Team Canada when the Rockets won in Portland.

The Winterhawks have been the class of the league the last few years. They are the defending WHL champions and three time defending Western Conference champs with a 52-12 record in the last four playoff seasons. Portland had the best power-play in the regular season (27.5 %) while Kelowna has the best power-play in the playoffs (35 %).

It’s been 3 ½ months since they have met and now there is a potential seven games over the next 11 days. (Games one and two are tonight and Saturday in Kelowna with games three and four in Portland Tuesday and Wednesday. If necessary games are April 25th in Kelowna, April 27th in Portland and April 29th in Kelowna).

This will be the third time in the last four seasons the Rockets will face the Winterhawks. Portland won in six games in a second round series in 2011 and then swept Kelowna in four straight in a first round series in 2012.

Ordinarily, I would select the team with the better goalie and better defensive play which would mean the Rockets, but I won’t go against a lethal offence consisting mostly of players that competed in last year’s Memorial Cup.

The Pick: Portland in six.

From the Quote Rack:

Arvind Mishra, a professor at Graphic Era University in India, spoke for 139 hours, 42 minutes
and 56 seconds breaking the Guinness Book World Record previously held by Brian Burke.

Peyton Manning has finally spoken to the media after his crushing defeat in the Super Bowl. He says next year, there will be no more “Omaha” audible on the field. His short list is ‘Wichita’, ‘Archie’ or ‘Elway’.

Comedy writer TC Chong of Vancouver (http://alwaysfunny.com/)

A 101 year-old message in a bottle has been found in the Baltic Sea. It was a Cubs fan saying ‘Wait till next year’.

An NCAA council has OK’d unlimited snacks and meals for NCAA athletes—and I hear the council member who suggested this received a $300,000 incentive bonus for doing so.

Contributor Bill Littlejohn of South Lake Tahoe, California

Ryan Malone of the Tampa Bay Lightning was arrested on charges of DUI and possession of cocaine. Who says hockey players aren’t big time pro athletes?

Chad Johnson has signed with the Montreal Alouettes. Will he change his name to “Quatre-vingt cinq?”

Contributor Janice Hough of Palo Alto, California www.leftcoastsportsbabe.com

And in case you missed it:

The top three demands of the CFL Players’ Association:
3. An end to coin-operated showers;
2. Paycheques must always round up to the nickel;
1. Compensation for brain damage caused by Rod Black.

Comedy writer RJ Currie www.Sportsdeke.com

Hartley Miller is the sports director for radio station 94X. His column appears Fridays on hqprincegeorge.com. Send along a quote, note, or anecdote to hmiller@94xfm.com.
Follow him on twitter: @Hartley_Miller