Two of the top teams in the WHL’s Western Conference begin a best-of-seven second-round series tonight at the Sandman Centre in Kamloops, B.C.

The Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks are both tough opponents for one another, but there’s an interesting contrast as to how these two teams are currently built. While Kamloops boasts more NHL-drafted talent, such as Dallas Stars prospect Logan Stankoven and trade deadline acquisitions Olen Zellweger (ANA) and Ryan Hofer (WSH), Portland’s roster mostly composes of younger, home-grown talent; though that is sure to change with draft prospects Carter Sotheran, Luca Cagnoni, and goaltender Jan Špunar.

Kamloops won its first-round series against the Vancouver Giants in convincing fashion, outscoring Vancouver 24-5 en route to a four-game sweep. Meanwhile, the Winterhawks won their first-round series against an Interstate 5 foe in the Everett Silvertips, four games to one, and made history in the process. Robbie Fromm-Delorme’s series-clinching overtime goal in Game Five was the first time in Winterhawks history that they had won a playoff series with an overtime goal on home ice.

Before the series gets underway tonight, here’s a look at how the teams match up.

Forwards

Paving the way for the Blazers’ offensive success is the aforementioned Logan Stankoven. Despite only playing in 48 games for the Blazers, the Stars’ 2021 second-round pick put up near-video game numbers, scoring 34 times and adding 63 assists in his age-20 season. So far in the playoffs, Stankoven has mostly been on a line with fellow age-20 players Caedan Bankier (MIN) and Matthew Seminoff (DAL). Seminoff, in particular, is a player to watch out for– in the four meetings between Portland and Kamloops in the regular season, Seminoff scored four times and recorded five assists. Rounding out Kamloops’ high-octane offence are players such as age-20 forward and deadline acquisition Ryan Hofer, Maple Leafs draftee Fraser Minten, Islanders pick Daylan Kuefler, and Connor Levis, all of whom have over 25 goals this season.

Portland Winterhawks vs Kamloops Blazers (Photo Credit: Keith Dwiggins/Portland Winterhawks)

The Winterhawks don’t have the sheer star talent that the Blazers do on offence, but what they lack in star power, they have in-depth. Despite losing Winnipeg Jets first-round pick Chaz Lucius to a season-ending injury, as well as a mid-February scoring drought, the usual suspects in captain Gabe Klassen, age-20 forward Robbie Fromm-Delorme, and James Stefan have all pitched in 60-point seasons. However, what truly stands out about the Winterhawks’ offence are the contributions from younger players. Rookie Josh Zakreski pitched in a 13-goal season, and 18-year-olds Kyle Chyzowski and Marcus Nguyen built on strong rookie seasons by either matching or passing their points totals from last season.

Defence

You can’t talk about the Blazers’ defence without mentioning the player that they moved heaven and earth for at the trade deadline, Olen Zellweger. But you can hardly fault the Blazers for cashing in to get him. The Ducks’ second-round pick in 2021 has, by and large, been the best defenseman in the entire WHL and has been impactful both offensively and defensively. Plus, Zellweger knows the Winterhawks well, having lined up across from them many times with his former team, the Everett Silvertips. Not to be ignored, though, are the trifecta of age-20 players sharing the blueline with Zellweger– Kyle Masters, Logan Bairos, and Ethan Brandwood.

One could argue that the strength of the Winterhawks comes from their blueline, and they would have a point. The 2023 draft-eligible pairing of Luca Cagnoni and Carter Sotheran have led the way for the Winterhawks’ defence, especially Cagnoni, who, in just his second season in Portland, is fourth on the Winterhawks in total scoring. Behind those two are the only current NHL draftees on the Winterhawks roster, Ryan McCleary and Marek Alscher, who have been great this season in their own right.

Goaltending

Barring any drastic changes, the expected goaltending battle in the series will be between two 2023 NHL draft prospects. The Blazers will look to 19-year-old Dylan Ernst, the league leader in wins who shut out the Vancouver Giants twice in the first round. In the four games he’s started so far, Ernst has a 1.16 goals against average (GAA) and a .946 save percentage (SV%).

Meanwhile, the Winterhawks will most likely be starting rookie Jan Špunar. Špunar and expected backup Dante Giannuzzi split time between the crease in the regular season, but down the stretch, Špunar played well enough to get the nod in the first round, and took it from there, coming out of the first round with a .928 SV% and a 2.13 GAA.

I’m not in the business of making playoff predictions, because, as we’ve all seen, anything can happen in the playoffs. However, this series should shape up to be a 12-round heavyweight showdown between two of the Western Conference’s best teams.

By Bryan Del Fava

Covering the Portland Winterhawks for A51. You can also find me covering Oregon Ducks athletics at Duck TV. Twitter: @notthefakeBDF.

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