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Spokane Chiefs’ defense must control Portland Winterhawks’ talented scorers to win conference crown

Spokane defenseman Jared Cowan, right, will have to mix it up with a Portland team that boasts 10 NHL draft picks to the Chiefs’ two. (FILE)
Spokane defenseman Jared Cowan, right, will have to mix it up with a Portland team that boasts 10 NHL draft picks to the Chiefs’ two. (FILE)

Spokane Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur has the same reaction as everyone else when he looks at the Portland Winterhawks.

“Their skill jumps out at you,” Nachbaur said. “If you make a mistake they make you pay for it dearly. They’ll never be out of a game because of that. They can have an off period, an off two periods then they get one opportunity and it’s in the back of the net. They have some pure snipers and some pure passers on that team.”

The Winterhawks, the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference regular-season champions, have 10 players drafted by National Hockey League teams and three more players ranked among the top 20 prospects for the next draft. Spokane counters with two drafted players, just one signed.

It’s a tough matchup for the Chiefs heading into the best-of-7 playoff series for the Western Conference championship that begins tonight in Portland.

“You can’t get psyched out by their lineup,” Spokane captain Jared Cowen, a first-round NHL pick, said. “We don’t have to change anything. We have to play the way we’ve been playing the whole year. It’s our style, it works for us.”

It certainly worked against Portland.

The Winterhawks won the West with 103 points, just one more than the Chiefs, who won the season series 5-4. And for all the Portland firepower, the Chiefs scored seven more goals and gave up 34 fewer.

That’s even more impressive considering they started the season with five losses in seven games, the last two at home against Portland. In dropping those games 3-2 and 2-1 to the Winterhawks, the Chiefs went 0 for 17 on the power play.

But when all was said and done, the Chiefs led the league on the power play, converting at a 26.5 percent clip, scoring 95 goals. Portland was at 22.4 percent with 74 goals, but has upped that to 30 percent in 10 playoff games.

The Chiefs led the league in killing penalties and the Winterhawks, who had to kill 90 more penalties, were fourth.

Still, it goes back to that talented lineup and the fact that when the teams met in the first round last year Portland won 4-3, taking all four games in Spokane.

But that’s just business as usual between these teams. In eight previous playoff matchups, five have gone to a final game.

“The key is playing our game, not playing their game,” Nachbaur said. “We don’t want to play that type of game where we’re exchanging scoring opportunities. We’re not going to win that way. We tried that once this year and lost 9-2.”

Ryan Johansen, the fourth pick (Columbus) in the NHL draft last summer, led Portland with 40 goals and 92 points in the regular season. Nino Niederreiter, the fifth pick (New York Islanders), had 41 goals and 70 points.

Steve Bartschi topped WHL rookies with 35 goals and 85 points and is considered the seventh-ranked prospect. Defenseman Joe Morrow had 49 points and is the 12th-ranked prospect and Ty Rattie, ranked 17th, had 51 assists and 79 points.

Portland picked up Craig Cunningham from Vancouver at the trade deadline. The fourth-round pick of Boston had 60 assists and 87 points.

The other point-a-game player is Brad Ross, a second-round pick (Toronto), who had 69 points in 67 games.

“They’re pretty deep, so it will help me stay (focused),” said Chiefs’ goalie James Reid, who went 5-1 against the Winterhawks. “I’ll get chances with all four of their lines.”

Spokane’s leader was Tyler Johnson, who had 115 points, including a league-leading 53 goals and was named the Western Conference Player of the Year on Thursday.

However, he will miss tonight’s opener because of a game misconduct in Tuesday’s series clincher with Americans.

“It alters our entire scheme,” Nachbaur said. “But it’s one game, we made due without Tyler for a couple games against Chilliwack (because of an injury in the first-round series). … We’ve played without some of our best players at times this year. That’s where depth comes into it.”

The Chiefs had eight players score at least 20 goals this season and Cowen had 18.

“Everyone knows we are a pretty hard-working, greasy team,” Cowen said. “We win by committee, everyone does their job. When that happens, we’re a pretty dangerous team.”

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