VANCOUVER - The Portland Winterhawks have a chance to pull off a rare feat in this year's Western Hockey League playoffs.
The Winterhawks are seeking to become the first team to reach four consecutive WHL finals since the New Westminster Bruins did it between 1974-75 and 1977-78.
But that will not be the focus of Winterhawks general manager and coach Mike Johnston as Portland, which placed second in the Western Conference, opens at home Friday against the seventh-place Vancouver Giants.
"It's a long way away," Johnston said of the finals during a telephone interview this week. "We're worried about Vancouver and how challenging the playoffs are, and how hard it is (to win.) So that's probably the furthest thing from our mind right now."
In the other Western Conference first-round series, the Kelowna Rockets (1) face the Tri-City Americans (8); the Victoria Royals (3) take on the Spokane Chiefs (6) and the Seattle Thunderbirds (4) square off against their regional rivals, the Everett Silvertips (5).
In the Eastern Conference, first-place Edmonton will open against eighth-place Prince Albert after the Raiders squeaked into the playoffs by beating the Red Deer Rebels in a one-game tiebreaker Tuesday night. The other series in the East will see the Regina Pats (2) face the Brandon Wheat Kings (7), while the Calgary Hitmen (3) battle the Kootenay Ice (6), and the Swift Current Broncos (5) meet the Medicine Hat Tigers (4).
Portland could also become the first championship team to repeat since the Kamloops Blazers in 1994-95. Giants coach Don Hay was at the Blazers' helm then, and Johnston is expecting a tough go from a Vancouver squad (32-29-7) that placed a comfortable seventh after many observers questioned whether they would miss the playoffs for a second straight year.
The Winterhawks swept the four-game series with Vancouver in the regular season, with one victory coming in a shootout, but Johnston is taking nothing for granted.
"I thought we played well, but they've been close games in a lot of cases," he said. "I know the way Vancouver is as a team. They're a tough first-round playoff opponent, because they're hard-working, very structured and very disciplined in their play. Don will have them well prepared. He's one of the most experienced coaches in the Western Hockey League, and I'm sure they're going to be a challenge in this first round."
The Winterhawks are heading into the post-season on a roll, having won 28 of their past 29 games. They posted 21 straight victories, suffered a 4-1 loss to Seattle, then closed out the regular season with seven straight wins.
Portland's championship chances improved when a number of injured and sick players returned to the lineup recently.
"The last couple weeks, we've been banged up," said Johnston. "But it looks like we're hitting a streak here where we're going to be healthy heading into the playoffs, which I think is good."
The returning players included injured centre Adam Rossignol, defencemen Garrett Hoar, winger Tyler Predinchuk and goaltender Brendan Burke, who came down with a bout of mononucleosis.
"We were fortunate that we were able to get (Burke) back," said Johnston. "Last week, he played three in four nights. I thought he looked really good. He's had a great year for us. He's our No. 1 guy."
It wasn't the first time the Winterhawks had to deal with several absentees this season. Portland also had to adjust after some key veterans went to play in the world junior championships in Sweden over the Christmas holidays.
According to Johnston, the adversity enabled younger players and lesser lights to gain more playing time and responsibility. Their improved play and the return of players from the world juniors provided a "boost" that continues to pay off.
"The depth of our lineup became a lot better and (players who stepped up their play) really helped our group become the team that we are right now," he said.
He is relishing the chance to be back in the playoffs a year after he watched from the sidelines. He was suspended early in the season, and the Winterhawks were fined $200,000 and lost several bantam draft choices, after the league found the club had provided improper benefits to players and parents.
"The playoffs, for me, is always the most enjoyable time of the year," said Johnston. "You've battled all year to get a good playoff spot, and then it's the time of the year when everything's on the line."
Portland is among a group of obvious contenders, along with Kelowna, which finished first in the Western Conference and the league with a 57-11-0-4 record, and Edmonton, which placed first in the Eastern Conference (50-19-2-1). Calgary, which matched Edmonton's 103-point total but was relegated to third place in the East because it had fewer wins than Edmonton while playing in the same division, will also be tough.
But several teams could become Cinderalla stories. The Victoria-Spokane series is intriguing in that the Royals have two of the league's best goaltenders, Coleman Vollrath and Patrik Polivka, while the Chiefs are led by WHL top scorer Mitch Holmberg. Vollrath and Polivka, ranked third and fifth among netminders respectively in the regular season, often cause difficult decisions for coach Dave Lowry when it came to picking a starter.
"It's a great problem to have," said Lowry. "And, truthfully, when both of them are healthy and both of them are playing, they make each other accountable, and they challenge and push for ice time."
Victoria did not have any players among the top league's top 40 scorers, but still managed to place third in the West with a 48-20-1-3 mark.
"We try to prepare the same way," said Lowry. "We have to work to be successful."
Holmberg, a 20-year-old Daysland, Alta., native who was never drafted by an NHL club, produced 62 goals and 56 assists for 118 points without missing a game, while striving to defy scouts that ignored his talent. He is aiming to cap off his junior career with a WHL title.
"When you start a career, you don't think about losing out in the first round," he said. "You think about holding a trophy at the end of the year. … You want it more than ever, because you know you're never going to get another chance."
Notes_The WHL playoff schedule began with Calgary hosting Kootenay on Thursday while the other series openers were slated for Friday and Saturday.