By Jason Vondersmith

Ty Rattie, the Portland Winterhawks' top scorer, leads the team into the Western Hockey League playoffs.

Fresh off another great regular season, and with playoff success from last year to build on, the Portland Winterhawks are setting out to take the next step: win the Western Hockey League championship and make the Memorial Cup tournament.

The first step is to play Kelowna in the WHL playoffs, a best-of-seven series starting at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and continuing in Kelowna, British Columbia, with game 3 on Tuesday and game 4 on Thursday, March 29.

On paper, it looks like a mismatch.

The Hawks swept four games from the Rockets this season, and won seven of 10 games against them last year a 4-2 playoff series win included. Portland (49-19-3-1, 102 points) had 30 more points than Kelowna (31-31-4-6, 72) this season.

Portland goalie Mac Carruth allowed only four goals in three Kelowna games this season, while also stopping the Rockets in another shootout win.

The Hawks led the WHL in scoring with 328 goals, propelled by stars Ty Rattie, Sven Bartschi, Brad Ross, Joe Morrow and Derrick Pouliot. The Rockets tallied 217 goals, the second fewest among the WHL's 16 playoff teams.

Then again, playoff hockey doesn't take place on paper. It takes place in the corners and the crease, and it can get dicey on ice.

"It's not a team we'll beat by more than a couple goals," Portland General Manager/coach Mike Johnston says of Kelowna, coached by the well-respected Ryan Huska. "It's a tough team to contend with. Everybody in the playoffs brings their game to another level."

Clearly, though, the Hawks have high aspirations. Last year, with Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter leading the way, Portland advanced to the WHL finals, losing to Kootenay. The bulk of the players returned, and Rattie, who had 57 goals and 64 assists for 121 points, and Bartschi, who averaged two points per game (33 goals, 61 assists, 94 points in 47 games), hope to lead Portland to the junior hockey promise land.

"I feel we're the best team in the WHL," says Bartschi, just back from a successful late-season stint with the Calgary Flames. "Moving forward, we're looking to really important games. We need to be ready. It's in our hands now.

"We have skilled guys. We have guys who work hard. We have the perfect mix. I'm looking forward to the playoffs."

Says Rattie: "We're happy with the team we have right now. We know in the dressing room that we're a championship team, and we have a chance to prove it."

Carruth, who set the Portland single-season wins record (42) to go with a .904 save percentage and 2.96 goals-against average, feels confident in the team, which prides itself on speed, pace and skill.

"I think we're the deepest team in the playoffs," he says. "I'm more excited (about playoffs) this year. We got a little taste (last year), came up a bit short. We have a harder working team than we did last year."

Rattie and Bartschi played much of the year together, centered initially by rookie Nic Petan and later by veteran Marcel Noebels, acquired from Seattle.

But it seemed to not matter who Rattie and Bartschi skated with, they produced at a high level all season. Rattie says he exceeded his own expectations.

"I thought maybe 85 or 90 (points); that was my goal," he says. "It's a year I won't forget. If you play with Bartschi and don't put up those kind of numbers, something's wrong."

Bartschi says he and Rattie will find the going tougher in the playoffs. The duo combined for 49 points in last year's playoff run 19 goals, 30 assists.

"I'm looking forward to doing it again, but points won't come by themselves," Bartschi says. "You have to work for them. If I have no points, I'm not going to cry about it. It's about the team."

It wasn't a two-man offensive show for the Hawks this season. Fifteen players had 28 points or more. Ross, who signed this week with Toronto, had 42 goals and 40 assists for 82 points, followed by Morrow (17-47-64), Pouliot (11-48-59), Brendan Leipsic (28-30-58) and Noebels (20-38-58).

In contrast, Shane McColgan led the Rockets with 64 points 18 goals, 46 assists, followed by fellow veteran Brett Bulmer (34-28-62) and NHL prospect Colton Sissons (26-15-41). Bulmer played part of the year with the NHL's Minnesota Wild.

But the Rockets will challenge the Hawks, Johnston says. Kelowna had to rebuild its defensive corps, but many of the players who competed against Portland in last year's playoffs return for another run at the high-powered Hawks.

"They are responsible, defensively. They have good team speed, and they're a physical team," Johnston says, of Kelowna.

In addition, Adam Brown, who beat the Hawks twice in last year's playoffs, and Jordan Cooke both return in goal.

The Rockets rely on some young defensemen and "that's what we want to target," Rattie says. "We want to keep the pace up, not let up, and it'll pay off, hopefully."

The Hawks expected to be one of the WHL's better teams, and they ended up contending with Edmonton of the Eastern Conference and Tri-City and Kamloops of the Western Conference to be the best. Edmonton (50-15-3-4, 107 points) and U.S. Division champ Tri-City (50-18-2-2, 104) finished with better records, while Kamloops (47-20-2-3, 99 points) earned the Western Conference's No. 2 playoff seed by virtue of winning the B.C. Division.

Portland lost the likes of Johansen, Niederreiter and Riley Boychuk to the pros, but added Noebels, Cam Reid and Oliver Gabriel to provide depth, size and experience during the season.

Gabriel missed the playoffs last year, and then started the season in the minor-league pros.

"I'm excited to get back to the playoffs," he says. "We have the most playoff experienced guys in the league. We know what to expect. We want to go on an even longer run than last year."

Adds Carruth: "We have to outwork (Kelowna). That's been the key for us all year. When we've outworked teams, we've won. When we haven't, it's been iffy."

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