No favourite in WHL semi

The way Mike Johnston sees it there is no clear cut favourite or underdog heading into the Western Hockey League's Western Conference final.

The Portland Winterhawks coach and general manager spoke with Castanet Wednesday while his team was en-route to Kelowna for the opening game of the best-of-seven series Friday.

"I don't know if there is an underdog in the series. Certainly the team that does have home ice has a slight edge for sure," says Johnston who acknowledged his team hasn't opened a series on the road since the WHL final two years ago.

"Our guys are fine with it. We feel comfortable on the road, but it does give Kelowna a slight edge when you have home ice advantage."

The Rockets finished with the best record on home ice (28-4-0-4) and on the road (29-7-0-0) in the league while the Winterhawks were second best at home (29-6-1-0) and third on the road (25-7-1-3).

Johnston says the key is not so much where you start, but how you play to open up any series.

"Getting off to a good start is as much about playing well as winning that first game," says Johnston.

"Getting your team confidence that we can play with this team, we're as good as this team - that's going to be important right away. Our players see that."

The Winterhawks have obviously been getting off to a lot of good starts in recent weeks. They come into the series 36-2 over their past 38 games including playoffs.

Johnston says it's hard to explain why the team has been as good as they have since the beginning of the new year.

"It's not like it's been a breeze where we were able to just beat teams. We had a lot of close games and a lot of tough opponents and were able to come up with wins.

I don't know if I could pinpoint one thing but if there is something it would be the experience our players, that didn't go to the World Juniors, gained while the other guys were away."

The Winterhawks had six key contributors playing for different countries at the World Juniors and Johnston says that gave the younger players a chance to play on the top line, top power play and top penalty kill units.

"We didn't win many games over Christmas but they got some great experience. I think that may have been the turning point when the other guys came back."

Included in that string of games over the holiday period were a pair of losses (9-3 and 7-2) to the Rockets as Kelowna swept the four game series.

While those games mean something Johnston says the games in Kelowna were very early in the season while the games at Christmas came when both teams were missing players.

"It's tough because we didn't see Kelowna a lot and when we did it was at times when neither team had a full roster."

Friday's series opener faces off at 7:30 to accommodate Sportsnet's broadcast while game two Saturday starts at the customary 7 p.m.

The series will then shift to Portland next Tuesday and Wednesday. Should a fifth game be needed it would be played next Friday back at Prospera Place.


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