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Giants' task: How to slow high-octane Winterhawks

Vancouver coach Don Hay respects Portland, but likes how his team competes


by: COURTESY OF CHRIS RELKE/VANCOUVER GIANTS - Don Hay (left) brings his Vancouver Giants to Portland for a first-round Western Hockey League playoff series against the favored Winterhawks.Don Hay knows plenty about winning games in the Western Hockey League.

The coach of the Vancouver Giants ranks second on the WHL career list with 579 regular-season victories. He trails only Portland’s legendary Ken Hodge, who won 742 games from 1972-93 with Edmonton and the Winterhawks.

Hay, 60, has coached three teams to Memorial Cup championships — Kamloops in 1994 and ‘95 and Vancouver in 2007.

He also served two stints as a head coach in the National Hockey League, with Phoenix in 1996-97 and Calgary in 2000-01.

Hay’s Giants, who finished third in the B.C. Division during the regular season (32-29-7-4), venture to Portland to face the U.S. Division champion and defending WHL champion Winterhawks (54-13-2-3) Friday and Saturday in the first two games of their best-of-seven first-round playoff series.

Portland is 4-0 against the Giants in 2013-14, winning 5-4 in a shootout in Vancouver on Jan. 12, 5-2 in Portland on Jan. 20, 7-4 in Vancouver on Feb. 15 and 4-1 in Portland on March 8.

Hay says he has great appreciation for the performance this season by general manager/coach Mike Johnston and the Hawks.

“Mike and his organization have done a real good job retooling their team and keeping them on top,” Hay says. “They’re a team that comes at you with all kinds of speed and skill, a very dangerous team. We have a lot of respect for Portland.”

Even so, Hay isn’t going into this series expecting his team to serve as sacrificial lambs.

“Three of four games we’ve played against them have been pretty tight, to a point,” he says. “That’s the thing you have to guard against (the Hawks). You have to have the ability to stick with it for the full 60 minutes, or they wear you down because of their pressure and speed.

“We’re a team that’s learning how to compete against them for a full 60 minutes. That’s the growth our team needs to take the next step.”

A year ago, Vancouver won 21 games and failed to make the playoffs. It’s a much-improved crew that Portland will face this weekend.

“We made great strides this year,” Hay says. “We’ve gotten back into the playoffs, which was our No. 1 goal. Now there’s another challenge ahead of us in facing Portland, but I like the way we’ve been competing hard against the top teams going into the playoffs.”

Vancouver has three premier forwards in left wing Cain Franson (30 goals, 33 assists), right wing Jackson Houck (34 and 27) and center Carter Popoff (13 and 51). Hay has had to use them on separate lines, though, to produce more offense.

“That’s the problem going against Portland,” he says. The Hawks “have so much depth and can score on you with so many different players. Both Cain and Jackson got off to a slow start this season, and so did our team. Once they got going, we got going as a team. We’re going to need them at their best (against Portland) for us to have any type of chance.”

The Giants have one of the top-scoring defensemen in the WHL in Brett Kulak (14 goals, 46 assists), but Vancouver may be missing 20-year-old D-man missing defenseman Dalton Thrower, who has been sidelined with an ankle injury since March 3. Thrower, who played last season with the Saskatoon Blades, is the player whose vicious elbow to the head of Taylor Leier took the Winterhawks’ left wing out of the rest of the 2013 Memorial Cup. Thrower was suspended for the duration of the tournament.

“We’re hoping he’ll be available, but we really don’t know,” Hay says. “Dalton came to us this year with a lot of excitement and energy, and that enthusiasm was passed on to other players. It’s contagious and helped our team grow. He’s a real good leader with our group, and we’ve missed him.”

Vancouver has used both Jared Rathjen (22-15-43, 3.28 goals-against average) and Curtis Honey (12-14-2-0, 4.07) in goal this season.

“Lee started the season as the starter,” Hay says. “Rathjen took over in November and December, but he’s had some injuries. It’s pretty close, really. Today, I couldn’t tell you who will be the starter for Game 1.”

Kelowna (55-11-0-4) and Portland finished the regular season with the best records in the WHL. Which is the better team?

“That’s a good question,” says Hay, whose Giants are 1-7 against the Rockets by a total count of 34-20 this season. “They’re both really good teams.”

Twelve Hawks scored in the four games against Vancouver this season, and Oliver Bjorkstrand had seven assists. Corbin Boes (three wins) and Adin Hill (one win) did all the goaltending.

“Kelowna comes at you with four really effective working lines. Portland probably has the more top-end couple of offensive lines. Kelowna has a group of six solid defensemen. Portland has two of the top defensemen in the league in (Derrick) Pouliot and (Matt) Dumba, so that’s pretty even. Kelowna has two solid goaltenders in (Jordon) Cooke and (Jackson) Whistle. Portland has (Brendan) Burke back now, so that’s probably pretty even.

“It would come down to specialty teams, and it always comes down to goaltending in the end.”

Hay is conceding nothing, of course, to the Hawks. He’d like to steal one of the first two games and bring home-ice advantage back to Vancouver for Game 3. He knows that will be difficult with the way the Hawks have been playing, and with the way the fans help make the Moda Center a tough place for visitors to play.

“I told Mike, the crowd there reminds me of the old days at Memorial Coliseum, where they’d pack the place with 10,000 people and it would be just rocking,” Hay says. “They’ve done a really good job of getting that franchise back on track.”

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