Kelowna starts well, but Portland finishes strong to take 3-1 lead in WHL West finals
The Portland Winterhawks have lost three games since Jan. 11.
Kelowna needs to beat the Hawks three consecutive times to win the Western Hockey League Western Conference championship.
Things look good for the Winterhawks, who used Nic Petan's hat trick, their power play, a short-handed goal, goaltender Corbin Boes' strong play and their speed assault to down the Rockets 5-1 Wednesday before 9,744 fans at Moda Center.
Portland took a 3-1 series lead into Game 5, 7 p.m. Friday at Prospera Place in Kelowna, British Columbia.
The Winterhawks are 39-3 since Jan. 11 perhaps the greatest multi-month streak of play in franchise history. The Hawks know Kelowna will play desperate hockey on Friday to try to stay alive. But, judging by how Portland has handled the Rockets during much of the best-of-seven series, the Hawks have a great shot at advancing to their fourth consecutive WHL finals.
"It's going to be tough. They're not going to back down," said Petan, whose hat trick included a nifty, between-the-legs backhand shot that went off a Kelowna stick and past goalie Jordon Cooke. "It's going to be the hardest game of the series, by far. We're looking forward to the challenge."
A Game 6 would be 2 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Coliseum. Clearly, Portland would like to end the series on Friday to get some rest and prepare for the WHL finals, especially with Edmonton leading Medicine Hat 3-1 in the Eastern Conference and the likely finals opponent for the third consecutive season.
Mike Johnston, Portland general manager and coach, expects Kelowna's best effort in Game 5.
"They play really well at home," he said. "We know what to expect up there. We're a good road team. It'll be another battle."
The Rockets blew a 3-1 lead with less than three minutes left in regulation in Game 3, and lost when Taylor Leier beat the outstanding Cooke. But the team with the WHL's best regular-season record came out hot in Game 4, dominating play for the first 20 minutes.
The 20-year-old Boes, however, turned away several early scoring chances, which included a Justin Kirkland breakaway shot. The Rockets got one puck past him, as Nick Merkley took the rebound from Rourke Chartier's shot and beat the veteran netminder.
Boes bounced back, and he knew the Hawks would bounce back, too, after they were outhustled and outplayed and outshot (18 to 11) in the first period.
Portland escaped with a 1-1 tie when Petan scored the first of three Portland power-play goals at 18:48 of the opening frame.
Portland virtually doubled the Rockets in shots in Games 2 and 3, ripping off 118, and Boes' first-period play Wednesday was very important.
"Anytime you make a big save early, it gets you right into it," he said. "The crowd's into it. adrenaline's going for myself, personally.
"We expected a push from them. They definitely came out hard, fired a lot of pucks on net. We knew after the first we were fortunate to be tied 1-1."
Said Johnston: "It was one of our weaker periods. Corbin came up with some big saves. We looked scrambly at times. We knew we'd get our legs under us."
The Hawks were great in the second period, displaying their overwhelming speed and execution. Petan scored on Cooke high on the power play halfway through the period, putting Portland ahead 2-1. With Adam Rossignol in the penalty box a little more than a minute later, Oliver Bjorkstrand chipped the puck past a Kelowna player, carried the puck into Kelowna territory on the breakaway and beat Cooke with the backhand for the shorthanded goal to make the lead 3-1.
It was Bjorkstrand's 15th goal in 13 playoff games, to go with 50 goals in 69 regular-season games.
"Last-second decision," Bjorkstrand said, of his backhand shot. "But backhand was in my mind, for sure."
Petan finished his hat trick at 16:53 on the power play, gaining control of the puck, spinning and flipping it between his legs. He said it was supposed to be a pass to either Brendan Leipsic or Taylor Leier, but it went off Chartier's stick and past Cooke. Highlight-reel play, for sure.
Overall, "awesome feeling to put the puck in the net," the playmaking center said. "I came in with a shooting mentality."
Paul Bittner's third-period, empty-net goal finished the scoring.
Kelowna played the Hawks even in the third period, but Portland firmly had the game in control, wearing down the Rockets mentally as much as physically.
"I don't think (it's surprising)," Petan said. "Our report coming in was to wear them down. Keep going. Same things we do to every team. We knew they were a little bit deeper, forwards-wise, and you see that. But, with our strength and conditioning, I think we're second to none."
Said Johnston: "The playoffs are about that, about individuals wearing down, or teams. I thought at certain moments we've really taken over the play. I give them credit for how they came out (in Game 4); they had the jump and it looked like we were slow. We have to start better in games."
The Winterhawks are seeking their fourth consecutive, convincing Western Conference championship, following up victories against Spokane (4-2, 2011), Tri-City (4-0, 2012) and Kamloops (4-1, 2013) in other West finals.
Edmonton beat Portland 5-4 in a shootout on Dec. 6 in their only meeting this season before the Hawks acquired defenseman Mathew Dumba and well before the Winterhawks became virtually an unbeatable team, losing only three games on the road, at Seattle, Victoria and Kelowna, in a 3 1/2-month span.