EDMONTON — The Portland Winterhawks’ trek to the top of the Western Hockey League is once again within sight.
Thanks to a 2-1 win Wednesday night at Rexall Place in Game 4 of the WHL final, the Hawks earned a third consecutive win over the Edmonton Oil Kings and in the process took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, which resumes Friday night at the Rose Garden.
Friday’s game is a sellout, say the Hawks.
Portland’s third consecutive trip to the WHL final now seems destined to prove the charm, with Game 5 the first of three chances for the Hawks to wrap up the series and avenge last spring’s seven-game loss to the Oil Kings.
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“It was a hard-fought game,” said Portland acting head coach Travis Green. “We talked about it. Edmonton was going to come hard, they were going to play desperate and our team just found a way to win a hockey game today. I thought both teams played real hard tonight, both teams played well and that was a big win for our team.”
Just like Games 2 and 3 when the Winterhawks outscored the Oil Kings a combined 4-0 in the first period, Portland got on the board first and never looked back Wednesday night.
Brendan Leipsic’s goal with less than three minutes to go in the opening period gave the Winterhawks the lead on a night that goaltender Mac Carruth and the rest of Portland’s penalty killers were once again perfect.
Edmonton headed into the series riding a 0-for-20 skid on the man advantage, dating to Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final against Calgary. The Oil Kings’ power play, which led the WHL in the regular season, hasn’t cracked a Portland penalty kill, which has yielded just four goals against this postseason.
Now 0-for-9 in the series on the man advantage, the Oil Kings let one too many special teams chances slip through their fingertips in a game that saw Mitch Moroz bat home Edmonton’s lone goal out of midair 4:45 into the third just as Hawks forward Adam De Champlain stepped out of the penalty box.
“We have tried everything on our power-play,” said Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal. “We’ve tried to simplify it and we’ve tried to go back to the basics. I just think the kids, the pressure is getting to them a little bit.”
“For us to get back here on Sunday (for Game 6), our power-play has to work on Friday,” added Laxdal.
While the Oil Kings had another disappointing night on the man advantage, Portland made the most of a key second period chance of their own. Edmonton native Troy Rutkowski sent his cheering section up and out of their seats with a power-play marker at 9:54, to increase the lead to 2-0.
That goal proved to be the game winner, as Moroz’s video reviewed tally started an Edmonton comeback attempt that fell short in front of 8,400 fans, who had little to cheer about through 40 minutes and even less by the time the final buzzer had sounded.
Now with Portland holding a trio of chances to hoist the Ed Chynoweth Cup for the first time since 1998, the Winterhawks are intent on erasing two years of WHL final frustration.
“We’ve talked about it a lot this year, you play a game, you analyze the game, you own your game and you move on,” Green said. “I like the group that we have this year as far as how balanced they are emotionally. They’ve never gotten ahead of themselves so far this season and I don’t expect them to get ahead of themselves now.”