Winterhawks fall short in repeat efforts

It was not only a championship series, but a tie-breaking opportunity to prove who is the dominant team-of-today in the Western Hockey League. For the third straight year the Portland Winterhawks and Edmonton Oil Kings met for the WHL Championship. They split the last two years so 2014 would settle the score. Unfortunately for the Hawks, the Oil Kings were at the top of their game and came out of Game 7 with a 2–4 victory, moving on to minor hockey’s top championship, The Memorial Cup.

Game 7 was forced after an emotional overtime win in Edmonton. Portland was down by three goals twice but stayed focused. Goaltender Corbin Boes, who was benched earlier these playoffs, gave an inspirational speech to motivate his team in what could have been many players’ final minor league hockey game. The Hawks won several face offs in the third and curiously all five regulation goals came from defensemen. Keegan Iverson scored the OT goal at 7:23 into extra time to give the Hawks a 6–5 win.

With the Blazers playing for their playoff lives just a few hundred feet away, the Memorial Coliseum had a sold out crowd of 10,095 eager to crown their team champs. But as head coach and general manager Mike Johnston says, the postseason is a grind and all a team can do is focus on one game at a time.

“Seven games in 10 nights, you’re thinking about every game individually and you’re analyzing the last game and getting reading for the next game,” Johnston said. “It’s a high paced, high energy time period when you’re in the playoffs.”

Whether they were tired or just outplayed is up for debate, but the play of the Winterhawks in Game 7 did not compare with the smoothness and aggressive attitude which has led this team to so much success this season. Several individuals had notched team records and the club won 21 straight games, a franchise record.

Olliver Bjorkstrand, who was on a playoff scoring tear but had not scored in Game 5 or Game 6, opened Game 7 with a first period goal. Multiple suspected goals were waved off in the game after official review. Several Portland players, including defensive stalwart Matthew Dumba, lost their balance and fell over giving Edmonton easy scoring opportunities. Also uncharacteristic from the Winterhawks were the turnovers, and these factors contributed to Edmonton’s win.

In Game 7, Brenden Burke tried his best to defend the net, saving 29 of 33 shots. Edmonton goaltender Tristan Jarry saved 32 of 34 shots.
After the game Johnston was understandably down, but found a silver lining in his team’s overall consistency and success.

“A loss is always a disappointment,” Johnston said. “We’ve had three of the last four years, we’ve been right there and we aren’t able to nail it down. As I told the players, as an athlete you put yourself on the big stage, gave yourself an opportunity to win a championship. Some teams don’t make the playoffs, other teams are eliminated in the first or second round. We’ve had an opportunity to go right to the finals every single year. The measuring stick of a good organization is you put a lot of pennants on the wall up in the building, a lot of banners.”

Edmonton was the first team in the playoffs to truly provide Portland with competition. The Winterhawks had swept Vancouver in the first round and defeated Victoria and Kelowna in five games.

Looking ahead, several players on the Winterhawks will be moving on, possibly to the NHL. Johnston reflects fondly on the players he has developed recently.

“The kids you drafted and had here four, five years [ago], those are the tough things because you develop relationships with them. They’re always going to be Winterhawks players, but we’ll be sad to see those players move on.”

Johnston is already looking ahead to next season, but knows his roster is far from set in stone.

“We’ve got some big holes to fill. Sometimes you don’t fill those holes immediately, you fill them at Christmas, maybe with a trade or an acquisition.”

For players like Brenden Leipsic, who has played four years in Portland and now hopes to find a roster spot on a professional team, his time in Portland was about developing as a player and getting the opportunity to play on the highest stage.

“There’s nothing better than the playoffs, playing in front of the Rose Garden, the Coliseum,” Leipsic said.