Winterhawks Conference Champs-Again

The Portland Winterhawks have won their fourth straight Western Conference Championship after defeating the Kelowna Rockets in five games. They are only the fourth hockey club in the Western Hockey League’s history to win four conference championships in a row. Portland won four straight games, outscoring Kelowna 21–10 to close out the series.

After stealing one in British Columbia, the Hawks looked forward to playing two games in front of their rabid home crowd. With the Blazers in Texas, Portland’s hockey squad was center stage in local sports. Both games were played at the Rose Garden (known to some as the Moda Center).

Game 3 was an overtime thriller. Rockets goalie Jordan Cooke had an incredible 65 shots come at him, which he saved 61 of. It was the second straight game the Hawks had 50 or more shots at the net. Despite his team losing, everyone praised Cooke’s defensive efforts. Portland netminder Corbin Boes made his first playoff start and saved 30 of 33 shots, with several dramatic stops in OT to keep the score tied. Left-winger Taylor Leier scored the game winner 10 minutes into extra time, giving the Winterhawks a 4–3 win.

The next night the Rose Garden faithful were loud enough to consider the arena full (Winterhawks games close off the 300 level and generally seat around 10,000 when not playing at the Memorial Coliseum). They were merciless with refs and Rocket players alike, booing the physical play and early 0–1 deficit. But the Winterhawks regained their composure after a sloppy first period, and Nicolas Petan went out to steal the show. Petan scored Portland’s first two goals before capping it off with a career highlight for the hat trick. Petan’s back was to the net and he slipped the puck backward between his legs, where it ricocheted off a Kelowna stick into the net.

“He can do that sometimes, he can make special plays,” Mike Johnston, Winterhawks head coach and general manager said of Petan’s spectacular goal. “Players like that in playoff time, you always hope and expect that they can come up in a key moment and that was really a big goal for us.”

“I kind of lost it,” Petan said after the game. “And then I put it through my legs. I tried to pass it over but it went in, so I’ll take it. It just happened in the moment.”

Oliver Bjorkstrand also scored on a breakaway unassisted goal with a backhand move. Solid defense throughout the third led to the Rockets pulling their goalie in hopes of last-minute heroics. The plan backfired when Paul Bittner scored an empty net goal with two minutes remaining, leading to the game’s final score of 5–1. Boes continued to protect the net from everything that came his way; he saved 31 of 32 shots by Kelowna.

With their backs to the wall and season on the line, Kelowna returned home for Game 5. The Hawks looked sharp in the first and took an early 2–0 lead with goals from Dominic Turgeon and Brenden Leipsic. Both clubs battled through the second. Leier increased Portland’s lead to three but Kelowna wouldn’t go quietly, scoring twice to set the score at 3–2 going into the third. A flurry of scoring by the Hawks ended all hope for a Game 6. Four different Winterhawk players scored in the third, with Boes deflecting all but a Justin Kirkland shot late in the period. The 7–3 victory sends Portland to the WHL finals.

Several Winterhawk players have established all-time team records during this playoff run. Derrick Pouliot is first all-time in playoff scoring by a defenseman, with 62 points. He also holds the franchise record with 50 playoff assists. Pouliot, in his fourth year in Portland, is also the franchise leader for playoff games played, now 79.

Leipsic, who has played two fewer playoff games than Pouliot, passed Dennis Holland for third all-time in playoff scoring. He is also fifth all-time in playoff assists with 41, two shy of Randy Heath for fourth place. Both players have been at the top of their games in this postseason; they have registered at least one point in every game so far.

Danish-born Bjorkstrand, who turned 19 years old earlier this month, has been the third head of Portland’s offensive dragon. He leads the team with 15 playoff goals after 50 in the regular season.

The Winterhawks will play the Edmonton Oil Kings for the WHL championship, the Ed Chynoweth Cup. The Oil Kings are fresh off a 4–1 series victory over the Medicine Hat Tigers. Portland has played Edmonton in the previous two WHL championships, splitting the two series. The Winterhawks have home ice advantage against their opponent, so Games 1 and 2 will be in Portland. Both games will take place at the Rose Garden (or Moda Center if you must) this weekend, May 3 and 4.