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Portland beats Spokane 6-3, advances to WHL finals against Kootenay

Ice from the Eastern Conference have won 11 consecutive games

Ten years after their last appearance in the Western Hockey League finals, the Portland Winterhawks are heading back to play for the championship.

Troy Rutkowski, Ty Rattie and Nino Niederreiter scored third-period goals as Portland rallied to beat Spokane 6-3 Monday at Spokane Arena in the WHL Western Conference finals.

The Hawks won the best-of-seven series, 4-2, and now prepare to play the Kootenay Ice for the WHL title. The Ice, the Eastern Conference champs, have won 11 consecutive playoff games.

The first WHL finals game will be 7:30 p.m. Friday, the second 7 p.m. Saturday, both at the Rose Garden. The Ice beat the Hawks 5-3 on Dec. 1, 2010, at Memorial Coliseum. Kootenay struggled midway through the year, but surged after the acquisition of forward Cody Eakin.

Portland last appeared in the WHL finals in 2001, losing to Red Deer. The Hawks swept Brandon in the '98 league finals en route to the Memorial Cup championship.

"It's exciting. It's special for everybody, the organization, the fans. We're thrilled," general manager/coach Mike Johnston said in a radio interview as the Hawks celebrated on Spokane's rink.

Portland outshot Spokane 38-27 on the road, putting the squeeze on the Chiefs as the game went on, and goalie Mac Carruth survived two early Chiefs' goals.

Tied 3-3 entering the third period, the Hawks scored at 5:22 when defenseman Rutkowski took a centering pass from Brendan Leipsic and beat Spokane goalie James Reid with a wrist shot, with the Chiefs hindered by a player down on the ice injured.

Rattie put Portland up by two goals at 14:07, as Sven Bartschi fired a shot at Reid's goal from a sharp angle, got his own rebound and fed his linemate for the goal.

"Bartschi, the workhorse he is down low, found me in the slot," Rattie said in a radio interview. "All I had to do was shoot it."

Niederreiter, a first-round NHL draft pick along with linemate Ryan Johansen, forced a turnover and scored his first goal of the series in the waning moments.

Two goals in the first 3:32 gave Spokane an early 2-0 lead. The Chiefs scored first in the series for the sixth consecutive game, with Marek Kalus scoring at 2:32, followed a minute later by a goal by Mike Aviani.

"I don't think they deserved the lead," Johnston said. "The second one was a lucky bounce.

"As the period went along, we had a feeling on the bench, they weren't as sharp as they were earlier in the series. They weren't pressuring us as much. In the first period, we knew we could win."

The Hawks nearly exited the first period with the score tied. Bartschi scored at 8:17 of the period, and Rattie appeared to tie the score later, but officials waved the goal off, saying the winger kicked the puck in the net.

A pretty play midway through the second period tied the game for the Winterhawks. Defenseman William Wrenn flipped an outlet pass to Niederreiter, who found Johansen, who put home his own rebound against Reid for his team-leading 11th playoff goal at 9:38.

Another highlight-reel play put Portland up 3-2 one minute later. Craig Cunningham spun on a Spokane defender and scored on Reid.

But the Chiefs evened the score with just 16 seconds left in the period, with Levko Koper capping a strong Spokane shift with a goal on Carruth.

But the third period would be all about Portland, which eliminated the Chiefs for the second consecutive season on their home ice.

Johansen, who had five goals against Spokane, was named MVP of the series.

The WHL finals caps quite a climb for the Winterhawks under owner Bill Gallacher and Johnston. When they took over in October 2008, the team was coming off two of the worst seasons in franchise history. The Hawks improved in 2008-09, and then made a quantum leap the next season before bowing out in the second round of the WHL playoffs against Vancouver.

This year, with a roster loaded with NHL draft picks and prospects, the Winterhawks played with expectations on their shoulders, and persevered to make it to the doorstep of the Memorial Cup tournament.

"Best feeling in the world," said Rattie, a potential first-round pick in the June NHL draft. "Everybody's so excited. I've never felt like this before. At the end of the day, we have one more series and we're looking forward to that one."

The Hawks have not lost back-to-back games since Jan. 12-14. The Hawks moved to 7-1 in playoff road games. And Portland is 53-0 when scoring four or more goals this season.

The WHL finals:

Game 1 - Kootenay at Portland; 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 6

Game 2 - Kootenay at Portland; 7 p.m. Saturday, May 7

Game 3 - Portland at Kootenay; 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 10

Game 4 - Portland at Kootenay; 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 11

Game 5 - Kootenay at Portland; 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 13*

Game 6 - Portland at Kootenay; 5 p.m. Sunday, May 15*

Game 7 - Kootenay at Portland; 7 p.m. Monday, May 16*

* if necessary