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Winterhawks draw first blood in WHL finals

Ty Rattie's OT goal puts Portland in command against Kootenay
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Craig Cunningham (left) celebrates with Ty Rattie after the latter's overtime goal gave the Portland Winterhawks a 4-3 overtime victory at home Friday night over the Kootenay Ice in the first game of the Western Hockey League championship series.

It had been a long time - nine days - since the Kootenay Ice had played a game.

It had been forever - March 29 - since they had tasted defeat.

So Kootenay's 4-3 overtime loss to the Winterhawks Friday night in the opener of the best-of-seven Western Hockey League finals was a scene unfamilar for the visitors.

The Eastern Conference champions carried an 11-game playoff win streak into Portland, sweeping WHL regular-season champion Saskatoon and Medicine Hat to advance to the finals.

On Friday night, Ty Rattie's power-play goal 55 seconds into overtime sent the Ice to their locker room on a downer for the first time in nearly six weeks.

'They have 11 (NHL) drafted or signed guys,' Kootenay defenseman Brayden McNabb said. 'We knew they had a lot of skill.

'But we're a team that works hard. We like to grind it out. It's only Game 1. If we keep grinding it out, success will come. We're looking forward to' Saturday's 7 p.m. Game 2, also at the Rose Garden.

So are the Hawks, who lost the opener of their last two playoff series, against Kelowna and Spokane.

'This was a big win for our club, an important win,' Portland coach Mike Johnston said. 'But our focus through the playoffs has always been patience, resilence and to be ready for the next game.

'Our guys have been great about that. You can't get too excited when you win; you can't get too down when you lose. This type of series is going to be hard-fought and close. You look at tonight's game and it followed script.'

Kootenay outshot Portland 42-34 and had the better of it in the closing minutes of the third period, but the Winterhawks created more quality scoring chances, especially early in the game.

Sven Bartschi - who scored the Hawks' first two goals - Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter and Craig Cunningham all missed golden opportunities to cash in against Ice goaltender Nathan Lieuwen, who entered the game with a 1.96 goals-against average in 14 postseason contests.

Portland never trailed, but when Kevin King beat Hawk defenseman William Wrenn and put one past Portland goalie Mac Carruth with 8:49 left in regulation to tie the count at 3-3, it appeared the Hawks might have blown a big one.

'Wrenner just stumbled as he was going back,' Johnston said. King 'got half a step, and that turned out to be the chance to get an open shot. That's the way playoff hockey is - half a step here, half a step there.'

In overtime, Rattie came to the rescue. He got his opportunity when Kootenay took a minor penalty in the final minute of the third period, leaving Portland with 1:04 of power play to start the extra session.

When Cunningham launched a slap shot at the goal from the left point, the 6-foot, 170-pound Rattie was entrenched in front of the goal, stick down. You never know what might happen. The puck found Rattie's stick, then lifted into the net past the 6-5, 190-pound Lieuwen.

'Cunningham can do anything out there,' Rattie said. 'He was either shooting or aiming for my stick. I had my stick down, and luckily, it went in.'

At first, Rattie confessed, 'I didn't know it was in. I was looking at Bartschi. He started yelling, and I just put my hands up. Honestly, it was the best feeling in the world.'

It was deja vu for Rattie, who had scored the game-winner in overtime in the deciding game of Portland's first-round series with Spokane a year ago.

'They feel the exact same (way),' Rattie said. 'There's a rush of excitement. I can't tell you how good it feels to look up and see all your teammates rushing to you.'

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TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT • Ryan Johansen takes a shot during Game 1 of the WHL finals at the Rose Garden.

This has the makings of a long, competitive series. Kootenay is sound at both ends, with four 30-goal scorers in the regular season, a big, veteran set of defensemen, a stingy goalie in Lieuwen and two of the best names in hockey - center Steele Boomer and defenseman Jagger Dirk.

The Ice own the youngest head coach in the league, 32-year-old Kris Knoblauch, in his first year running the club after three years as an assistant. Knoblauch was nearly a Winterhawk as a player. Drafted by Portland in 1994 as a 14-year old center, he attended three of the club's preseason camps in Canada but was traded to Red Deer. As a young coach, Knoblauch said he attended a clinic put on by Johnston.

'I hope I didn't teach him too much,' Johnston joked.

'We took a little bit to get going tonight,' Knoblauch said. The Winterhawks 'had a lot of excitement feeding off their home crowd. We looked like a team that hadn't played for nine days that first period.

'As the game went on, we played better. At the end of the third period, we had opportunities to win the game, but we fell just a little short. We're going to have to be better to beat the Portland Winterhawks.'

The Hawks will have to be better, too. They'll have to be more efficient on the power play, and they'll have to put away their premium scoring chances that they missed too often in the opener.

Along the way, they may get key reinforcements. Captain Brett Ponich, the 6-7, 225-pound defenseman who has been missing since late January following knee surgery, has been skating for a month and doing full workouts the past two weeks. He is close to being ready, and he could return as early as Tuesday's Game 3 at Kootenay.

Ponich would provide a spiritual lift for the Hawks as well as restore their best defenseman to the lineup. Even if he's rusty - and he will be - he can make a difference.

Every little bit will help in a series as close as the one that will decide the WHL representative to the Memorial Cup.