The Portland Winterhawks might hold the Western Hockey League's best record, and No. 2 ranking in junior hockey, but they still have some work to do to prove their standing.
The Edmonton Oil Kings, who beat the Hawks to win last season's WHL finals and make the Memorial Cup tournament, still could be the team to beat. The Oil Kings rallied from a two-goal deficit and beat the Hawks 4-3 on Michael St. Croix's goal with 1:03 to go Wednesday at Memorial Coliseum.
The game was highly anticipated by both teams. It lived up to its billing, although Edmonton (45-15-2-3) dominated Portland (51-11-1-2) in the third period, outshooting the Hawks 17-6. St. Croix's goal on netminder Mac Carruth came on the power play, after Tyler Wotherspoon turned over the puck and got whistled for hooking.
"Obviously, you have this one circled on your calendar, and we played pretty good for the first half of the game," Portland forward Brendan Leipsic said. "They took it to us in the second half, and we had no push back. We were hemmed in our end for 18 minutes of the 20 minutes of the third period. We took a couple unfortunate penalties.
"It's going to sting for a little bit, but we know in the big picture we'll learn from this, hopefully it'll make us better and help us down the road."
It was Portland's second regulation loss when leading after two periods both on home ice, the other loss coming to another strong Alberta team, Calgary.
The Winterhawks led 3-1 after second-period goals by Troy Rutkowski and Taylor Leier, the latter coming when Leier flipped the puck to the front of the net, and it bounced off Edmonton defenseman David Musil and past goalie Laurent Brossoit at 16:05 of the second period.
Like good teams do, Edmonton rallied to get a key goal near the end of the second period, on a nice play by Dylan Wruck, who muscled through Portland D-man Kiril Vorobev and beat Carruth. Then Trevor Cheek tied the score at 3-3 1:23 into third period.
The Oil Kings lived in Portland's end most of the third period, which Portland coach Travis Green chalked up partly to fatigue. Both teams played Tuesday night, but the Hawks had Adam De Champlain (penalties) and Presten Kopeck (injury) out of the game in the third period.
"They had us on our heels," Green said.
"Anytime you're playing a great team like Edmonton, you've got to stay sharp in your own end. You can't take your foot off the gas, and we did that in the third period," Rutkowski added.
"We knew we were going to have to play 60 minutes," Edmonton defenseman Keegan Lowe said. "We didn't give up.
"They got a fluky one on their third goal, and that can put a team away, if you let it. We showed the right signs of what you do after that."
The Oil Kings outshot the Hawks 42-29. Portland's high-scoring line of Nic Petan, Leipsic and Ty Rattie produced the first goal, with Rattie feeding Petan for his 44th of the season in the first period. But the Oil Kings held the line in check the rest of the game, although Lowe praised Portland's smallish top line for being very gritty.
"They kept us in our own end much of the time," Leipsic said. "I hit a crossbar, Rattie hit a post. We had quality chances. We didn't capitalize."
Portland still leads the Western Conference in points (105) by a large margin, and Edmonton (95) leads the Eastern Conference.
Both teams have to navigate through some playoff series to meet again in the WHL finals.
"They look very similar to last year," Green said.
Portland has been built around speed, transition and skill. Edmonton has size, grinders and skill.
"We match up pretty uniquely," Leipsic said. "Right now, they're the best team in the league, until someone dethrones them."
The Hawks have to contend with the likes of Kelowna, Kamloops and Tri-City in the Western Conference playoffs.
"I feel Edmonton's the toughest team we've played," Petan said.
The Hawks play at Everett on Saturday.