Mac big as Hawks claim opener
The Kamloops Blazers would like nothing more than to disrupt Mac Carruth, take Ty Rattie out of his game and get Seth Jones off the ice during the Western Hockey League's Western Conference finals.
They'd like to win, too, which was not in the cards Friday night as the Winterhawks drew first blood in the best-of-seven series with a 4-1 victory at Memorial Coliseum.
First blood might be a poor choice of words.
I didn't see any of the red stuff, but there was plenty of pounding going on in between clinches, especially after Brendan Leipsec's backhander made it 4-1 with six minutes to play.
Over the final five minutes, 62 of the game's 85 penalty minutes were meted out, including 10-minute misconducts to Kamloops' Kale Kessy, JC Lipon and Aaron Macklin, a spearing penalty on the Blazers' Chase Souto and a five-minute checking-from-behind and game misconduct to Portland's Ty Rattie.
Kessy got it all started by doing a pirouette in the Portland crease, then getting into the face of Carruth, the Hawks' 21-year-old goaltender, and a little bit more.
"He elbowed or sticked me in the head -- I don't know what it was," said Carruth, who stopped 33 of 34 Kamloops shots. "It's what (the Blazers) are going to try to do all series. It's just going to be the way it is."
"We've seen that in the past," Portland coach Travis Green said. "It's nothing new for Mac -- after whistles, what not. You see it a lot. Not a big deal. He's dealt with it in the past. I'm sure he'll deal with it again."
Carruth confessed to some tete-a-tete with assorted Blazers as the game wore on.
"They left me alone in the first" period, he said. "I brought it on myself in the second and third. Something I'll work on in the second game. Keep my mouth shut and my stick down."
Kamloops scored 2:10 into the game when Joe Kornelson's shot from close range bounced off the skate of a referee and into the net. Carruth kept the Blazers off the board the rest of the way.
"He was really good," Portland defenseman Derek Pouliot said. 'He made some big saves at some key times. Kamloops has that good passing game and he came up big for us."
"Mac stood on his head tonight," said Rattie, who scored a goal on a penalty shot and had two assists. "He was our No. 1 player tonight. He is going to be a big player for us in the series."
Carruth is in his third season as a starter with a team that reached the WHL Finals the previous two seasons. His veteran presence is a calming influence on his teammates.
"Mac played great tonight," Green said. "I liked his focus and composure. He was square to pucks.
"It's tough when you let in one of your first few shots, but Mac has matured a lot over the years. A few years ago it might have rattled him, but he went about his business all night."
Rattie -- the No. 2 scorer in WHL playoff history with 42 goals, five behind Medicine Hat's Mark Pederson (1983-88) -- drew his game misconduct for retaliating against Souto's spearing penalty 1:58 from the finish.
"I was going to the bench, and I felt a stick spear me," Rattie said. "My instinct to protect myself, push him, and (it was) unlucky he went into the boards the way he did. It was a bit of a hot head, and that's it."
I'm not sure whom Rattie meant was the hot head -- himself or Souto.
Both teams were feisty in the late going, especially the Blazers, smarting from the opening-game licking.
"They're down 4-1 going into Game 2, so they're trying to send a message and let us know it's going to be a good game (Saturday)," Rattie said. "That's just typical hockey. That's what we expect. We're looking forward to (Saturday)."
The Blazers tried to play physical with the 6-foot, 175-pound Rattie, who combined with linemates Leipsic and Nic Petan to torment the visitors with activity. They tried to goad the 6-4, 205-pound Jones -- destined to be one of the top picks in the upcoming National Hockey League draft -- into fisticuffs, but as always, he wasn't biting.
When things got out of hand late, veterans such as Pouliot and Troy Rutkowski stepped in to make sure the rough stuff got answered.
"It's a series, right?" Pouliot said. "It's going to be like that. Both teams aren't going to back down. It's good we rose to the challenge."
Kamloops was the hottest team in the WHL early in the regular season before cooling off, but the Blazers still went 47-20-2-3 and were the No. 3 seed in the West. Portland finished with the league's best mark with a franchise-record 57-12-1-2.
It's two powerful, well-matched teams, with the Hawks holding a slight edge in nearly ever department.
"I know if we put our best foot forward," Green allowed, "most nights we're going to be all right."
That's no guarantee of a series victory. Just a warning that the Blazers will have to be at the top of their game to have a chance.
"I think we're the better team, but it's still going to be a tough series," Pouliot said. "They're not going to go away."