Hawks roll, two wins away from WHL Finals
Playoff series in hockey never really begin until the first game in the lower seed's rink.
Which means the Winterhawks will have to prove it again Tuesday night when they travel to Kamloops for Game 3 of the Western Hockey League Western Conference finals.
After the first two games at Memorial Coliseum, though, Portland's dominance is palpable.
The Hawks' 4-0 victory Saturday night, coming on the heels of a 4-1 triumph in Friday's opener, was a testament to suffocating defense, a confident, veteran goaltender and a No. 1 line that makes enough trips around the ice to earn bonus miles.
Since defenseman Joe Kornelson found the net 2:10 into the opener, Kamloops has gone nearly 118 minutes without a goal. Portland goalie Mac Carruth turned away 27 shots, only a few of the dangerous variety. The Blazers would have better luck trying to score in a monastery.
"Mac was good in goal," Portland coach Travis Green said. "Our defense corps was great tonight, and I liked how our forwards back-checked. We didn't give them a lot of odd-numbered rushes. It was real good."
The Hawks' Fantastic Four in defense -- Seth "Iceman" Jones, Derek Pouliot, Troy Rutkowski and Tyler Wotherspoon -- has no peer in the WHL. Green gave regular time Saturday to 18-year-olds Josh Hanson and Shaun MacPherson, too, and they handled themselves accordingly.
Jones -- son of former NBA forward Popeye Jones -- even provided some early offense, scoring the Hawks' first goal on a backhanded wrap-around from behind the net, sneaking one in the far side on Kamloops goalie Cole Cheveklave.
"(Taylor) Peters made a good pass to the inside to me," said the 6-4, 205-pound Jones, the potential first pick in the upcoming NHL draft. "I took it wide, challenged in with foot speed and got behind the net. I don't think Cheveklave pushed over quick enough and I just stuffed it in."
"A big-time goal by a big-time player," Green said. "When you get this far in the playoffs, you need your best players to be your best players. He has been real good both these games."
Pouliot (a first-round pick by Pittsburgh), Wotherspoon (second round, Calgary) and Rutkowski (a free-agent signee by Ottawa) are also NHL-caliber prospects who have done a good job stuffing up things on the back end, quieting Kamloops' big guns such as Colin Smith, Tim Bozon and JC Lipon. The Portland forwards have done their part in scuttling the Blazers' scoring attack.
"All five guys in the defensive zone played really well tonight," Jones said, "and Mac stepped up back there when we needed him. For the most part, we did a really good job containing their offensive skill."
It was a big night for scrappy center Brendan Leipsic, who scored the final goal with a rebound in the third period after setting up linemates Ty Rattie and Nic Petan with passes laced with sugar, they were so sweet.
"I could have had a couple of more goals tonight,' Leipsic said. "I let him (Cheveldave) off a little easy, shooting at his logo a couple of times. On the one I (converted), the puck was just sitting there and I pool-shot it in there."
Leipsic's assist to Rattie was a cross-ice pass just as a second-period power play was ending.
"I walked out of the slot, found Ty back door, and he got it over the arm of Cheveldave," the 5-9, 170-pound Leipsic said.
In the first minute of the third period, Leipsic had the helper to Petan on a tic-tac-toe play originating from Rattie on the power play.
"I knew Nic was coming back door," Leipsic said. "I put it on a little tee for him to throw it in the net."
Leipsic was a key part of Portland's front-line defense, too, that stymied the Blazers at every turn.
"For 'Leiper', it's not just about points and goals," Green said. "We've talked to him over the last couple of years about being a complete player, being on the right side of the puck. At this time of year, that's so important."
"Got to take care of your own end first," Leipsic said. "As I've grown in this league and gotten more experience, you want to be out there in those critical situations on defense. You want to be a more complete player. That's what's going to get you to the next level."
Portland's special-teams play has been superior, too. The Hawks, the WHL's top power-play team and No. 2 in penalty-killing in the playoffs, scored a goal with a man advantage and denied the Blazers six times while a man down Saturday night. In the two games, Kamloops is 0 for 10 on the power play.
"That's a good power play on their side," Green said. "It's not easy to stop them. The first two games, (Portland's penalty-killers) have done a good job, for sure."
The series moves for the next two games Tuesday and Wednesday at Kamloops, where Portland split a pair during the regular season. The Hawks set a league record with 29 road wins in the regular season and are 5-0 away from home in the playoffs.
"It's no secret we've been really good on the road," Leipsic said. "We've had some success in Kamloops, but it's going to be a rocking' barn. We'll have to be ready for some of their pushes."
The Blazers can still win the series, but will have to win four of five against the best team in the WHL. Green shrugged when asked if the Hawks will face an improved opponent on the Blazers' home ice.
"I don't know if they'll play a lot better," he said. "I don't know if they'll be any different. That's up to them.
"Being down two (games) now, the next one will be the big one (for them). We'll probably see their best game of the series in Game 3."