With Portland scoring 14 goals in the first two playoff games against one of the Western Hockey League's best defensive teams, it's hard to imagine anybody slowing down the Winterhawks.
The Hawks took some of Victoria's best shots and still made winning look easy Saturday night before a sold-out crowd of 10,947 at Moda Center. Speed, passing and playmaking blew apart the Royals again, as Oliver Bjorkstrand and Derrick Pouliot had two goals and an assist each in Portland's 6-3 win.
The Hawks led 4-3 heading into the third period and allowed one good scoring chance, according to the Winterhawks' tally. Bjorkstrand and Pouliot put away the game with goals, and Portland went up 2-0 in the Western Conference semifinals, with Game 3 (Monday) and Game 4 (Tuesday) to be played on Vancouver Island.
Portland's stretch of play since mid-January has reached epic proportions. It's now 34 wins in 35 games, the only loss being at Seattle.
"If it's our best hockey (being played), I don't know," says Bjorkstrand, who now has a team-leading eight goals in six playoff games. "I'm pretty sure we can play better than this, even though we're winning games."
Adds Pouliot, of the team's top-level play: "We've been that way all year. We know when we need to pick up our game. The guys in the room talk about that, coaches let us know about it. We can dial it in when we need to."
Playing in Victoria could be a different story or not. The Winterhawks have played very well on the road in the playoffs since winning four road games, including Game 7, against Spokane in 2010. The Hawks won the WHL title on Edmonton's ice last year. A road trip to Vancouver Island to play at Victoria doesn't seem daunting at all, even though the Royals have beaten Portland several times up there.
"We know it's going to be tough in their barn," Bjorkstrand says. "We expect them to come out hard."
Says Pouliot: "In a perfect world, (a sweep) would be nice. But we'll take it one game at a time. We know they're not going away, they'll push us to the end."
The first two games in Portland's barns weren't close by the end, but Saturday's game had its moments.
The Royals scored 2:03 into the game on Steven Hodges' power play goal. But, Portland responded with goals 15 seconds apart by Nic Petan and Anton Cederholm. The Royals kept at it, and tied the game 2-2 on Austin Carroll's power play goal 55 seconds before the end of the first period.
The Royals took the lead, 3-2, on Hodges' second goal at 7:36 of the second period. But, Victoria, which killed a first-period penalty, played with fire too much in the second period against the WHL's most lethal power play unit. Ben Walker and Logan Nelson each took hooking penalties and the Hawks made them pay with goals by Pouliot and Bjorkstrand, 1:37 apart.
"Our power play is clicking, and when it can click over and over, it helps," Pouliot says.
The Winterhawks showed off their offensive brilliance, but also held Victoria scoreless for the final 32:24 of the game. Goalie Brendan Burke faced only 25 shots, while Victoria's Patrik Polivka faced Portland's onslaught again 44 shots. Polivka has given up nine goals on 56 shots; backup Coleman Vollrath allowed five goals on 23 shots as Polivka's replacement in Friday's 8-2 Portland win.
Of the Portland defense, Johnston adds: "The third period, we controlled that. We minimized their chances. We had them for only one scoring chance in the third peirod, which is really remarkable, considering they were pressing a lot. I thought our defensive game was solid in the third."
The Hawks hope to continue their momentum at Victoria, which means aggressively attacking the Royals with their speed and puck movement.
"That's the key thing," Johnston says, of the speed. "We are a speed team, and puck movement. When we make good decisions with the puck, then we're dangerous.
"You saw at times tonight we didn't make good decisions through the neutral zone. We turned it over, gave them counter-punch opportunities against us, which we don't really want to do. We gotta be careful in Victoria that we manage the puck, blue (line) to blue. If we can attack the blue line with speed we always want to do that. We're dangerous off the rush and also in the offensive zone."