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The sting of coming up short

Winterhaws' firepower snuffed out in WHL finals vs. Edmonton


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland forwards Nic Petan (left) and Brendan Leipsic commisserate after the Winterhawks 4-2 Game 7 loss to Edmonton on Monday, a game that decided the Western Hockey League title.The empty feeling, the sting, the frustration, the disappointment — a lot of things describe the mind-set of Portland Winterhawks in the wake of a disappointing Game 7 loss in the Western Hockey League finals.

Edmonton beat the Hawks 4-2 on Monday, becoming the first road team to win Game 7 in the WHL finals in the 48-year history of the league. Ten other times, it was the home team celebrating the championship and Memorial Cup berth.

Such a great season came to such an inglorious conclusion. The Hawks won 21 consecutive games and 42 of 45 through their 2-0 series lead against Edmonton. Portland was making its fourth consecutive trip to the WHL finals. The team seemed primed for another trip to the Memorial Cup. The Game 6 miracle happened, with the Hawks rallying twice from three-goal deficits to win on the road. But Edmonton’s four-goal second period and solid all-around play put the Oil Kings over the top.

“I still think we’re the better team, no doubt in my mind,” Portland’s Nic Petan said. “We took it to 7, no doubt in my mind we’re the better team, we just didn’t play like it in the one game we should have. We did play together at times, but we didn’t play a full 60 (minutes). Full credit, they’re a great hockey team.”

Indeed, the Oil Kings displayed their size, defense, experience and moxie and followed the great play of defenseman Griffin Reinhart and goalie Tristan Jarry to wins in four of the last five games. Edmonton also played for late teammate Kristians Pelss, who drowned last summer, and advanced to the Memorial Cup after claiming the rubber matchup in the WHL finals.

The Oil Kings won in seven games against Portland in 2012. The Hawks countered with a victory in six games last season — in a series Edmonton played without an injured Reinhart — and then the Oil Kings made history in 2014.

“They’re a hell of a hockey club and it feels even better to beat them in Portland,” said Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal, who, coincidentally, played for the 1983 Hawks team that won the Memorial Cup tournament at Memorial Coliseum.

With star forwards such as Petan, Brendan Leipsic, Taylor Leier, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Chase De Leo, premier defensemen Derrick Pouliot and Mathew Dumba and dependable goaltending, the Hawks set out to make the Memorial Cup.

Portland scored 338 goals during the regular season, the most in the WHL since the Portland team of 1997-98, using their speed and puck movement and standout power play.

After the acquisition of Dumba and return of Petan, Pouliot and Leier from Canada’s world junior team, the Hawks set out on quite a ride — a franchise-record winning streak, along with victories in 28 of 29 games to end the regular season and convincing playoff series triumphs against Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna.

After wins in the first two WHL finals games, the Hawks sported a 42-3 record since Jan. 11 — epic stuff, really. But Edmonton stiffened defensively and won three consecutive tight games before the Hawks’ great Game 6 comeback and 6-5 overtime win.

Dumba had five goals in the series — including two in Game 6, when defensemen accounted for all five regulation goals.

Forwards Paul Bittner (four goals), De Leo (three) and Keegan Iverson (two, including Game 6’s winner) combined for nine markers. But the Hawks’ big scorers were held in check. Leipsic scored two goals in the series. Bjorkstrand had one, in Game 7. Petan and Leier were held goal-less. Those four players combined for 161 regular-season goals and 43 more in the playoffs; Bjorkstrand had 65 goals in the regular season and playoffs entering Game 7.

“It’s just hard to score in the playoffs. It’s not going to come as easy as it had before,” said Mike Johnston, Portland general manager and coach. “You have to have balance in your scoring. I thought we had balanced depth in this series.”

Leier said Edmonton played team defense well, including the neutral zone trap. Leipsic said Reinhart made a big difference. Petan, who tied Leipsic for the 2012-13 WHL scoring title and finished second this season, said he and others played well, all-around, but their efforts just didn’t amount to goals.

“I had my chances. I didn’t capitalize on my part, and that’s on me,” said Petan, who hasn’t scored a goal in Portland’s four consecutive WHL finals series. “A lot of guys stepped up. I thought I played a tough team game, that’s the most important thing in the playoffs. You like to get a few (goals) in, but if it doesn’t happen, you have to accept it.”

Certainly goaltending was stellar at times, and shaky at other times. Corbin Boes replaced Brendan Burke in the Kelowna series and backstopped the Hawks to the Western Conference title and through five tight WHL finals games. But, after allowing three goals in the first period of Game 6, Boes was replaced by Burke, who played well to help the Hawks rally and win Game 6, only to fall victim to Edmonton’s second-period, four-goal onslaught in Game 7.

So, the Hawks finished as runners-up in the WHL for the third time in four years — and the organization fell to 3-9 in WHL finals series. Johnston has been the head coach behind the bench in the three WHL finals series losses, while Travis Green led the Hawks to the Memorial Cup last season as his boss sat out with a WHL-levied suspension. Still, no question Johnston has raised the level of the Winterhawks’ organization, and owner Bill Gallacher has said he wouldn’t stand in Johnston’s way, should the coach want to move up to the NHL.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Portland Winterhawks Adam Rossignol (right) helps the Edmonton Oil Kings Mads Eller over the barrier during the second period of Game 5 in the Western Hockey League finals.Johnston said he would be interested in the NHL.

“If I had a chance to be a head coach, I would certainly look at that option for sure, yeah,” he said.

The Winterhawks will be retooling after this season. Gone are several players, including overages Boes and defenseman Garrett Haar as graduating players. Pouliot (Pittsburgh), Dumba (Minnesota), Leier (Philadelphia) and Leipsic (Nashville) are expected to play pro minor hockey as 20-year-old NHL prospects next season.

Pouliot and Leipsic played as full-time guys in four consecutive WHL finals — elite company — while Petan (a 15-year-old in 2011) and Josh Hanson (a reserve rookie in 2011) also were on the team for the four series. Pouliot played in a franchise-record 85 playoff games, with Leipsic second at 82.

The two shared some moments after Game 7.

“We came in the league together, lived together when we were 16 years old,” Leipsic said. “It was emotional. You don’t dream of this day coming. I told him, ‘It’s been a great four years.’ Me and him battled a lot, you know, you see a guy out there every day for four years straight you might get sick of each other. But me and him have a great relationship, and it’ll be great for the rest of our lives. He’s an awesome guy and probably one of the best defensemen in Winterhawks history.”

The Hawks are expected to return some talented forwards in Petan, Bittner, De Leo, Bjorkstrand and third-liners Dominic Turgeon, Alex Schoenborn and Iverson. The defensive corps needs to be worked on, and young standouts Anton Cederholm and Keoni Texeira likely will be joined by rookies. Burke returns in net, with talented Adin Hill also in the mix.

De Leo and the third-line players now look forward to the NHL draft, which has been good to the Winterhawks in the Johnston era. Bjorkstrand (Columbus), Petan (Winnepeg), Cederholm (Vancouver), new D-man Blake Heinrich (Washington) and Burke (Phoenix) are developing NHL prospects, and now four more players are likely to join them.

So, the future looks bright — although it could depend on Johnston’s status.

“I don’t think it’s too big of a deal,” said Petan, of retooling. “We made a transition from last year to this year. I think we’re going to be great again. No doubt in my mind we’re going to do the same thing.”

Said Burke: “A lot of the core is leaving, that’s always sad to see ... (because of) the friendships you’ve made. You never think these times are going to end. The positive part is looking forward, we do have a lot of good pieces here. We definitely have a chance to make a run for it next year. It depends on if we can come together again.”

Johnston said it’s been a memorable run, although Game 7 stands as a bad memory.

“You’re that close to a championship and you work so hard for it,” he said. “It was right there. And, it was just stolen away from us.

“The disappointment of not finishing it off always hangs there. ... You’re so close to tasting victory and moving on to the Memorial Cup. We know how hard it is to move on. Teams move on every 15 to 20 years, and we’re fortunate, we’ve had some cracks at it (recently), but who knows in the future.”

Added Leier, about playing his final game with teammates: “It’s awful. It’s awful. It’s too bad we have to go through this. It is what it is, and you have to move on with life. I’ve been telling all the younger guys, ‘These are the best years of your life.’ ”