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Rockets win 7-2 to take 3-1 lead in playoff series as suspensions, injuries become headlines

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Ryan Hughes of the Portland Winterhawks looks for a hole in the Kelowna Rockets defense during Game 4 of their playoff series Wednesday night at Memorial Coliseum.On Tuesday, the Portland Winterhawks breathed life into their playoff battle with Kelowna.

But even before they returned to Memorial Coliseum for Game 4 on Wednesday, the Hawks' challenge had become more difficult with the loss of three of their top six forwards. By the time they boarded their bus Wednesday night, the road to the next round of these Western Hockey League playoffs had become very steep.

Kelowna scored five times in the second period on its way to a 7-2 win that gives the Rockets a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 5 is Friday in Kelowna. Should the Winterhawks win that, they will return to the coliseum for a 5 p.m. Game 6 on Sunday.

Both teams were without three players for Wednesday's game because of either injuries or related suspensions, but it was Portland that was more impacted as three of its top six forwards were out of uniform.

Skyler McKenzie was an injury scratch after being elbowed in the head by Kelowna's Cal Foote late in Game 3. Foote, a key Kelowna defenseman, was suspended for that play.

Hawks forwards Evan Weinger and Alex Overhardt were suspended for plays made in Game 3 that led to injuries to Rockets Erik Gardiner and Braydyn Chizen. The length of the suspensions were not announced on Wednesday by the league.

Weinger was penalized two minutes on Tuesday for a cross check that sent Gardiner into the boards. Overhardt was not penalized for the play in Tuesday's second period that injured Chizen.

Adding to the challenge was the fact that the league didn't inform Portland of the suspensions until 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. The league has not announced how long each player will be suspended. McKenzie is under concussion protocol, which typically takes a week or more to be cleared.

The absences meant big roles for rookie forwards Brad Ginnell, Jake Gricius, Ilijah Colina and Bronson Sharp in front of 4,469 fans.

Despite the lineup challenges, Portland played well through the first half of the game and was unlucky to be down 1-0 at the end of the first period and 3-1 midway through the second before things cascaded in Kelowna's favor.

"We had sustained pressure. Our young kids were hanging on to the puck. We were doing a lot of good things," Winterhawks' VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston said.

It unravelled in a span of 28 seconds of the second period.

Kelowna's Nick Merkley stole the puck at the Rockets' blue line and was awarded a penalty shot as he was tied up by Portland's Shaun Dosanjh. Merkley converted for a 4-1 lead.

Less than 30 seconds later, the score was 5-1 as Calvin Thurkauf scored on a play that Portland believed should have been ruled icing.

Johnston didn't agree with either the penalty-shot call — a hooking penalty, yes, but not a penalty shot the coach said — or the lack of an icing call.

"They score on both of those bang-bang and now we're behind in the game and we've got to scramble shorthanded to try to catch up," Johnston said.

Johnston also didn't agree with the suspensions to Weinger or to Overhardt, saying he was "kind of shocked" after reviewing the plays in question that either player was suspended.

WHL Vice President Richard Doerksen makes those decisions, and Johnston said Doerksen makes his decisions based on decades of experience.

"He's done this for 20 years, 30 years," Johnston said. "He's seen a lot of hits over time, so he bases it on what he's seen over time."

There could well be more discipline handed down before Friday. Of particular interest will be the hit from behind by Kelowna's Carson Twarynski with 3:48 left in the game that sent Portland captain Keegan Iverson face-first into the boards. A major penalty was called, so the league will review that play.

In terms of the hockey game, Kelowna was opportunistic to build its early lead. Twarnyski scored early in the first period when the puck bounced to him at the open right side of the net. It appeared that Kelowna's Dillon Dube interfered with Portland goalie Cole Kehler on the play, but the goal stood.

The Rockets then cashed in on two power plays early in the second period to lead 3-0.

Cody Glass put Portland on the board with a power-play goal off a cross-slot pass from Caleb Jones.

At 3-1, it was still a game. Jake Gricius hit the post with a shot from the slot among several decent chances for Portland to close the gap further before things turned on Merkley's takeaway that led to the penalty shot.

Jones scored Portland's second power-play goal of the night — and his second in as many nights — with 3:26 left.

By the time it ended, Reid Gardiner had two goals and two assists and Calvin Thurkauf two goals and one assist to lead the Rockets.

Portland goalie Cole Kehler stopped 26 of 32 shots through two periods. Shane Farkas played the third period and stopped seven of eight.

The Winterhawks were 2 for 5 on the power play, the Rockets 2 for 5 plus the penalty-shot goal.

The Winterhawks are down, but can take some solace from very recent history.

In the first round against Prince George, Portland lost consecutive games by a combined score of 11-2, then won the next three games.

"It's all in how you're playing," Johnston said. "We proved it last night, and we proved it for parts tonight,. We can play with this team, and we can beat this team, so whatever happened in tonight's game doesn't really matter for the next game.

"We ran off three wins in the last series, and that's what we've got to do in this one."

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