Winterhawks come up short in Memorial Cup bid
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT The Portland Winterhawks gather by the goal moments after their loss to Kootenay on Friday.

It wasn't an official sweep, but the Kootenay Ice beat the Portland Winterhawks four games in a row to win the Western Hockey League championship, wrapping up the Memorial Cup tournament berth Friday with a convincing 4-1 win before another sold-out crowd at the Rose Garden.

After the first five minutes or so, the Ice controlled the game. Portland led 1-0 on Tyler Wotherspoon's goal 2:26 into the game and made some other offensive overtures early on. But, it was all Kootenay the rest of the way. The Ice hit Mac Carruth's goal post three times and missed on other great chances, or it could have been worse.

Steele Boomer tied it late in the first period, and Matt Fraser scored just before the second period ended on an odd power-play sequence. And the Ice, known for their defense and controlled play, allowed the Hawks virtually nothing in the third period to finish off the best-of-seven series, winning 4 games to 1.

Kootenay plays in the Memorial Cup, May 20-29 at Mississauga, Ontario. Portland finished with 50 regular-season victories and 13 more in the playoffs, but the franchise came up short in the WHL finals for the seventh time in nine tries.

"I thought we played well early, didn't think we played well late and I think we ran out of gas a little bit out there," General Manager/coach Mike Johnston said. "Kootenay was really good late. We missed our chances in the second period. We were trying to force some things in the third, and they shut it down in the neutral zone and didn't give us much."

Kootenay coach Kris Knoblauch felt his team withstood Portland's early energy, and then played its best game of the series.

"The last 20 minutes, I thought that was perfect hockey to play with a lead," he said. "Pretty remarkable."

The story of the series was Kootenay's discipline, toughness and defense, and all three things showed up Friday night. Sven Bartschi and Craig Cunningham assisted on Wotherspoon's goal, but the Ice held the Portland scorers in check. Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter had no points - Niederreiter had only a goal and two assists in the five games - and Bartschi and Ty Rattie were held without goals.

In the third period, scrambling for some offense despite trailing only 2-1, Johnston switched his first two lines up - which he rarely does, save for the previous series against Spokane and dominant D-man Jared Cowen. Cunningham teamed with Niederreiter and Brad Ross, Johansen with Rattie and Bartschi. But nothing transpired on the offensive end.

"We were more worried about Cunningham-Bartschi-Rattie in this series," Knoblauch said. "We felt we matched up good against Johansen, felt our team doesn't give him much time to make plays."

"When you have the puck and look up and see all Kootenay Ice guys," said Johansen, who had two goals and four assists in the series, "it's tough to make a decision that quick, a good one anyway. I wouldn't say it wears you down, but it puts you in difficult situations. They have a great defensive game."

Wotherspoon, a defenseman, slashed to the net to score as Portland came out storming early.

Kootenay hits its first post a little later, and kept the pressure on to get the tying mark on a delayed goal. Officials waited about three minutes for play to stop to review Boomer's shot that got by Carruth, hit the crossbar and then dropped down on the goal line. With 1:50 to play in the first period, action stopped, officials reviewed the play and awarded Boomer the goal. The clock was reset to the time of the goal, with 4:13 left.

Rattie had a couple open-net opportunities in the second period, but he was defended well on one potential shot and failed to corral the puck on another play.

The go-ahead and eventual game-winning goal came with 44 seconds left in the second period - again, during an odd sequence. Wotherspoon was in the penalty box for cross checking, a penalty that the Hawks didn't dispute. Cunningham and Joe Morrow collided, and the two Hawks and a Kootenay player fell to the ice away from the puck, giving the Ice a 4-on-2 advantage. Fraser made no mistakes, taking a feed and beating Carruth on a backdoor goal.

"That gave them life in the third period," Johnston said.

Kootenay played solidly in the third period, allowing Portland only six shots (it was 40-27, Kootenay, on shots in the game). Fraser scored his second goal at 14:16, on a feed from Joe Antilla. Then Jesse Ismond capped the game with a contested empty-net goal with 41 seconds left, and the Ice celebrated on Portland's home rink.

"They had better performances from throughout their lineup than we did," Johnston said, of the Ice. "Certainly, there were flashes I thought our team was very good, and then they took it away from us, especially in the third. They're a good, experienced team, with a lot of veteran players, and it showed in the third. ... I thought their experience showed later in games.""

Portland was never able to get a two-goal lead in the series.

"We talked to other teams before, and if you make (the Ice) play from behind, they're not as good," Johnston added. "We just, unfortunately, couldn't bury our chances."

Still, "we were that close," Johnston added, of going to the Memorial Cup. "It was a difficult loss. I complimented them on how they competed. I just wanted them to know ... how proud we are of them."

The crowd was the second consecutive sellout at the Rose Garden - 10,947.

"It was outstanding - the response from the city and fans, how they rallied around the team, bought into what we're doing here with the Winterhawks," Johnston said. "I know it'll have a ripple effect next year. There are a lot of young players who will be back, and that's great that the fans can start to identify with the players."

Johansen and Niederreiter may or may not be back, both being signed NHL players - Johansen with Columbus, Niederreiter with the New York Islanders. But, they'll only be 19, meaning they have to make their respective NHL clubs or be sent back to juniors - NHL organizations cannot send 19-year-old players to minor-league clubs.

Those will be decisions made in the future. For now, there is plenty of hurt to be shared among the two high first-round draft picks from 2010.

"We were just so close to winning the championship," Niederreiter said.

"It's been a tremendous run," Johansen added. "Win or lose, I'm so proud of all the guys, and the way the city came together, all the fans came out to watch us. It's truly been the time of our lives.

"Credit to Kootenay. They gave us everything they got. They deserved to win, great team, I wish them best of luck in Mississauga. Hopefully they'll do the WHL proud."

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