Playing from behind didn't work for Hawks
The Winterhawks' second-round playoff series with the Everett Silvertips was an uphill battle for Portland.
In five games, the Hawks led for 57 minutes and 56 seconds, all but nine of those seconds in Game 1. The Silvertips led for 171:57, or nearly three full games — and took the series, 4-1, ending Portland's season.
Playing from behind is never the ideal way to find success. Trailing against Everett is like climbing a mountain during mudslides.
The Silvertips were the top defensive team in the Western Hockey League this season, and when they have a lead and are not forced to take chances, their disciplined approach can frustrate opposing attacks.
It helps, of course, that Everett has one of the best goalies to ever play in the WHL. Carter Hart, a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, appears destined for a long NHL career.
Hart's heroics won one game in this series for his team, and his presence helped Everett limit the impact of future NHLers Cody Glass (one goal, one assist in series), Kieffer Bellows (one goal, one assist), Dennis Cholowski (one goal, minus-7) and Henri Jokiharju (one goal, minus-8).
Portland had to work hard for Grade A scoring chances. And when they appeared — a breakaway for Bellows in Game 4 and for Connor Barley in Game 5, for example — Hart made the big save.
In the regular season, Hart had seven shutouts, stopped 95 percent of the pucks he faced and allowed only 1.60 goals per game. He added two shutouts in this series and stopped 94.9 percent of the shots Portland threw at him. After Game 1, when the Hawks played with the lead and scored five times, Hart stopped 138 of the 142 shots Portland put on him (97.1 percent).
The opportunity to watch special young players such as Hart in high-stakes games make WHL playoff contests a treat — one that for the third year in a row ended sooner than the Winterhawks had planned.
Hart's terrific play for Everett aside, there are plenty of "what ifs?" for a Winterhawks team that had championship aspirations from the moment Bellows left Boston University for the club.
Topping that list is the stunning way Everett won Game 4. Portland was 2:07 from tying the series 2-2 on Thursday after Jokiharju's power-play goal sent the Moda Center crowd into a frenzy. It took Everett nine seconds to answer and less than a minute to put a stranglehold on the series.
"(Game 4) was the turning point of the whole series. We play great and we lose the game," Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston said.
It was, as Glass said afterward, a "heartbreaking" loss, one that proved too much to overcome one night later in Everett. Taking energy from a crowd of more than 7,000, the Silvertips were a bit quicker to loose pucks in the series-clincher on Friday and kept the Winterhawks on their heels for long stretches.
Portland's top line of Glass, Bellows and Skyler McKenzie scored three goals in the series. At even strength, Everett outscored the Hawks' go-to line by six goals over the five games.
After scoring the first three goals of Game 1 — from third-line forward Jake Gricius, fourth-line forward Conor MacEachern and rookie defenseman John Ludvig — Portland was outscored 21-6 over the next 5-1/2 games.
Johnston mentioned the cumulative impact of a challenging seven-game first-round series with Spokane as another factor.
Had Portland finished off Spokane in five games — they were 31 seconds away from doing it before losing Game 5 in overtime — perhaps they could have matched the push from an Everett team that needed only five games to dispatch Seattle in the first round.
Injuries, often a difference in hockey playoffs, didn't help the Hawks cause. Lukus MacKenzie, acquired at the trade deadline to provide a physical presence for a skill-driven team, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in a March 11 win over Everett.
"He's an 18-year-old player who has some size. He's a typical playoff-type player. That's why we got him. He was a key guy on our team and in the dressing room," Johnston said.
The leg injury to forward Lane Gilliss late in Game 2 of the Everett series, which was to sideline him at least a couple more weeks, added stress to Portland's lineup.
"He's a key player for us," Johnston said. "He kills penalties. He's a two-way type player. Those type of players are really effective in playoffs."
Those injuries meant shuffling the third and fourth lines and more minutes for Portland's top-end forwards.
"I always felt in the series with Everett that if we could have played four lines we would have had an advantage," Johnston said. "But with losing Gilliss and Lukus MacKenzie, it took away our depth, and (the Silvertips) didn't really have many injuries."
It was clear all season that there would be disappointment for several really good hockey teams in the U.S. Division. First, it was Portland eliminating a fine Spokane team in seven games, then it was Everett ousting Portland.
"It's hard. It's a hard loss," Johnston said. "I liked our team. I thought we could've gone far, but we had two tough opponents in the first two rounds, and that's what happens sometimes."
It happened this time because of a playoff system that paired the top two teams in the Western Conference in the second round while fourth-seeded Tri-City swept through two weaker B.C. Division opponents.
The Americans — coached by former Winterhawks player and coach Mike Williamson — outscored their first two opponents 46-22 and are 8-0 in these playoffs.
The Western Conference finals, which begin on Friday at Everett, match a confident, high-powered Tri-City attack against a confident, disciplined and defensively-responsible Everett outfit that has firepower of its own.