by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Michael St. Croix of the Edmonton Oil Kings fires a shot past the scattered Portland Winterhawks defense, with goalie Mac Carruth (right) trying in vain to get back to the net. The score gave Edmonton a 2-1 lead in Game 5 of the Western Hockey League finals.It ended with the Rose Garden's sellout throng sitting in stunned silence, Michael St. Croix's goal in sudden-death overtime preventing what would have been a celebration for the ages.

Moments later, Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison was busy texting on his cell phone outside the Harry Glickman Media Room.

I looked over his shoulder and I'm pretty sure he was communicating this to his cronies:

"Whew. That was close. Almost had to take to the ice to present the championship trophy. Live for another day."

That's what the Edmonton Oil Kings will do, too, after their 3-2 victory over the Winterhawks Friday night to stave off elimination in the WHL finals.

Portland still leads the best-of-seven series 3-2 heading into Game 6 at Edmonton at 3 p.m. PT Sunday. But to come so close to wrapping up a berth in the Memorial Cup and not ge it done was excruciating for the local lads -- especially after outshooting the visitors by a whopping 51-30 margin.

"This one stings a bit," Portland defenseman Seth Jones told the media afterward. "Not going to lie about that. We really wanted this one."

The Hawks wanted to hoist the Ed Chynoweth Cup and parade it around the ice in front of their adoring fans. And they wanted to put Robison in the uncomfortable position of having to present the trophy to a team he saddled with unprecedented -- and largely unwarranted -- sanctions for player benefit violations early in the season.

The boos raining down from the stands at the commissioner would have been unmerciful.

Robison caught a break, and the Oil Kings did, too, on a night when the Winterhawks forced the action much of the way but managed only two goals in nearly 70 minutes of play.

The visitors stayed alive in the series by putting three pucks past Portland goaltender Mac Carruth. The second one will be talked about for some time. Or at least until Sunday, when the Hawks get another chance to seize the series.

With the score tied 1-1 early in the third period, the Oil Kings sent the puck along the boards behind the Portland goal. Carruth left the crease to play the puck, but by the time he got to it, he was almost to the corner.

Edmonton's Dylan Wruck wound up intercepting Carruth's pass and, as the goalie scrambled to get back in position, Wruck fed St. Croix, who popped the puck into the net for a 2-1 lead with 12:59 to play.

"I thought Jones was going to go to the corner," Carruth said as made his way out of the arena Friday night. "He ended up going to the front of the net. (The puck) went right to the guy."

On a night when goals were harder to come by than Japanese glass floats on the beach, the Oil Kings were only too happy to accept the gift.

"A bizarre play," said St. Croix, who scored all three Edmonton goals. " 'Wrucker' read it perfectly. Saw (Carruth) going away from the net. Luckily, I was able to get a spinner past him. Just to see the puck cross the line was a good feeling."

Was St. Croix surprised to see Carruth take such a risk?

"Especially at that time of the game," St. Croix said. "I wasn't expecting that. We were just trying to get the forecheck and keep the puck at the walls. If he wants to go out and play the puck, that's fine with us."

Carruth, a four-year veteran who turned 21 in March, often strays from the net to direct the puck to a teammate. But if he had that one to do over again?

"I'd have made the same effing play," said Carruth, although he didn't say effing. "I'd have probably gone somewhere else with it, though. I'd have put it somewhere else."

Portland coach Travis Green -- even-keel calm in the face of both victory and defeat in this series -- defended his goalie, both in the post-game press conference and in a conversation afterward.

"We like Mac playing the puck," Green told the media. "He has been pretty good with that philosophy of leading the play in situations. There, he probably should have gone off the wall with it."

Later, Green told me, "We're not going to tell Mac not to play pucks. He's good at it. He's a big part of our breakouts. That one we'd like back, but I would never tell him not to play the puck."

But with so much on the line? In a 1-1 game in the third period with the WHL title at stake, shouldn't Carruth have played it more conservatively?

"You know what? Our team is not a team that plays conservatively," Green said. "I don't want Mac thinking about it. He has to go on his gut feeling on plays like that. If that's what he felt like, I'd have him do it again."

Does Green worry about Carruth's confidence the rest of the series?

"It's one play," Green said. "Mac played great tonight. Both goalies played great. They're both good goalies. Mac will play well Sunday. It's just a hockey play that went wrong."

As it was, Brendan Leipsic's clutch goal with 5:55 to play knotted the score at 2-2 and sent the Garden crowd into a frenzy. Victory was still achievable and, with momentum on the Hawks' side, even seemed likely.

St. Croix ended that notion with a goal on which Carruth can't be faulted.

Carruth has had a terrific season. I'd put him on a short list of the top goalies in the franchise's 37-year history.

But Carruth's third-period blunder was one of the biggest ever, too, perhaps costing the Hawks a spot in the Memorial Cup -- at least for now.

The Hawks may respond well. Maybe they win again at Edmonton Sunday and write their ticket to Saskatoon later in the month.

"We have to bounce back," Jones said. "We've bounced back all year when we've needed to after tough losses."

Or perhaps they lose on the road and come back Monday night to claim victory in Game 7 at the Garden.

"We're still up 3-2," Carruth told me, his teeth clenched a bit. "It's not the end of the world. Our backs aren't up against the wall. We're good."

On Friday night, though, with the hometown crowd revved up and the game's pace going the Hawks' way, they let a big one slip away.

And let the commissioner off the hook. The shame of it all.

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