It's win or bust for Winterhawks in bid for Cup
It has been such a golden season for the Winterhawks, it seemed a foregone conclusion they would take care of Edmonton, win the Western Hockey League championship and advance to the Memorial Cup for the second straight year.
If only it were that easy.
The Oil Kings have had plenty to say about it, drilling Portland three straight times to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven WHL championship series into Sunday's Game 6 at Rexall Place in the Albertan capital.
Adversity, a stranger to the Hawks most of the season, is now slapping them in the face.
"We have to get our heads up and give it our best go," Portland right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand said. "We don't want it to be our last game of the season."
"We're playing for our lives," center Nic Petan said. "We haven't been the underdog all year."
Portland's 3-2 loss Friday night at the Moda Center snapped a 25-game game home win streak. During the regular season, the Hawks ran off a 21-game win streak and headed into the playoffs having won 28 of 29. Until the Oil Kings broke through in Game 3, Portland was riding a 42-3 record in its last 45 games.
Pretty hard to be an underdog with a record like that.
The Hawks were the highest-scoring team in the league, with the best power play, through the regular season. They averaged nearly five goals a game in winning their first three playoff series, then beat Edmonton 5-2 and 3-1 at home in the first two games of the championship series.
Since then, the well has run dry. A 2-0 loss in Game 4 was the first time the Hawks have been shut out in a game since December 2011. After scoring a pair of goals in the first 3 1/2 minutes of Game 3, Portland has tallied twice over a span of 176 1/2 minutes against suddenly red-hot Edmonton goaltender Tristan Jarry.
Tell Petan about it. Petan and Jarry grew up together in Delta, British Columbia.
"We played with and against each other growing up," Petan said. "He's having a good series."
A good series? Jarry stopped 37 of 39 Portland shots Friday night, several of them spectacular. He kept the Hawks off the scoreboard entirely in Game 4.
"Tristan had a slow start (to the series), but he has turned it on," Petan said. "The two wins at home gave him confidence, so he's rolling. A couple of his saves tonight were lucky, but he's standing on his head, for sure.
"We just have to get to him. We played well tonight, we just didn't get our bounces. We're going to get them Sunday."
Petan and Bjorkstrand finished 2-3 in the WHL scoring race during the regular season, combining for 85 goals and 137 assists. They kept it up through three playoff series with a collective 22 goals and 33 assists in 14 games.
In the first five games of the WHL finals, the high-scoring pair have no goals between them. Zippo. Same for Taylor Leier, who lit the lamp 37 times in the regular season and six more times in the first three playoff series. Brendan Leipsic -- with 39 goals in the regular season and 12 more in the first three playoffs series -- has added only one against the Oil Kings.
It has to be the first five-game goal-scoring drought Bjorkstrand has endured since his first season playing Midget hockey in Denmark. Or maybe ever.
"Just have to stay positive, work hard and find a way to help this team win," Bjorkstrand said. "I can't focus too much about scoring or I'll get frustrated. I just have to get pucks to the net and work my butt off."
What has happened here?
First, there is Jarry, riding a wave of confidence.
The guys around him aren't chopped liver.
Five of the Oil Kings are first- or second-round NHL draft picks -- Jarry, centers Curtis Lazar and Henrik Samuelsson, left wing Mitchell Moroz and defenseman Griffin Reinhart.
They know how to play with a lead, which they've done since the midway point of Game 3.
"They're a good trapping team once they're up one or two goals," Petan said. "They trap up and play their five-man game in the neutral zone."
"Once they get the lead, they're good at trapping it up and stalling things through the neutral zone," coach Mike Johnston reiterated. "But we had tons of chances (Friday night). We generated enough to win the game."
Johnston felt as if the Hawks were trying to cut too fine a line with many of their shots.
"We had some great chances that we tried to shoot top corner," he said. Derek "Pouliot had three great looks at the net, and all of them went over the top. We have to make sure they hit the net."
The Oil Kings "are doing a good job, but we're getting pucks to the net," Bjorkstrand said. "We've had our chances, but for some reason, they aren't going in. In the past, the bounces have gone our way. They always go in. Lately, it's been different. we just need to focus on getting the puck through."
Now it's down to two games for the Hawks. Win them both or forget the dream of representing the WHL in the Memorial Cup at London, Ontario, from May 16-25.
"We're going to be ready for next game," Bjorkstrand promised. "It's tough in their barn. We know if we win, we'll come back here (for Game 7 on Monday), and the fans will be on our side and they'll help us out. But we can't think two games ahead. We have to win next game."
Johnston sounds as if he thinks it will happen.
"The way we played (Friday night), I'm really confident," he said. "If we play that same way on Sunday, the score will probably go 3-2 the other way."
That would set up one hell of a Game 7 Monday night at Memorial Coliseum.
Anything less than that will be a bitter disappointment for the Hawks, whose stellar play throughout the season has raised expectations through the roof. It's Memorial Cup or bust, and there's no wiggle room left.