Hawks, Cougars all square, and it could last awhile
It was bound to be a long haul, this first-round Western Hockey League playoff series between the Portland Winterhawks and Prince George Cougars.
Two games into the best-of-seven, each team has a win, which means Portland can advance by winning its three scheduled home games.
It also means at least one more 1,460-mile round trip for the Hawks to the WHL's northernmost outpost.
Entering Games 3 and 4 (7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Memorial Coliseum), the Hawks know they can produce scoring chances against the B.C. Division champions. They are learning, though, that extra effort is needed to turn playoff chances into goals.
Over a stretch of four periods (the second and third periods in Game 1 and the first and second in Game 2), Portland outshot Prince George 58-28. But the Cougars outscored the Hawks 4-2 in those four frames, and one of Portland's goals was the empty-netter that sealed its 4-2 win in Game 1.
Not surprisingly, Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston does not believe significant changes need to be made to beat Prince George goalie Ty Edmonds more often.
"We just have to play steady. We have to play the same way we've played in the series," Johnston says. "We can't change the way we're playing. We have to use our speed and just be a little bit grittier on loose-puck battles, and I think we'll be fine."
The Winterhawks started strong in Game 2 on Sunday. They had six shots on goal in the first three minutes, including a goal-mouth scramble. But, despite a 35-19 shots edge in the first two periods, Portland trailed 3-0.
The second of Aaron Boyd's two second-period goals — a wrister from the left-wing faceoff dot with 1:25 left in the period — gave the Cougars a 3-0 lead and was the critical one in Game 2.
It came shortly after Portland came up empty on a power play that included 24 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage during which the Hawks were denied twice by Edmonds and once by a post.
The Cougars scored twice in the first minute of the third period to lead 5-0 before a Cody Glass goal ruined Edmonds' shutout.
Glass, who had one playoff goal as a rookie last season, played in both games at PG after missing the last five periods of the regular season with an injury. Also back for the playoffs is Evan Weinger, who missed the last 10 games of Portland's regular season after taking a stick to the face during a practice.
Sunday's loss halted a nine-game winning streak for Portland goalie Cole Kehler, who was chosen WHL and Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the week in the last week of the regular season.
Kehler made some big stops before Game 2 got out of hand, and was voted the first star for Game 1 after making 23 saves. In that game, he didn't face many in-tight shots from the Cougars.
Johston says his team did a good job of cleaning up rebounds in Game 1. And, aside from the fifth goal on a power play, rebounds weren't the source of Prince George's offense in Game 2.
The problem was, Portland couldn't find a way to finish the rebound chances it created — especially early in Game 2, when the Hawks might have been able to seize momentum and put pressure on the Cougars.
Johnston says his team needs to work harder in front of Edmonds than it did in Game 2.
"We have to be hungrier around the net," he says. "We got a lot of shots, but we need to work harder to battle for loose pucks and to get to the front of the net for screens."
Five different players scored the Portland goals in the first two games. An additional six Winterhawks have registered assists.
Portland is 3 for 9 on the power play through two games. Prince George is 2 for 7.