SASKATOON, Sask. — The stars are aligning for that Portland-Halifax final, but it wasn't just star power that vaulted the Winterhawks over the Saskatoon Blades.
Portland, after absorbing the loss of left wing Taylor Leier on a questionable check in the first period, plugged 16-year-old rookies Paul Bittner and Keegan Iverson into expanded duties and pulled away for a 4-2 MasterCard Memorial Cup win to complete the round-robin. The WHL champs scored three consecutive third-period goals, earning a spot in the Friday's semifinal against the winner of the Saskatoon-London tiebreaker.
"The crowd was unreal and to overcome that shows the character of our team," said right wing Ty Rattie, who scored for the third consecutive game. "Greener [coach Travis Green] calmed everyone down after the first and we went to work in the second and third. Huge character win for the boys. It's good that we get the bypass to the semifinal.
"We want to use our speed against teams like [Saskatoon] and good for us, we got the win."
The Blades stuck with Portland for 40-plus minutes before the Winterhawks' skill won out.
"I think we were a little overconfident after beating Halifax," said right wing Josh Nicholls, who scored a goal. "Our effort wasn't where it needed to be. We realize anything's possible. We came into this game thinking we could get a bye to the final and now we have to take the long way.
"It was a good learning experience for us to [win] that Halifax game and tonight was another learning experience. We'll try to get some redemption [Thursday] against London and keep our tournament alive. Just need to keep that same excitement and that same energy."
The Blades are in the same situation the Shawinigan Cataractes were going into the playoffs at the 2012 Memorial Cup. Saskatoon has to beat all three league champions in succession to win the tournament. On with the post-game questions:
How was a four-minute penalty kill actually counterproductive for the Blades? In their win, the Blades were buoyed by the combo of a late second period penalty kill and an out-of-the-box breakaway goal by Matej Stransky.
It was 1-all with 4:10 left in the second period when Saskatoon overage Michael Ferland got a double minor. Thanks in part to both Brett Stovin blocking "five or six" shots — by his own rough guesstimate — and the puck bouncing on some bad ice, the Winterhawks didn't capitalize. It didn't lift the Blades, though, despite a huge ovation at the end of the period from the announced crowd of 9,239. It took a lot out of them.
"It was probably our only positive of the game," Nicholls said. "Unfortunately, the period ended. What we really needed was a good first five minutes of the third period to keep that momentum. We weren't able to do that. We kind of slowed the game down. We have to keep pushing the pace and use our endurance to push teams to the brink."
"It took a lot of energy out of us," Blades coach-GM Lorne Molleken added. "We had some mistakes that Portland took advantage of."
Green has said all along that his charges are a relaxed group. A lot of teams would have let the missed opportunity eat away at them. Instead, Portland controlled the third.
"The ice was real bad and pucks were jumping around," Green said. We talked about sticking with the program, trying to wear them down. They kept a real tight box and were willing to sacrifice their body to block shots. When the puck is bouncing and you're not taking it cleanly, it's hard to take one-timers from the point."
What was that about the Blades believing they could wear down Seth Jones? That never really came to pass, eh? The 18-year-old budding superstar defenceman played his best game of the tournament, blocking shots and showing a deft stick to break up potential scoring plays.
"It was very physical, but we were able to keep playing our game and wear them down in the third period," Jones said. "I like where we are right now."
"I didn't start the tournament too hot, especially defensively," Tonight I wanted to do a better job with that and blocked a couple shots
Jones will have to replicate that performance at least two more times to give Portland its best chance of winning its first Memorial Cup since 1998.
"Seth has been really good the whole tournament," Green said. "We've come to expect that out of him. He's a world-class player.
What chance does one give the Blades of sending London home on Thursday and earning a rematch vs. the Winterhawks? Saskatoon's game is entirely predicated on the kill-the-body-and-the-head-will-die principle. That was a big part of the Shawinigan Spring in May 2012, as the Cataractes took over the tourney while fatigue caught up to other teams which played four playoff rounds.
It probably hinges on what kind of effort London produces. For what it is worth, the Knights believe they will rise to the situation in a do-or-done game (or as London left wing Tyler Ferry put it: "Our asses weren't on the line against Halifax"). The Blades' game, mixing physicality, defence and Andrey Makarov's goaltending, is intended to make teams with greater skill crumble.
"We have to play a simple game, a north-south game," Molleken said. "We let [Portland goalie Mac] Carruth handle far too many pucks... We had some chances to score, but not great chances, If Stransky scores on that breakaway [when the score was 1-1 in the second], it may be a different game.
"We didn't shoot enough," Molleken added. "We tried to get too fancy and that's not one of our strengths. Our decision-making wasn't as good as it needs to be ... We'll have to be at our best tomorrow night and our game can't change."
Be that as it may, superior talent can erode all the will in the world. A tired London outfit might fit that description. One would have to think that applies more thoroughly to Portland and Halifax, which learned a lesson from its loss to Saskatoon. The Blades simply couldn't keep up to Portland for the whole night.
"They're a great transition team," Nicholls said of Portland. "They did a good job of turning pucks over for us and coming the other way. We have to get less cute there. It's been a learning curve for us and we still have a shot.
Is it ironic that Saskatoon, loaded with veterans, was undone by the Winterhawks' two youngest players? Score one for the principle of having a mix of good experienced players and good young players. The injury to Leier meant the hulking 6-foot-4, 194-pound Bittner drew into a top-six role. The 6-foot, 215-pound Iverson also threw his weight around, helping the Winterhawks set the tempo as the game progressed.
So much for the benefit of Saskatoon having an older, more well-rested team.
"They're big physical guys, and it's tough for the opposing defencemen," Rattie said. "You can see how they wear them down during games. They were on the ice for a couple goals and did a great job. They're just getting better every time."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.