KELOWNA — Oliver Bjorkstrand scored 33 seconds into the game. Then, Bjorkstrand struck again just over five minutes later. When Chase De Leo made it 3-0 with 7:41 left in the first period, the Portland Winterhawks looked ready to run away from the Kelowna Rockets.
The overflow crowd of 6,218 at Prospera Place looked dazed and deflated. Then, out of nowhere, Tyson Baillie scored on a knuckleball that floated over Brendan Burke's blocker, and the fans had a reason to cheer. They had few reasons to stop after that.
The Rockets slowly worked their way back into the game, then seized control in a dominant third period, scoring twice to earn a 5-4 come-from-behind win.
“It was the best crowd since maybe ’09, honestly,” said Rockets coach Ryan Huska, referring to the last time his team won the WHL title. “They had a lot of energy. Even though we were down early we felt we were still in it. They weren’t quiet tonight, which was nice to see.”
The most highly anticipated series in the CHL so far this season didn’t disappoint in Game 1, and after a back-and-forth affair that was played a breakneck pace, one wonders what the teams will have left in the tank for Game 2.
Here are some more notes from Game 1:
* Baillie, who earned first star in the building with a goal and two assists, said the Rockets bench never got down after falling behind, and thought the Hawks weren’t quite ready for a pushback.
Portland is used to taking three-goal leads. The Hawks aren’t used to losing them.
“They kinda got frustrated,” Baillie said about Portland’s response to the Rockets’ rally. “They’ve been the best for the last three years in our conference and they aren’t used to teams coming back like that.”
As is typical of the Rockets, five different players scored on Friday, with defenceman Jesse Lees scoring the game-winner for his first WHL playoff goal.
Even when Portland reclaimed some control late in the second when Keoni Texeira gave the Hawks a 4-2 lead, the Rockets responded 43 seconds later on a goal by Rourke Chartier.
"That's the type of team we have, we show resilience and come back," Baillie said.
* Portland coach Mike Johnston bemoaned his team’s puck management, especially in the third period. At a time when the Winterhawks pride themselves on being the stronger, more well-conditioned team, they were overwhelmed by the Rockets, who outshot them 14-4 and outscored them 2-0 in the period.
“They had a big push in the third period and we couldn’t take it back from them,” Johnston said. “Once they got the lead they were good defensively and didn’t give us much through the neutral zone.”
* Despite being down 3-2 after one period, Huska wasn’t particularly worried by his team’s start.
“We gave up some goals, but I didn’t mind our first period,” he said. “I thought they really capitalized on their chances. It wasn’t the start Jordon (Cooke) wanted, but he settled down and played really well the rest of the way.”
Cooke allowed three goals on the first six shots he faced, but turned away 19 of the last 20.
* Bjorkstrand appeared to have completed a hat trick when he banked a shot off a Kelowna player’s skate and into the net as the first period expired, but video review showed that the puck was about 0.1 seconds late going across the goal line. The two coaches had different takes on a goal that could have put Portland up 4-2 through 20 minutes. Huska thought it was a huge break for the Rockets:
“If that counts, it has a chance to deflate us,” he said. “I thought we played a lot steadier after that.”
Johnston denied that the disallowed goal played an important role in the game’s outcome.
“It’s one of those things that happens, but time had run out,” Johnston said. “It may have been a shift in our favour, but I don’t think it was a big factor.”
* The Rockets heavily targeted Hawks star Mathew Dumba in the game, throwing bodies at him whenever they could. After getting run over by Tyrell Goulbourne in the first period, Dumba responded with a big open ice hit on Kris Schmidli.
In the second period, he had an extended wrestling match with Ryan Olsen behind the play, and in the third he exchanged words and mitts with Damon Severson.
“Key players are going to draw a lot of attention,” said Johnston. “You could see right away they were going after Mat but that’s to be expected.”
Dumba mostly handled the singling out well, but it’s something to watch as the series progresses.
* An aggressive pinch by Rockets defenceman Mitchell Wheaton led to Portland’s first goal, with Bjorkstrand and De Leo taking off on a 2-on-1. More gambling by Kelowna early nearly led to further odd-man rushes. As the game wore on, though, Portland struggled to generate those opportunities. The Rockets may need to continue to dial back the aggression to further neutralize Portland's dangerous transition game.