It could have been curtains on the Kamloops Blazers season less than a half hour after puck drop. Down 3-0 in games to the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL Western Conference semifinal series, down 4-0 on the scoreboard, summer could have come early. Derrick Pouliot had just scored his second of the game, a beauty, going from coast to coast and deke-ing through three Blazers and jamming the puck past goaltender Cam Lanigan.
Blazer coach Guy Charron admitted after the game speaking to reporters that he was considering bringing in backup Taran Kozun to replace Lanigan, who himself was only made part of this series after starter Cole Cheveldave was knocked out in the second game by Olivier Gabriel.
But Lanigan stayed between the pipes. He wasn't lights-out from there on out, but he was dependable, making a few key stops and not allowing anything else. For Kamloops to save their season, they'd need offence. J.C. Lipon fired in a puck just below the right circle just two minutes after Portland took the 4-0 lead, and it was 4-1 at the intermission.
The game remained pretty even, and somewhat stoic at times, until the late minutes of the second period. Defenceman Bronson Maschmeyer took a Brandon Ranford feed and was left un-checked on the puck from the blue line to high slot, putting one stick side past Winterhawks' goalie Mac Carruth. 4-2.
Just minutes later, Brandon Herrod capitalized on a gorgeous cross-crease pass from Jordan DePape, potting one in from a rough angle. 4-3.
Six minutes into the third period, Ranford pulled the puck out of a goal line scrum and beat Carruth with some hard work in front, the way Kamloops found success against Victoria in Round One. 4-4. You see where this is going.
Dylan Willick admitted that his eventual game-winning goal with 13:23 left in the game was mostly due to an errant clearing attempt, but it would pave the way to an unlikely 5-4 final, Kamloops blocking several shots in a late-game Portland rally.
"Their guy took a swipe at it, missed it, the puck bounced to me and they were all going the wrong way so it was just me and the goalie," said Willick. "Had it for a second, then went upstairs."
Three questions remain from this game:
1 - How long will Ty Rattie be out for?
Oh, yes, had Portland held on to win this one to complete the sweep, the major story out of this game would have been the fact that the WHL's top scorer in the playoffs left the game after the first period with an apparent injury. Neate said "back ailment" here, but I heard the "C" word tossed around in the basement post-game.
He was knocked by Kamloops' Lipon along the boards, but Winterhawks' coach Mike Johnston seemed uneasy to update anybody on Rattie's status, understandably:
REPORTER: What happened to [Rattie]?
Mike Johnston: It was a real questionable hit.
REPORTER: And how bad is he?
Johnston: I'm not sure.
REPORTER: Can't say where it was? Upper, lower body?
Suffice to say that the Winterhawks are loaded with high-end forward talent. Sven Bärtschi had three goals and four assists in the first three games of this series, although those have come on Rattie's opposite wing.
Brad Ross, who scored four times in Game Three (once into the empty net), will have to step up after having an off-game in Game Four.
2 - Can Kamloops' goaltending bring them all the way back?
Lanigan benefit from a number of posts Wednesday, and late in the third period, Portland had a number of shot attempts from key areas that were blocked by Blazers. He looked shaky on Pouliot's first goal, a slow backhander from the circle that squeezed under his right chicken wing.
"Obviously giving up four goals, that's not a game you want," Lanigan said. He was named the first star of the game to rousing cheers, but made just 20 saves off of 24 shots. The night before, he had stopped 24 of 28, while his opposite Carruth had stopped 39 of 40. Overall this series, Portland have a large edge in goal differential, but the Blazers have actually outshot the Winterhawks 143-140.
This has been an even game from a process perspective, and both teams are very talented up front. Neither team ran away in the scoring chance department, but the steadier Carruth has seen upwards of 30 each night.
3 - Portland are still up 3-1 in the series, so what?
This is the million dollar question. In all honesty, this was a real fun game to be watching, and there were a lot of smiles outside the Blazers locker room at the end of this one. Charron discussed momentum and shot blocks as key to his team's turnaround, and over the course of a single game, you can count on a few bounces, posts and shot blocks to keep your team in it.
But it isn't a measure for sustained success. After the first period, 9 scoring chances were recorded for Kamloops to 8 for Portland. Kamloops is going to have to open up a greater gap if they really want to make this a series. Despite being down most of the game and thus should be creating greater pressure on the Winterhawks, they were still out-chanced 26-25, looking truly out-classed in Portland's late fury.
The Winterhawks scored three shorthanded goals, albeit one an empty-netter, in Game Three. While Kamloops scored the winning goal on the powerplay, they still gave up three scoring chances on a single two-minute man advantage. Being able to control the game in close score situations is key.
"We felt if we were going to rectify some of the things we weren't doing very well, getting a couple of saves here and there, you never know what can happen," Charron said. "You build momentum, you start scoring, Cam made a couple of saves, it was just a matter of 'keep pushing'."
Charron has taught his team to enjoy the WHL playoffs for 15 minutes, and after that it's work. 15 minutes perhaps may be stretched for a night or so in Kamloops. Game Five runs Saturday night in Portland at the Rose Garden.
Edmonton Oil Kings 6 vs. Brandon Wheat Kings 0 (Edmonton win series 4-0)
After an upset over Calgary in the first round of the WHL playoffs, Brandon had their work cut out for them playing against the Hitmen Northern provincial rivals. They were out-scored 17-5 by the Oil Kings in the series and 11-1 in the final two games which took place in Brandon, evidently having run out of a certain kind of gas.
Not the best time of year to have a couple of days off, and you never want to face elimination this way. Martin Gernat scored twice for Edmonton, on his 19th birthday, and the Oil Kings have now won their 19th straight game. The concerns about Edmonton maybe having peaked too early in their mid-season run were premature.
Worth noting: Edmonton goaltender Laurent Broissoit stopped 24 of 24 shots he faced in this one. After finishing tied for fourth among goalies with more than 40 starts with a .914 save percentage, Broissoit is red-hot in the Edmonton post-season, posting a .941 in his eight starts. During his personal 17-game win streak, he has stopped 90 pucks 12 times, so he's had a part in the Oil Kings' recent success. This, however, was his first shutout since February 11th, however.
Moose Jaw Warriors 4 vs. Medicine Hat Tigers 3 (Moose Jaw win series 4-0)
After Emerson Etem was kicked out of Game One, you sort of knew that Medicine Hat's already limited chances to win this series were further restricted. Blowing a 3-1 lead in an elimination game isn't the best way to set yourself up for success in Overtime, although the 'Hat did out-chance the 'Jaw 4-3 in the OT frame in shots on goal.
The playoffs are set up for statistically unlikely heroes, and Wednesday night Brayden Point, a 16-year old from Calgary with just 13 WHL games to his name coming in, scored a goal and an assist including the clincher on the powerplay, but I'm more interested in how the PP occured:
The overtime power play came under the oddest of circumstances. When Tigers captain Cole Grbavac saw his stick broken on a scoring chance, he ripped the stick out the hands of Warrior Sam Fioretti and began to play with it. Grbavac was whistled for interference.
"I didn't really see it, but one of my assistant coaches said it looked like the ref gave him a chance to let go of it," said Tigers head coach Shaun Clouston. "He gave him the chance to drop it and he didn't take the chance. He didn't really want to make that call in overtime, but after awhile you have to make it. [Moose Jaw Times-Herald]
You hate to end your season on a brain fart like that, but Clouston was quick to redeem Grbavac ("Cole has been working hard for us all year").
Worth noting: Of Point's five playoff goals, three have been game winners. I'm not sure if that's enough of a sample size to call the kid a "big-game player" but few 16-year olds score at this sort of rate in junior hockey. Selected at 5'6", Point is now 5'8" and growing. He could make himself a factor in the WHL Eastern Final against Edmonton.
Tri-City Americans 2 vs. Spokane Chiefs 1 (Tri-City lead series 2-1)
The Americans scored two first period goals, courtesy of Nathan MacMaster and, who else, Brendan Shinnimin, playing much of this game with the lead, resting on the laurels of Ty Rimmer. Well, actually, Rimmer didn't have to be all-world tonight, or even all-star. He faced just 24 shots, many deemed to be outside efforts, and after two dramatic opening game series', the outcome seemingly wasn't in doubt in this one.
Spokane had a few more good looks at the net, but shot high, or wide, as they missed their chances down the stretch.
"I think it was similar to Game 2," Chiefs captain Darren Kramer said. "We came down to the wire again and we had a chance right to the end, but if (we) play the two-and-a-half periods before that, (we) won't end up in that situation. That's what we have to work on. [Spokesman-Review]
Game Four will run on Friday, and the teams won't have a break, meaning that they'll reconnect with scheduling of the Kamloops/Portland series on Saturday, when both Western Conference series' will play Game Five.
Worth noting: Shinnimin's consecutive games with a point streak has now hit 30 on the button. He has 34 goals and 38 assists for 72 points in that span.