(Steven Lane/The Columbian)
PORTLAND — Mac Carruth said he treated Wednesday like any other game day.
Then he treated 7,823 fans at Memorial Coliseum to a performance that will live in Portland Winterhawks lore.
With the season on the line, the 19-year-old goalie stopped all 32 shots the Kamloops Blazers threw at him, recording a shutout as the Winterhawks won 2-0 in Game 7 to advance to the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference finals.
Portland and Tri-City will begin that best-of-7 series Friday in Kennewick.
“All athletes feel when they’re in the zone,” Carruth said. “That’s what I felt tonight, and I had a lot of help from my defensemen.”
Carruth and the Winterhawks probably felt some pressure entering Game 7. Kamloops had won the last three games to even the series, and had scored seven times in each of the two previous games.
Given that, Portland could not have anticipated blanking the Blazers.
But Winterhawks head coach and general manager Mike Johnston said he was confident that the netminder would come up big.
“Mac’s the backbone of our team,” Johnston said. “We talked about star players stepping up, and he was big-time tonight. He didn’t let any rebounds loose. He just looked solid and he gives the team so much confidence.”
If the team needed a confidence boost on Wednesday, an early goal from Marcel Noebels certainly helped. A third-period goal from Brendan Leipsic took a bit of the edge of the nerves of the Coliseum crowd.
Carruth was calm throughout.
His best saves came in a scoreless but active second period. After Leipsic made it 2-0, the goalie did not look at the scoreboard until time expired.
“I just tried to keep an even keel,” Carruth said. “I didn’t look at the scoreboard. As soon as it got past the 10-minute mark, I didn’t look up there until the game was over.”
The Winterhawks established early momentum, playing the first shift of the game in Kamloops territory, and jumping to a quick 1-0 lead moments later.
Noebels got the goal 1:01 into the match, beating Kamloops goalie Cam Lanigan cleanly from the slot after Sven Barschi won possession on the right wall and flipped the puck to the wide-open Noebels.
That goal might have been enough on a night when the Hawks found the intensity they needed to block shots and win battles.
“We didn’t have a lot of that intensity in the last three games that we lost,” Carruth said. “That was the difference. It took us a whiloe to learn our lesson. But we finally learned it here in Game 7, which is perfect.”
Carruth was perfect, but Leipsic made sure he did not need to be.
The play that gave the home folks a chance to breathe a bit started with a scrum at center ice. Portland defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon sent the puck forward, sending Cam Reid up the left wing with Leipsic to his right.
“Cam made a great pass,” Leipsic said. “It was a saucer pass over the defenseman’s stick and I was able to chip it over (Lanigan’s) glove. The roof of the building came blowing off there. It was a great feeling.”
It was the feeling of a heavy weight being lifted from the Winterhawks’ shoulders, and the elation of surviving a playoff scare.