Read more about the game and playoff series in reporter Paul Danzer's notes.
Any team that wins the first three games in a best-of-7 playoff series talks about not taking its opponent lightly or a series victory for granted.
But when the Portland Winterhawks said after Wednesday’s 3-1 win over the Tri-City Americans that they have not yet won this Western Hockey League series, their comments rang especially true.
Fresh in their minds is the last series, which saw Kamloops force Portland to a decisive Game 7 after the Winterhawks won the first three games.
Even clearer is how difficult it is to beat the Tri-City Americans.
“We know we’ve got our hands full every time we play them,” Portland head coach and general manager Mike Johnston said. “We have to be ready for (Thursday) night. We have to push hard early in the game.”
Wednesday’s battle unfolded that in front of 7,716 fans at the Rose Garden was the first of this series not to need overtime. But it was in doubt until Brad Ross scored an empty-net goal in the final minute. Marcel Noebels and Ty Rattie also scored for Portland, and goalie Mac Carruth stood tall after the Americans scored a power-play goal only 1:12 into the game.
The most memorable of Carruth’s 38 saves came against Tri-City sharpshooter Brendan Shinnimin with 4:22 left in the game. The Winterhawks led 2-1 and were on a power play, but the puck bounced to Shinnimin who raced the other way.
Carruth called the challenge a chess match.
“It’s bad ice, it’s going to be tough for (Shinnimin) to make a move,” Carruth said of his thought process as the play unfolded. “I just tried to make myself as big as possible, and it worked out.”
Portland was its own worst enemy for stretches of the first two periods, taking seven penalties which forced the home team to fight off a very-skilled Americans power play.
“We took way too many penalties,” Portland captain William Wrenn said. “We can’t be giving them those chances. Even if they don’t score, it can give them momentum.”
By game’s end, each team was 1 for 6 on the power play, and Tri-City was cited for the final seven infractions beginning late in the second period. But Johnston said his team cannot keep giving the Americans power-play chances like it did early in Wednesday’s game.
“We can’t take penalties like that,” the coach said. “Maybe (the officials) called it tight, but they showed how they were going to call the game right from the start and we have to react and adjust to the referees. We just can’t take unnecessary penalties. Their power play is too good.”
Fortunately for Portland, Carruth was too good for the Americans on Wednesday.
Noebels tied it at 1 10:40 into the second period, stealing the puck from Patrick Holland and whipping a quick wrister off of goalie Ty Rimmer and into the goal.
“I just saw Holland coming out of the corner and tried to backcheck really hard,” Noebels said. “I lifted his stick. After that, I saw (Brendan) Leipsic in front of the net and just shot the puck at the net.”
Holland was a force for the Americans. His shot off the crossbar led to Adam Hughesma’s tip-in goal at the start of the game. Holland had three scoring chances early in the second period. But on the game-tying play, Noebels pilfered the puck as the Americans were starting a breakout.
Tri-City threw 21 shots at Carruth in the second period without beating the Portland goalie. Portland had only 12 second-period shots, but one of those was a breakaway chance for Rattie that Rimmer stopped with his left shoulder.
But the Winterhawks outshot the Americans 20-6 in the third period and Rattie got the go-ahead goal, whipping home the puck from a sharp angle for a power-play goal that made the score 2-1 with 8:39 remaining. It was Rattie’s 17th goal of these playoffs and his 28th career postseason goal, tying Randy Heath for the Winterhawks career record.
With that, another tense tussle went the Winterhawks' way. A win today would put Portland back in the WHL finals for the second year in a row.
Not that the Winterhawks are looking past Game 4.
“The fact that we were up three games last series and lost those three in a row was tough,” Wrenn said. “But I think it’s huge for us now to have had that experience going into Game 4.”