PORTLAND — What a wonderful time to find that finishing touch.
Urged along by close to 11,000 fans at the Rose Garden, the Portland Winterhawks scored four goals in the final 13 minutes on Thursday to finish off the Tri-City Americans and clinch their second consecutive Western Conference championship.
The 4-1 win completed a 4-0 sweep of the Americans and puts the Winterhawks into the Western Hockey League finals. They will meet either Edmonton or Moose Jaw for the title in a series that will begin next week.
Through two periods on Thursday, it seemed Portland might have to make another trip to Kennewick. Tri-City, which won the U.S. Division regular-season title, held a 1-0 lead and had goalie Ty Rimmer playing a strong game.
“That third period was amazing,” said Marcel Noebels, who scored the go-ahead goal with just over 12 minutes remaining, and 56 seconds after teammate Cam Reid broke through with Portland’s first goal. “After the first goal, the crowd was so into it and had so much energy for us. I was feeling like my legs were just going by themselves.”
Both offenses were in high gear all game. But goalies Rimmer of Tri-City and Mac Carruth of Portland were stealing the show.
For the second night in a row, Tri-City’s Adam Hughesman scored the first goal by converting a rebound while the Americans were on the power play. The only goal of the first period came 17:40 into the game. Brendan Shinnimin took a shot from the left circle that bounced free in the crease, allowing Hughesman to score before Carruth could react.
Despite breakaways for both teams and 40 shots through two periods for Portland, that was the only goal of the first 40 minutes.
“I saw some frustration on the bench in the second period and I didn’t really like that,” Portland coach Mike Johnston said. “I talked to the guys about settling down. You’re getting your chances. One them is going to go in, and once it does the building is going to erupt and we’ll get a little momentum and then we have to press them.”
The first one that got past Rimmer was scored by Reid, who flew up the right wing and beat the goalie just inside the left post 6:42 into the third period.
Only 56 seconds later, Noebels took a pass from Ty Rattie, danced around a defender and scored with a backhand shot. Rattie won a battle for the puck along the left boards and passed the puck to Noebels in front.
“I didn’t have to do much on that play, but it felt like I scored a Game 7 OT goal when we scored that one,” Rattie said.
The Americans pushed back, desperately trying for the equalizer. Carruth made several big stops and the defense cleaned up several rebounds before a Sven Bartschi goal gave the home team a 3-1 lead with 3:03 left in the game. Bartschi stole the puck in front of the Americans goal and scored while falling to the ice.
Thirty seconds later, Brad Ross put away a breakaway chance and celebration was in full volume for the 10,947 fans in the building.
“We had a bunch of chances. It’s not always easy to hang with it,” Bartschi said while praising Rimmer and the Americans. “But today we kept at it, shot the puck, shot the puck, and in the end it went in.”
Four times, plenty to send the Winterhawks back to the WHL finals.
“Winning a conference championship in back to back years, that’s so hard to do,” Johnston said. “Now we have the big step ahead of us that we missed last year.”