Down 3-2, Winterhawks remain confident

Portland needs win to send WHL finals back to Edmonton

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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The Portland Winterhawks are one loss away from losing the Western Hockey League finals for the second year in a row.

The Portland Winterhawks are two consecutive wins away from the franchise’s third league title.

Both of those sentences describe the stakes of Saturday’s 6 p.m. game against the Edmonton Oil Kings at the sold-out Rose Garden.

Which one of the above statements describes the Winterhawks’ state of mind when they take the ice in front of 10,947 supporters could help determine which fate becomes their legacy.

“We feel confident in the series,” Portland head coach and general manager Mike Johnston said moments after a gut-wrenching loss in Game 5 on Thursday in Edmonton. “We feel like we’re playing well enough to have won those last two games. Certainly, coming home we have a big advantage.”

Entering these finals, the experience the Winterhawks gained in last season’s championship series against the Kootenay Ice was expected to help Portland against Edmonton. But the Winterhawks are 3-7 in 10 WHL championship series games over the last two years. Six of those games have been decided by one goal; Portland is 1-5 in those, including 1-3 in overtime.

Certainly, those statistics are evidence of bad luck and suggest that the Winterhawks have been oh-so-close to celebrating in each of their losses in the 2011 and 2012 championship series. The question is, will those experiences burden the Winterhawks as they try to rally in this series? Will they be confident enough to play the at the breakneck speed that is their strength?

“There’s been a lot of momentum swings. It’s back and forth every game no matter who’s home or away,” Winterhawks captain William Wrenn said. “At this point every bounce is critical. Every little play is going to count. I’m still confident in our team. We always bounce back. We’ve got a great group of guys, so we’ll be ready to go in Game 6.”

Both Johnston and Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal have talked from the start of the series about the similarities between their teams and the fine line between success and failure. Two teams that love to attack have been reminded, both by their coaches and by the results, of the danger that lurks when they give away the puck.

If the stakes weren’t enough to make Saturday’s game a must-watch, the fact that it figures to be the final game in Portland for a group of special players led by Sven Bartschi certainly does. All Bartschi -- who is destined for the NHL’s Calgary Flames next season -- has done this series is score seven of Portland’s 17 goals. In fact, Bartschi, Ty Rattie and Marcel Noebels combined have 13 goals.

On the flip side, Edmonton is getting goals from lower-profile forwards such as 20-year-old Jordan Peddle (three). Another advantage so far in the series for the Oil Kings: they have five goals from defensemen, including the Game 5 winner from Mark Pysyk. Portland has no goals from defensemen, though Derrick Pouliot and Troy Rutkowski have combined for nine assists to help the attack.

Numbers, other than final scores, are not a complete measure of a team’s performance. And Johnston said he’s comfortable with the way his Winterhawks have played through five games. He also pointed to the confidence his team has at home, where it won 31 of 36 regular season games and is 8-2 on this postseason run.

“We feel very confident at home,” Johnston said. “We’ll have a little bit of an advantage at home with some match ups, which is always critical. And then you take it to a Game 7 and anything can happen.”