PORTLAND — Chances are Oliver Gabriel won’t forget the day he turned 21.
Or the day before his 21st.
Playing his final home game as a Portland Winterhawk on the day he turned 21, Oliver Gabriel scored two goals — including the game winner with 2:39 remaining — to lead Portland to a 3-2 win over the Edmonton Oil Kings at the sold-out Rose Garden.
That means Oliver Gabriel will spend his 21st birthday playing for a Western Hockey League championship. The league’s champion will be determined with a Sunday game at Edmonton’s Rexall Place. Game time is 5 p.m. PDT.
“Game 7 in playoff hockey for a championship: There is nothing better,” Portland coach Mike Johnston said, smiling at the prospect.
It is hard to imagine a more memorable 21st birthday than the one Gabriel enjoyed at the Rose Garden.
In front of a boisterous crowd of 10,947, Saturday’s game was knotted at 1 from the middle of the first period until the middle of the third. It was tied at 2, with tension mounting, when Gabriel took a pass from Brad Ross and entered the offensive zone with speed along the right wing. Using Edmonton defenseman Keegan Lowe as a screen, he managed to fool Edmonton goalie Laurent Brossoit just enough to get the puck under the goalie’s blocker.
“I had lots of speed. I had my head up and saw (Edmonton’s defensemen) were flat-footed and just I tried to put it through Lowe,” Gabriel said.
Brossoit turned in another strong game, making 42 saves and keeping the game tied deep into the third period. The Edmonton goalie said he failed to track Gabriel’s shot the way he should have.
“I felt good in the first two periods,” Brossoit said. “I thought I gave the team a chance tonight. In the third period we needed a save there. That’s kind of the bottom line.”
Portland’s goalie Mac Carruth also stood tall, making 30 saves and not getting rattled when Edmonton’s Michael St. Croix made a strong move to the net and lifted a puck past Carruth to open the scoring 7:53 into the game.
Johnston felt his Portland team did a good job of controlling the puck in the attacking zone to keep pressure on the Edmonton defensemen and goaltender. Through two periods Portland had a shots on goal advantage of 33-19, and the Winterhawks began the third period with several strong shifts in the offensive zone.
But it wasn’t offensive zone pressure — or three scoreless power plays — that produced the goals.
Gabriel’s first goal tied the score at 1-1 11:07 into the game. It was a back-door slam dunk off a pass from Cam Reid on a play that started with Brendan Leipsic entering the zone with speed and causing some disarray for the defense.
“I’ve been playing well pretty much the whole series,” Gabriel said. “I haven’t been producing much offensively. I had a feeling it was going to come if I kept putting shots on net.”
Defenseman Joe Morrow gave the Winterhawks their first lead of the game 8:44 into the third, joining an up-ice rush and getting into position to redirect Taylor Leier’s centering pass through Brossoit.
“I thought I could use my skating ability to get up on the rush,” Morrow said. “Leiersy made a great play to draw the other defender out there. I was able to get inside position and get a stick on it.”
Edmonton tied the score less than three minutes later, with a slam-dunk goal for Stephane Legault as the Oil Kings managed to get the puck into the crease with two Edmonton players on the doorstep. Then, as the clock reached four minutes, Edmonton’s Mark Pysyk — the Game 5 hero — rang a shot off the crossbar behind Mac Carruth. The Oil Kings could sense a championship opportunity, and played with an urgency that Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal said his team lacked until Portland led 2-1 in the third period.
“We got it back to 2-2 and we hit a crossbar to go ahead,” Laxdal said. “And you know what? You put pucks on net. We got one in Game 5 that way and they got one tonight so it’s all tied up.”
And so the teams shared one more flight back to Edmonton, knowing that come Sunday night one team will be sky high and on its way to the Memorial Cup tournament and the other group will be deeply disappointed.
Either way, it’s one more unforgettable day in one very memorable championship series.