PORTLAND — The Portland Winterhawks are two games ahead of the Edmonton Oil Kings. But leading the Western Hockey League championship series 3-1, they aren’t going to get ahead of themselves.
Sure, every team on the brink of a championship talks about how the fourth win is the most difficult to get. But — having lost in the Western Hockey League finals each of the past two seasons — many of these Winterhawks know from painful experience how true it can be.
So, when the Winterhawks and Edmonton Oil Kings hit the ice on Friday in the sold-out Rose Garden, Portland will be trying its best to focus on playing with speed, intensity and smarts — the ingredients that have brought the team to the brink of a league title.
“Deep down we know we’re close,” Winterhawks goalie Mac Carruth said. “That being said, we just have to go into (Game 5) and play like we’ve played the last three games and hopefully come out on top.”
Acting head coach Travis Green said on Thursday that throughout the playoff journey, the coaches have focused on the process more than the result.
“I think almost every round we’ve learned a bit of a lesson,” Green said. “The Everett round we really learned about sticking to a gameplan and not getting too low if things aren’t going the way you want. In the Kamloops series, we talked a lot about not having letdowns, especially after you get a lead which I thought we did after Game 2 in the Kamloops series a little bit.”
So far, the Winterhawks have taken lessons from the past — previous games and previous seasons — and turned them to their advantage. They are limiting their penalties (Edmonton is scoreless on nine power plays in this series), limiting giveaways and using their speed effectively in all three zones of the ice.
If the high-level effort and focus continues, Edmonton figures to have a tough time beating Portland three consecutive times.
“Really, there’s nothing to overthink about it,” Green said. “You’ve got to go out, work hard, compete and hopefully you get the results. You don’t worry about the result, you worry about the preparation and how you need to play.”
Carruth’s experience and focus helped Portland survive third-period surges in the two games at Edmonton. Since winning Game 1 by a 4-1 score, the Oil Kings have scored only twice. There have been some fortuitous bounces around Carruth for the Winterhawks, but Portland’s defense has limited high-quality chances.
“Hard work usually brings good luck,” Carruth said. “We have probably the best four defensemen in the league, I personally think. You have a (top draft prospect) Seth Jones, that gives you confidence back there.”
The goalie added that the leadership and experience of Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Wotherspoon and Derrick Pouliot “gives me confidence to play the puck and not really think about making mistakes.”
One mistake the Winterhawks are determined to avoid is taking for granted that this championship is sealed. The memory of watching Kootenay skate with the Ed Chynoweth Cup two season’s ago and Edmonton last season will help prevent premature giddiness.
“That is definitely a little extra motivation for sure,” Carruth said. “You don’t want to feel that pain again. It would be nice not to feel that.”
• Game 5 is sold out. Winterhawks president Doug Piper said the team will not open the 300-level of the Rose Garden, keeping capacity at 10,947. Piper said he wants to maintain the loud and intimate atmosphere in the lower bowl, and that he didn’t want to open up 7,000 more seats on short notice and only sell a couple thousand extras.
• Vancouver native Trevor Cheek has not yet played in the finals because of an undisclosed injury, but his return to the Edmonton lineup has not been ruled out.
• With 47 career WHL playoff goals, Portland’s Ty Rattie needs one more goal to stand alone atop the league’s all-time career leaders for playoff goals. He is tied with Mark Pederson (Medicine Hat 1983-88).
• The Winterhawks have twice won championships on home ice at Memorial Coliseum. On May 1, 1982 they beat Regina to clinch their first league title. On May 14, 1983, the Winterhawks beat Oshawa to win the Memorial Cup.