After dominating three of six periods and winning two home games, the Portland Winterhawks are on the cusp of a fourth consecutive conference championship.
But to close out the Kelowna Rockets by winning Friday’s game in British Columbia, the Winterhawks might need to start faster than they have in the last three games of the best-of-seven Western Hockey League series.
Kelowna has scored first in each of the last three games. On Tuesday it was an aggressive forecheck that put Portland on its heels early. On Wednesday, it was a more passive forecheck that had the Winterhawks in scramble mode for much of the first period.
Winterhawks goalie Corbin Boes said the Rockets passive forecheck was effective early on Wednesday, forcing him to be on his game from the start. But more than tactical recognition, Winterhawks coach Mike Johnston said skating was the biggest factor when Kelowna pinned Portland into its defensive zone for extended periods.
“In the first period when the (Winterhawks) forwards got the puck they were standing around. They weren’t skating. They weren’t supporting each other,” Portland coach Mike Johnston said after Wednesday’s 5-1 win put the Winterhawks up 3-1 in the Western Conference finals.
“They had a lot of jump and it looked like we were on our heels. We’ve got to correct that,” Johnston said. “We’ve got to have a bit better start to the games. Our starts in this series haven’t been as good as I would like.”
Of course, the Winterhawks overwhelmed the Rockets later in Games 2, 3, and 4. Using their speed to generate waves of pressure, the Hawks have worn down the Rockets — mentally if not physically.
That is a big part of the Winterhawks template.
“Our (scouting) report coming in was to wear them down, same as we do to every team,” Winterhawks forward Nic Petan said. “We knew they were a little bit deeper forwards wise, and we see that. But I think with our strength and conditioning we’re second to none.”
Portland’s vast playoff experience is also a factor.
“We’ve got guys who have been here three years now. It’s just about seizing the moment at the right time,” Petan said.
Another twist to the series has been the play of Boes in goal for Portland. The 20-year-old whose previous playoff experience was 14 games with Brandon during the 2011 and 2012 seasons has stopped 76 of 80 shots faced since taking over for Brendan Burke in the second period of Game 2. Prior to that Boes hadn’t played since he was injured in a March 7 game.
He said he is focusing on composure and playing each shot as it comes.
“I think just having a positive attitude through not playing in the first couple of (playoff) rounds has started to pay off for me,” Boes said. “It’s a lot of fun. This is a great series going on and the pace is unbelievable. The fans have seen four real good hockey games so far.”
NOTES — If Kelowna wins Game 5, Game 6 will be played at 2 p.m. Sunday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. If Portland wins the Western Conference Championship, the WHL finals will open over the weekend of May 2-4 in Portland. Edmonton leads Medicine Hat 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.