Winterhawks look to turn series around at home

WHL finals proving to be tight series

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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PORTLAND — Win more faceoffs. Take fewer penalties.

Improvement in those two areas could play a key role if the Portland Winterhawks regain the upper hand in the Western Hockey League championship series, which is knotted at 2-2 heading into Friday’s Game 5 at the Moda Center.

Neither faceoffs, nor penalties, were a strong suit in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss in Edmonton. The Oil Kings won more faceoffs for the first time in the series. And the Winterhawks were shorthanded seven times.

Edmonton did not score on its power plays, nor directly from a faceoff, but the Oil Kings’ gained momentum and forced the Winterhawks to defend for long periods.

Portland head coach and general manager Mike Johnston said his team only won about 45 percent of the faceoffs in Game 4, after winning about 55 percent of the draws through three games.

“You’ve got 60-plus draws in a game, so that’s a big advantage when you talk about puck possession,” Johnston said.

Brendan Leipsic was cited for three penalties in the second period on Wednesday and the Winterhawks were shorthanded for eight of the 20 minutes in the second period.

“It was a 1-0 game and I was trying to play hard out there. A couple calls could’ve gone either way. Obviously I’m not happy with some of them, but that’s the way it is,” Leipsic said. “No excuses. Just need to play smarter. It didn’t really hurt the team on the scoreboard, but it did in the momentum.”

After reviewing the game, Johnston said that several penalties against Portland on Wednesday were “real close calls.”

“Referees have a tough job in playoff hockey because guys are embellishing or milking it a little bit more than they would at other times,” Johnston said.

Despite being blanked for the first time since December of 2011 and despite losing consecutive games for the first time since early January, the Winterhawks are not surprised the WHL champion will be decided over the final three games of the best-of-seven series.

“Any final series isn’t easy,” Winterhawks captain Taylor Leier said. “That’s why they have Game 7, right? It’s not supposed to be easy to win. We were expecting this series to go six or seven games.”

In addition to the emotional lift home teams get from their fans — another sellout crowd of 10,947 is expected at the Moda Center for Game 5 — they also have the advantage of making the last change before faceoffs.

In Edmonton, “(The Oil Kings) got the changes and match ups they wanted,” Johnston said. “I didn’t think that was a big factor, but it still did play a role.”

Portland has not scored in the last 116 minutes of hockey, an astounding drought for a team averaging 4.6 goals per game in its first 17 games of the playoffs. Johnston said playoff success requires handling adversity such as a prolonged scoring drought.

“Our group’s experienced. They’re poised. They’re confident,” Johnston said. “So I expect we’ll be fine (Friday) night.”

NOTE — On Wednesday, defenseman Blake Heinrich, 18, played several shifts in his WHL debut for the Winterhawks. The Minnesota native just completed his second season with Sioux City of the United States Hockey League.