PORTLAND — The Portland Winterhawks have lost as many games in the last four nights as they did in the previous four months.
Lose one more and a record-breaking season will end with heartbreak.
The Edmonton Oil Kings overcame an early deficit to win 3-2 on Friday at the Moda Center, handing Portland its first home loss of these playoffs and taking a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Western Hockey League championship series.
Edmonton can win its second league title in three years by beating Portland a fourth time on Sunday in Edmonton. Should Portland survive with a Sunday win, Game 7 is at 7 p.m. Monday in Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
"It's fun," said Portland's Nic Petan, putting a positive spin on a desperate situation. "We're going to be playing for our lives. We haven't been underdogs all year. It's going to be awesome playing for our lives there."
The Winterhawks felt like they played well enough to get a better result on Friday. Portland put 39 shots on goal and missed several open nets.
But an Edmonton team that at times seemed overwhelmed in losing the first two games of the series, got a lead on Friday and played structured, steady hockey. When the Winterhawks did bring the pressure, goalie Tristan Jarry stood tall with 37 saves.
One turning point on Friday came late in the first period. The Winterhawks led 1-0 on Paul Bittner's goal 15:28 into the game, and nearly had a second goal moments later. The home team was building momentum with the help of 10,947 vocal fans.
But Brendan Leipsic took a charging penalty — the fifth of the period against Portland. The Winterhawks penalty kill shut down the first four Edmonton power plays, but this time the Oil Kings cashed in when Brett Pollock forced a turnover drove to the net. Edgars Kulda was in the right place when the puck popped free and tied the game.
The game then turned in the second period, even though Portland put 18 shots on Jarry.
Edmonton took a 2-1 lead 2:11 into the period when Griffin Reinhart scored on a shot through traffic from low on the left circle. Samuelson made it 3-1 at 7:39 of the second, scoring on an odd-man rush after pressuring the Winterhawks.
With a two-goal lead, Edmonton played its structured defense effectively. The Oil Kings crowded the neutral zone to take away quick up-ice passing, and their big defensemen made it tough for Portland's quick forwards to find angles to the goal.
Portland didn't score again until a Matt Dumba slap shot deflected past Jarry with Portland using six skaters and 1:45 left in the game. The Winterhawks were not able to create any good chances to tie it, though.
"I thought our energy was good," Portland coach Mike Johnston said. "I thought our attack was good. I thought we created on the power play. We didn't score (0 for 4 on the power play)but we created some chances."
Johnston also pointed to six or seven opportunities when Winterhawks shot over the net instead of on target. For a team used to piling up the goals, scoring only twice since leading 2-0 in the first 3:30 of Game 3 is a frustrating reality.
"Five on five, I thought we did a good job of clogging up the neutral zone," Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal said.
Playing with a lead could prevent Edmonton from sitting back and clogging up the ice. Portland just hasn't found a way to lead by multiple goals since early in Game 3.
"I think they're just trapping up when they have a lead, so we've got to get a goal first and force them to make turnovers instead of them forcing us to make turnovers," Petan said. "That's a big part of Game 6."
Captain Taylor Leier said the Winterhawks will play with plenty of desperation, but must also stay relaxed in their roles.
Oliver Bjorkstrand, who has not scored in the series, gave Edmonton credit, but said he and his teammates have what it takes to rediscover their scoring touch.
"It is playoff hockey. That they have a little bigger guys might be an advantage to them," Bjorkstrand said. "But we have a real skill team so we know if we play with high speed and intensity we're going to score goals."
If the goals don't come on Sunday, the season will come to an end. Like Petan, Bjorkstrand said he relishes that challenge.
"We love hockey. A playoff series like this is a dream come true," Bjorkstrand said. "We love intense games. Next game it's either go one more or lose out, so we're going to be ready."