PORTLAND — One week ago, the Portland Winterhawks looked like a team that would roll into the Memorial Cup.
That only made the stark reality of Monday’s Game 7 loss to the Edmonton Oil Kings sting more as the Winterhawks went about the business Tuesday of putting their 2013-14 season to bed.
“You’re running on adrenaline and all of a sudden it drops off. It’s like falling off a cliff all of a sudden,” Winterhawks head coach and general manager Mike Johnston said. “You’re left with a big void and you’re saying what do I do now?”
For the third time in four seasons, Portland came up short in the Western Hockey League championship series. Monday’s 4-2 loss to Edmonton marked the second time in three seasons that the Oil Kings won the title in a Game 7 triumph over the Winterhawks.
In the final analysis, Edmonton’s defensive discipline and structure was better than Portland’s high-end offensive talent. Griffin Reinhart, who figures to soon be roaming the blue line for the New York Islanders, deserved the playoff MVP award he won, both for his role in taking away space from speedy Winterhawks and for keeping his team calm and confident after a dropping the first two games of the series.
“I don’t know if you can pencil it on one guy,” Portland’s Brendan Leipsic said of Reinhart. “But he’s a great defenseman and he made it tough on us. Obviously we didn’t have the production that we usually have or that we would have liked. But that’s playoff hockey.”
Portland’s top scorers had little impact against Edmonton, and Portland’s power-play went 4 for 30 and did not connect in four consecutive games. In Game 7, the Oil Kings’ go-ahead goal was scored shorthanded.
“(The Oil Kings) blocked a lot of shots. They kind of just sat in their lanes and they didn’t give us too much,” defenseman Derrick Pouliot said. “We probably could have put more pucks to the net just trying to create something, but they did a good job on the kill for sure.”
Matt Dumba, who came to Portland in January after starting the season in the NHL and provided a dynamic power-play pairing on defense with Pouliot, credited Edmonton with stymieing the Hawks power play.
“They just played a really solid game,” Dumba said. “They came after us hard and challenged our top-end guys. They did a great job and credit to them.”
For Pouliot and Leipsic, cornerstone players in Portland’s turnaround from the bottom of the WHL to an elite club, Monday was a tough way to say goodbye to Portland. Each likely will be in professional hockey next season.
“It’s tough to describe,” Pouliot said Tuesday morning. “It’s been a long four years, a fun four years. In one game it’s all over for us for the season again. It’s heartbreaking. It’s tough. It’s a situation you don’t really want to be in, but one you can take a lot from and learn a lot from, too.”
Leipsic talked about the battles he and Pouliot had in practice day after day, and the lifelong friendship that began when they were roommates four years ago.
“It’s emotional. You don’t think of this day coming,” Leipsic said. “Me and him battled a lot. You see each other every day for four years straight you might get sick of each other but we have a great relationship and I think it’ll be that way for the rest of our life.”