PORTLAND — Nic Petan had four goals through the first 12 playoff games of 2014. On Wednesday, the 18-year-old’s stick was magic.
Petan’s three power-play goals highlighted a 5-1 win for the Portland Winterhawks, who took a 3-1 lead on the Kelowna Rockets. One more win and the Winterhawks will be in the WHL Finals for a fourth consecutive season.
To win the Western Conference finals series, Kelowna must win three in a row against a Portland team that has lost three times in its last 42 games dating to Jan. 11. Game 5 is Friday at Kelowna. If needed, Game 6 is at 2 p.m. Sunday in Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
An energized second period and superior play from the power-play and penalty-kill units carried the Winterhawks in front of 9,744 fans at the Moda Center.
Petan’s first two goals gave Portland a 2-1 lead. Oliver Bjorkstand’s unassisted shorthanded goal made it 3-1, then Petan completed his hat trick with a blind pass through his legs that deflected off the stick of Kelowna’s Rourke Chartier to make it 4-1 Portland with 3:07 left in the second period.
Petan said the backwards between-the-legs play was a reaction in the moment.
“I kind of lost (the puck) and put it through my legs,” he said. “I tried to pass it over, but it went in so I’ll take it.”
Winterhawks coach Mike Johnston said Petan played his best all-around game of the playoffs.
“In every area of his game he was really good. He was working hard on the backcheck and he was a key penalty killer for us tonight,” Johnston said.
Portland was 3 for 8 on the power play, while killing off all five Kelowna advantages and netting one short-handed. Brendan Leipsic and Derrick Pouliot each had an assist on each of the three Petan goals. Paul Bittner added an empty-net goal late in the third period.
Petan said he was looking to shoot more on Wednesday, and when he ripped a cross-ice pass from Brendan Leipsic past Kelowna goalie Jordon Cooke late in the first period, his game seemed to rise to another level.
“Anybody who scores a first goal you get more confidence as the game goes on and you want the puck more and more,” Petan said.
His second goal was a shot through traffic from the top of the left circle for a 2-1 lead 10:15 into the second period.
“I saw a little crack, I went for it and luckily it went in,” he said.
Just more than a minute later Bjorkstrand made it 3-1, scoring his 15th goal of the playoffs on a on a shorthanded breakaway.
Late in the period, Petan’s between-the-legs effort gave Portland a three-goal cushion, and the game looked much different than it had in the first period.
Kelowna set the tone in the first period, creating chances with its forecheck and crowding center ice to slow down the Winterhawks’ rush. The Rockets outshot the Winterhawks 18-11 in the first period.
Winterhawks goalie Corbin Boes was strong from the start, denying a shorthanded breakaway chance for Justin Kirkland and stopping a series of close-range shots. Before Nick Merkley put the Rockets up 1-0 with a rebound goal at 12:28 of the first period, Boes made two point-blank stops on Chartier after some sustained pressure.
“I thought that was maybe one of our weaker periods,” Johnston said. “But I give them a lot of credit for how they started. They pushed the pace high. They had their defense active in the rush. And I thought Corbin came up with some big saves.”
Boes, who made his second start after taking over for Brendan Burke during Game 2, made 17 of his 31 saves in the first period.
“Anytime as a goaltender you make a big save early it gets you right into it,” he said.
One more win, and the Winterhawks are right back where they’ve been the previous three seasons – playing for a WHL championship.
NOTES – Pouliot matched Troy Rutkowski for the Winterhawks franchise record with 77 playoff games played. Pouliot is first all time in playoff points by a Winterhawks defenseman with 65, and first in playoff assists with 53. Pouliot and Leipsic have points in all 13 playoff games this season. Leipsic moved into third all-time in Winterhawks playoff scoring with 71 points. Leipsic has points in 20 consecutive games dating back to the regular season.