The Portland Winterhawks reversed the momentum in their Western Conference semifinal versus the Kamloops Blazers.
Just in time.
After gassing a 3-0 series lead, the ‘Hawks found themselves in a Game 7 showdown with the Blazers Wednesday in Portland and goals from Brendan Leipsic and Marcel Noebels propelled the home team into the conference final against the Tri-City Americans.
“I never thought I’d say I want to get back on the bus, but we’re going back on the bus tomorrow and heading to Tri-City,” Winterhawks general manager and head coach Mike Johnston told Jim Beseda of the Portland Oregonian following the decisive 2-0 win over the Blazers. “It’s thrilling for our organization.”
While Leipsic and Noebels provided the ‘Hawks’ offensive punch, the defensive corps and particularly goaltender Mac Carruth were the real keys to victory.
Carruth stopped 32 shots en route to recording his third career playoff shutout.
“The last couple of games, everybody’s been on Mac a little bit, but we said Mac’s the backbone of our team,” said Johnston. “We talk about star players stepping up. He was big-time tonight.
“He didn’t let any rebounds loose. He just looked solid and he gives your team so much confidence in net.”
Noebels connected just 61 seconds into the contest and for the first time in what must have seemed like and eternity for the Winterhawks, the lead actually held up. Ultimately, Leipsic sealed the deal with his third goal of the playoffs midway through the third period.
“The guys really helped me out tonight,” Carruth said.
“They let me see the pucks and that was huge. Kamloops got a few good scoring chances there in the second with some one-timers from the slot, but as a whole I think our defence did a really good job.”
Added Johnston: “We feel our defence is our strong point. We’ve got five, six of the best defencemen in the league. Kamloops thought they were getting to our defence in the series. They were talking about it a lot, but I thought our defence was a rock out there tonight. They were under some pressure at times, but they handled the pressure well.”
The Blazers, who had rallied for two of their three victories in the series, couldn’t repeat the feat a third time.
“I knew it was going to be a hard-fought game,” Blazers coach Guy Charron told the Oregonian.
“After the first goal by Noebels, I was kind of wondering what kind of game we were going to get, but I thought we tightened up in some areas. We probably didn’t generate as much as we would have like to going to their net with more traffic to create some better offensive opportunities, but the effort was there.”
• Elsewhere Wednesday, Brendan Shinnimin notched arguably the biggest goal of his WHL career with 4:18 remaining to lift host Tri-City past the Spokane Chiefs 3-2 in Game 7 of the other Western Conference semifinal.
“Words can’t really describe the feeling of that (goal) going in, and the feeling of our team after the game,” Shinnimin told Annie Fowler of the Tri-City Herald.
“A lot of people might have thought it wouldn’t have been this many games, but the guys in our room knew what they were capable of and what kind of team they were.”
For the Americans, it was their first post-season series win over Spokane since 1995.
“If you caught one of these games, you were treated to some of the best junior hockey entertainment you are going to see,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said.
“Both teams did everything they could. What else can you ask?
“There wasn’t one shift in the last 12 days or seven games that either team could have relaxed. Every game was decided by one goal — two goals was the empty net. No team had a lead of more than two goals. There was not once where you thought it was over.”
The Western Conference final starts tonight at the Toyota Center in Kennewick, Wash., the home of the Americans.
• The Moose Jaw Warriors and Edmonton Oil Kings open their Eastern Conference final tonight in the Alberta capital with the Warriors relishing in the fact they are 100 per cent healthy for the first time this season and the Oil Kings feeling confident with their depth.
For the Warriors, Torrin White and Jordan Wyton are coming off of the injury list as is standout sophomore defenceman Morgan Rielly, who underwent knee surgery in November. Head coach Mike Stothers said the club’s earlier injury woes may have been a blessing in disguise.
“We’ve had guys in and guys out; guys in different positions. I think that early-season experience has helped us here in the playoffs,” Stothers told Matthew Gourlie of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald.
“I’m very proud of our players. We never used who we did or didn’t have as a crutch for any loss.”
Meanwhile, the Oil Kings excelled in the regular season with a deep group of forwards and that depth has helped them post an 8-0 record thus far in the post-season.
“You don’t get very far in the playoffs unless you have great goaltending and balanced scoring. That’s something that we’ve had so far,” said Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal. “We’ve had games where we’ve had defencemen step up and find the net for us. Our depth — and a balanced attack from four lines — is something we’ve had all year. We really haven’t had to go down to three lines all season.”
• Kamloops Daily News sports editor Gregg Drinnan reports that former Red Deer Rebels forwards Justin Taylor and Carsen Germyn have signed contracts with teams in Austria and Germany, respectively.
Taylor inked a one-year deal with Villach after scoring 19 goals and collecting 42 points this season with a team in Slovenia and Germyn signed a one-year extension with the Straubing Tigers.
Germyn had 14 goals and 39 points with the Tigers this season.
• Rebels update: Forward Turner Elson played his first-ever AHL regular-season game with the Abbotsford Heat last weekend and was held pointless with two shots on goal.
Meanwhile, forward John Persson appeared in 12 regular-season contests with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and defenceman Alex Petrovic dressed for five games with the San Antonio Rampage.
Persson had four goals and four assists and was a plus-5, while Petrovic managed a single assist and was a minus-1.
All three teams have qualified for the AHL playoffs.