Call it home-ice disadvantage.
The Portland Winterhawks’ strange habit of losing playoff games in their own facility continued Tuesday night, and it proved fatal.
The ‘Hawks were 3-1 losers to the Vancouver Giants at Portland’s Rose Garden, where the WHL tenants were a lousy 0-6 through two post-season series. On a positive note, the Portland squad set a franchise record with six playoff road wins, but an inability to prevail at home led to the team’s demise.
The Giants have also flourished on the highway this spring. Tuesday’s triumph, which gave them a 4-2 Western Conference semifinal win and propelled them into a best-of-seven set with the Tri-City Americans opening tonight in Kennewick, Wash., was their fifth of the playoffs on the road versus zero defeats.
The Giants, who engaged the Winterhawks in a somewhat run-and-gun style through the first five games of the series, got back to the basics in Game 6. The visitors had more bite, more grit, in their performance.
“I really liked our compete level,” Giants head coach Don Hay told Steve Ewen of the Vancouver Province. “We really checked well and I thought we got stronger as the game went on. I thought the third period was our best. The guys were really committed tonight and really sacrificed.”
Added netminder Mark Segal, who stopped 32 shots: “We had guys sacrificing all over the ice.”
It’s not like the ‘Hawks were simply willing to roll over and admit they were never going to win at the Rose Garden. The host squad pressed hard during the final five minutes, with Ryan Johansen ringing a shot off the post and Nino Niederreiter dribbling a shot through the crease on a late Portland power play.
“We pushed everything at them at the end,” Niederreiter told Scott C. Sepich of The Oregonian. “We just didn’t get the luck.”
The setback spelled the end of a big-time turnaround season for the Winterhawks, who improved from 19 wins and 43 points in 2008-09 to 44 victories and 91 points this season. Portland also won its first playoff series since 2006 with a seven-game conference quarter-final conquest of the Spokane Chiefs. The future looks even brighter. The ‘Hawks could have as many as eight NHL-drafted players on their roster next season, including projected first-rounder — this year — Niederreiter.
• The Eastern Conference final also begins tonight and the Brandon Wheat Kings know they’re in tough against the Calgary Hitmen, who finished first overall in regular-season play, three points up on overall runner-up Brandon.
The Wheat Kings are also looking to exact a measure of revenge after losing to the Hitmen in the conference final last spring.
“(The Hitmen are) going to be a good team,” Scott Glennie told Rob Henderson of the Brandon Sun. “We played them last year and we lost and I think we still have a little bitter taste in our mouth. I think you’re going to see us coming out flying in this series.”
Both the Hitmen and Wheaties were extended in their respective semifinal series. Calgary knocked out the Medicine Hat Tigers in six games and Brandon needed six to oust the Saskatoon Blades.
The Wheat Kings are convinced that the nail-biter with the Blades — the series featured five one-goal games — gives them a better chance of continuing their success against the Hitmen. Brandon was 3-0-0-1 versus Calgary during the regular season.
“Saskatoon made us a lot better team,” Wheat Kings left-winger Shayne Wiebe told Henderson. “It’s really exciting knowing we’re going into the conference final and we can’t wait.”
Added Brandon GM/coach Kelly McCrimmon: “I think one of the things we talked about at the outset when we were paired up with Saskatoon was the second- and third-place teams in the entire Western Hockey League (were) facing off in the second round, which is a little bit uncommon. And yet, we knew if we could find a way to get through it that we were going to be a much better team coming out the other end.”
Just notes: Red Deer Rebels netminder Darcy Kuemper appeared in four games with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League following the Rebels’ Eastern Conference quarter-final series loss to Saskatoon. Kuemper, a sixth-round selection of the Minnesota Wild in last year’s NHL entry draft, signed an amateur tryout contract and finished 2-1-0 with the Wild’s top farm team. He also posted a 2.41 goals-against average and .886 save percentage in his brief stint with the Aeros, who failed to qualify for the AHL playoffs . . . The Grand Rapids Griffins also failed to secure an AHL post-season berth, officially spelling the end of the season for Rebels forwards Willie Coetzee and Landon Ferraro. Coetzee, a signed player who will likely play in the Detroit Red Wings organization next season, had no points and four minutes in two games with the Griffins, while Ferraro was assessed one minor penalty was also pointless in two games. Ferraro, Detroit’s first pick in the 2009 NHL draft, is expected to return to the Rebels next season . . . Tri-City’s Drew Owsley is the Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the week. Owsley won three games last week as the Americans wrapped up their Western Conference semifinal series against the Kelowna Rockets in five games. In the process, he posted one shutout and recorded a GAA of 1.62 and save percentage of .952 . . . Forwards Jordan Eberle of the Regina Pats and Craig Cunningham of the Vancouver Giants are the finalists for the 2009-10 WHL player of the year award. The recipients of all WHL individual awards will be announced at the league’s awards luncheon April 28 at the Fantasyland Hotel in Edmonton.
WHL playoff predictions
WHL conference finals
Calgary Hitmen (1) vs. Brandon Wheat Kings (2)
The Hitmen drew the supposedly weaker opponents during the first two playoff rounds, yet needed seven games to oust the Moose Jaw Warriors and six to get rid of the Medicine Hat Tigers. The Wheat Kings swept the Swift Current Broncos and nudged past the Saskatoon Blades in six outings. Brandon was also 3-0-1 versus the Hitmen in regular-season play, and looking at the big picture, would appear to have the edge going into the conference showdown. The Hitmen, however, have been built for one last post-season run prior to — at long last — a rebuilding period, and with their superior goaltending should be able to advance to the league final. But barely. Calgary in seven.
Tri-City Americans (1) vs. Vancouver Giants (2, but fifth in total points)
The Americans struggled down the regular-season homestretch, which suggested a possible first-round playoff exit may be in order. Instead, the Ams got past the upset-minded Chilliwack Bruins in six games, and then, with Drew Owsley providing top-notch goaltending, steamed past the Kelowna Rockets in five. The Giants swept the Kamloops Blazers and finally rid themselves of the Portland Winterhawks in six games. It’s the playoff-savvy Giants, led by legendary WHL coach Don Hay, versus the speedy Americans. A coin toss. Tri-City in seven.