BY Stuart Kemp
It appeared at the outset that the Portland Winterhawks would have more than their work cut out for them when they took on the Prince George Cougars in round one of the WHL playoffs. The Cougars had just won the BC Division Championship, were within a hair of being the Western Conference Division leaders, had their most ever wins as a franchise and were hosting a playoff series for the first time in seventeen years. Someone obviously didn’t tell the Portland Winterhawks all of this.
In six games, the Cougars found defeat, one that occurred with Portland winning the last three games straight, two at home and one on the road to advance to the second round. It wasn’t easy as the Hawks would find out in games two and three. After winning game one by a 4 to 2 margin in Prince George, the Hawks got hammered 5 to 1 in Cougar country and then follow up with a 6-1 drubbing in Portland a couple nights later. In both games, Shane Farkas was called in to replace Cole Kehler in the Portland net, where he stopped all shots he faced. Unlike regular season games where goals mean the world, they only focus on each individual game, a message Vice President, General Manager and Coach Mike Johnston would reiterate to his players as they looked to rebound in game four. Cole Kehler had been Johnston’s starter and even with the two lopsided losses, he would run with Kehler through the series.
With an opportunity for a split at home, the Hawks started off giving the visitors the advantage on the scoreboard, but never gave up hope; they would find ways to eat at the lead and finally Matt Revel with a pair of goals, helped to knot the series at two with a 5-4 win. The teams then headed back to Prince George with thoughts on their minds that the series was indeed winnable. However, like so many of the games even during the regular season, the Hawks gave up the opening goal of the game. That goal, just over a minute into the game, electrified the nearly sold out crowd and the Hawks could have as easily packed it in to face the inevitable at home.
Something seemed to resonate within the team as they found a way to claw back with goals by Brad Ginnell and Joachim Blichfeld to take the lead at the end of the first and carry through the second period of play. In the third, the Hawks turned it up by adding their third goal, also by Blichfeld and the Cougars were now the ones reeling. Two goals by the Cougars just three minutes apart, midway through the third period, put the home squad on an even keel and the Hawks had to once again find a way to recover. Ryan Hughes would carry that weight just over a minute later with a goal that seemed to spark big life into the Hawks and a late goal by Cody Glass that seemed to fool everyone especially Ty Edmonds in the Prince George net, put the Hawks on a winning track in the series, now up 3-2. Cole Kehler, the one feeling the pressure to perform from the last two disappointing losses, was named the game’s first star.
Game six in Portland seemed vastly different. Portland came out strong and kept pace with the strong, physical play of the Cougars and though not scoring in the first, seemed to have the better-quality shots on net as the teams remained scoreless after 20 minutes. The second period was all Hawks as they dominated the scoreboard and the shots, outshooting the Cougars 22-9. Colton Veloso opened the scoring on a play that took several minutes to review, just over five minutes into the frame. It seemed that the Cougars were still reeling from the call as just under two minutes later it was Joachim Blichfeld who padded the lead. Just under five minutes later, while on the powerplay, Alex Overhardt seemed to be the one to deflate the Cougars bubble as the Hawks were now up by three as the second period ended. Prince George would get the shutout erased as Kody McDonald scored unassisted, but just over a minute later, Keegan Iverson netted his third of the playoffs to put the Hawks back up by three. The Cougars peppered shots on Kehler and with just over two minutes left, Colby McAuley scored to get the visitors within two. Time was running out as the Hawks sensed victory and shut the door on any more scoring by the Cougars.
In the end, the Portland Winterhawks scored a 4-2 win at home, a series they would win 4-2 and for numerology lovers, the Hawks would do it in this game with 42 shots. Prince George would end with 37 and a one for two on the powerplay, with the Hawks generating one goal on five powerplay attempts. Cole Kehler once again got the first star as he kept the Hawks in the hunt all game long and giving the home side their first taste of the second-round playoffs since 2015.
Almost all the matches are set for the second round as all teams, but one, have completed series. Kelowna Rockets defeated Kamloops Blazers in six games and will get Portland in round two. Seattle Thunderbirds will face Everett Silvertips following Seattle’s four game stomping of Tri-City Americans, with Everett scoring four goals to two over Victoria Royals. The Silvertips had a record game versus the Royals in game six as it took the regulation time plus four and a half overtimes to finally score a 3-2 win. That game ranks as the longest ever in the Canadian Hockey League history.
Out east, Regina Pats walked through Calgary Hitmen in four games and will face Swift Current Broncos after the team from Speedy Creek eked out Moose Jaw Warriors in seven games. The Medicine Hat Tigers will face either Lethbridge Hurricanes or Red Deer Rebels as these two teams battle in game seven on Tuesday night. All series in the second round are expected to start either Friday or Saturday with most teams’ games three and four looking to be Tuesday and Wednesday April 11 and 12. The WHL will start announcing dates within the coming day.