BY Stuart Kemp
As the rounds go deeper, so does the competition and the Portland Winterhawks found that out as they faced the Kelowna Rockets in the first two games of the series in Kelowna. The Rockets had previously dispatched the Kamloops Blazers in six games, despite stellar goaltending in the Blazers net. The Winterhawks, coming off an impressive upset series win over the Prince George Cougars, knew that they had some retribution owed to the Rockets who took the regular season series 3-1. The first two periods were scoreless despite the Rockets having a lopsided lead in shots on goal. What shots the Hawks were able to get in those first two games in the first period, were perimeter shots as the Rockets punished the younger smaller Hawk forwards.
It was the second period in both games this past weekend where the Rockets would score. The first game saw the Rockets bang home three goals in a span of just under two minutes and add a fourth late in the period on the powerplay to seemingly walk away with the game. Brad Ginnell and Cody Glass on the powerplay would counter for the Hawks with the only goals of the third period, but could never catch up despite having a powerplay for nearly the last two minutes of the game. The shots on goal of 54-29 showed the Rockets domination in the first two periods as the Hawks could only muster low single digits in the first two periods, but actually owned the shot lead in the third by a 17-11 margin. The powerplay scores were even at one apiece, with four given to Kelowna and five for Portland in game one.
Game two showed the same non-goal first period, but the Hawks had managed to trim the deficit of shots on goal to just three in the first period. Again the second period seemed to be the unraveling as the Rockets scored twice, with one of those on the powerplay just over two minutes apart, before the midway point of the frame to own a solid two goal lead. The Hawks responded late in the second period with Joachim Blichfeld scoring off a quick Colton Veloso pass to bring the game closer on the scoresheet. It was penalties that hurt the Hawks, giving Kelowna seven powerplays to just three of their own that would hurt the visitors. Though the Hawks gave up just one powerplay goal on those seven chances, losing that much ice time to man advantages made it nearly impossible to counter the Rockets relentless attack.
The third period seemed to appear to be a Hawks turning point as they forced the Rockets back several times to their end, but just having no puck luck. On at least four rushes, the puck would sail just past the crease of Kelowna goaltender Michael Herringer or get close to the line and the Rockets would pile on Hawks players at the side of the net to prevent any further threat. James Hilsendager scored for the Rockets with just over five minutes left to put the Rockets up by two and Nick Merkley added two empty net goals with a Ryan Hughes Portland goal sandwiched in between those to leave the score at 5-2 for Kelowna. The Hawks were closer in shots with a 43-25 deficit, but it was the powerplays at 7-3 for Kelowna that made it a tougher than ever battle.
The two teams now head to Portland with games three and four set for Tuesday and Wednesday night at Veterans Memorial Coliseum as the Hawks need to get at least a split for the series to go back to Kelowna on Friday.
The other three series have taken on some interesting tones. With the return of Matthew Barzal to the Seattle Thunderbirds lineup and continued strong goaltending by Carl Stankowski, the Everett Silvertips find themselves in an 0-2 deficit with the series heading to Seattle for the next two games. The close, one goal games, have put the Thunderbirds within reach of the Western Conference final for the second straight year.
In the East, the Regina Pats lost their first playoff game this season in a 3-1 loss to Swift Current Broncos in Regina, but roared back with a 6-2 mashing of the Broncos a night later. The same two teams will square off in Swift Current this week. The Medicine Hat Tigers took the first game against the Lethbridge Hurricanes with a 4-0 shutout, but saw the Canes came back in a seesaw battle. With the game tied at four, the Canes exploded for three goals in the third to take a 7-4 win in Medicine Hat. The teams will resume in Lethbridge on Tuesday.