When the Portland Winterhawks lost Game 3 of their best-of-seven, first-round playoff series against Prince George in Memorial Coliseum last week, they looked down and out. Finished.
The loss meant they had given back a shocking series-opening win in Prince George and were trailing 2-1 in the series. And the 6-1 score in the defeat against a heavily favored team that was older, more experienced and more successful in the regular season than Portland made it seem the series was soon to end.
But as we should know by now, Mike Johnston's teams don't quit. And the Hawks didn't. They won Game 4 in Portland, climbed aboard their bus and rode 15 hours to Prince George to steal game 5 and then returned home Monday night to throttle the Cougars 4-2 and capture the first-round series. It was an incredible comeback by a young team that many thought would scuffle just to make the playoffs. This was supposed to be a rebuilding/restocking season for Portland.
But Johnston is the Wizard of the Western Hockey League, a coach who finds the kind of players he wants -- even when he has low draft choices or none at all -- and then develops them into a gritty, fast and poised team. This series was a snapshot of what the Winterhawks have accomplished during his coaching tenures in Portland.
"It was indescribable," said Portland's scrappy and talented left wing Skyler McKenzie. "It was the first time I've really been a part of a full series win and it was an incredible feeling. We just had to play fast and play as hard as we possibly could. They're a bigger team, they're more mature and they were built for the playoffs. We were the underdogs coming into the series and we knew that. We wanted to make a good impression on the league and that's what we did.
"We realized (after) Game 3 that we needed to play harder. It needed to be every single shift. Our game plan the whole game was just forecheck, forecheck, forecheck. We've played the systems the right way and we played Mike's systems and Mike Johnston is a hell of a coach. He's done wonderful things with this team. He's directed us on the right path."
And Johnston knows how to win playoff series in the WHL. As coach of the Hawks, he has won 15 playoff series and lost only four, with an overall playoff record of 69-35.
"We knew we didn't play our best in the last game up in PG," Johnston said after the Monday win. "(Goaltender) Cole Kehler got us the win in that game, to be honest. Coming back in here, we had to start playing the way we can play. And tonight I was really happy with our game. I thought from start to finish we played pretty consistent. Cole was good in goal when he had to be and tonight we played with more speed, more pace to the game. We didn't deserve the last one but I thought we definitely deserved this one."
What got into the Winterhawks after that 6-1 thrashing in Game 3?
"Our guys started to learn what playoff hockey is all about," Johnston said. "You can't take undisciplined penalties, you've got to be careful. They're a big physical team and there was no way we were going to win that battle. If we couldn't win the physical grinding battle, we had to play with more speed and use our skill. When you win a series that is as hard for travel -- we had 15 hours up and 15 hours back -- and we had more travel because we had to start up there, I give our guys a lot of credit. For a young team, they played hard and they endured a lot. We aren't used to those 15-hour bus trips."
Next up for Portland is Kelowna, which finished just one point behind Prince George in the B.C. Division standings. The schedule for that series was released Tuesday morning:
Game 1: Friday, April 7 at Kelowna, 7:05 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, April 8 at Kelowna, 7:05 p.m.
Game 3: Tuesday, April 11 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 7:00 p.m.
Game 4: Wednesday, April 12 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 7:00 p.m.
Game 5*: Friday, April 14 at Kelowna, 7:05 p.m.
Game 6*: Sunday, April 16 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 5 :00 p.m.
Game 7*: Tuesday, April 18 at Kelowna, 7:00 p.m.
* -- if necessary.