By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
The bus carrying the Kamloops Blazers was thundering through the black of night towards Portland in the wee hours of Tuesday morning when the celebrating stopped.
It was time to forget about what had just transpired and start thinking about what was yet to come.
The Blazers have penned an amazing story in the past three games of a best-of-seven WHL Western Conference semifinal series with the Portland Winterhawks, twice kicking off dirt and climbing out of the ground to post victories and take the series to Game 7.
Trailing 3-0 in games and 4-0 in the first period of Game 4, the Blazers scored five times and escaped with a 5-4 victory at Interior Savings Centre on April 11.
On Monday night, of course, the Blazer trailed 5-2 in the third period of Game 6, before roaring back for a 7-6 victory that stunned the visitors, rocked the city and had the hockey world all atwitter.
But now, as far as the Blazers are concerned, all of that is in the past, and the focus is on tonight’s game.
“We all got on the bus,” Blazers defenceman Austin Madaisky said from Portland early Tuesday evening. “We were all reminiscing about the game. We threw in a movie. After the movie we turned off the lights and went to bed. Everybody realized what we did was pretty great, but the job is not done yet.”
Fellow defenceman Bronson Maschmeyer, who scored two goals, including the winner with 20.6 seconds left in the third period on Monday, said the team has had a 15-minute rule since the playoffs began.
Fifteen minutes after a game, he said, “we try to focus in again.”
But after what transpired in Game 6, that was a bit hard to do.
“Obviously, the emotions were pretty high and it lasted for a little while,” Maschmeyer said. “We enjoyed the feeling. . . . We woke up this morning and realized there’s still another game we have to win so the job’s not quite done.”
The Blazers arrived in Portland on Tuesday about 6 a.m. The Winterhawks spent the night in Chilliwack and got home late yesterday afternoon.
It’s not like the Blazers haven’t won in Portland this season. They put up a 7-2 victory in the Rose Garden in Game 5 on Saturday. Tonight’s game will be played at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the Blazers won 5-4 in overtime on Oct. 14.
“We’re a pretty confident group right now,” Madaisky said. “We also know the two previous games that we played in this series in Memorial, we thought we played pretty well. We should have won the first game. In our minds, it was almost as if we found a way to lose. We know we can play with them in their building.”
The Blazers dropped a 5-3 decision in Game 1, despite having led 3-1 in the third period. In Game 2, Portland broke open a scoreless game with a goal in the last minute of the second period and two more early in the third en route to a 4-1 victory.
“We do feel confident,” Maschmeyer said. “In the first two games here, we played pretty well for 80 minutes. Obviously, against a team with some firepower that wasn’t enough and they came back in the third.
“We feel confident. We’re in a smaller rink so we’re gong to try to stay physical and keep our game plan the same. We’ve got a good feeling here and we have worked really hard to be in this position.”
The Blazers, of course, have upped the excitement quotient of this series with their two stunning comebacks. That is something they would rather not have to do tonight.
“Obviously,” Madaisky said, “that’s not something we are trying to do. It’s a matter of tightening up on the defensive end of things.
“Discipline, too, is going to be big for us. We know they have a pretty lethal power play so we’re going to be looking to stay out of the box.”
Portland, which had the WHL’s top-rated power play during the regular season, was 3-for-5 with the man advantage in Game 6.
“Even if they don’t score,” Madaisky continued, “it seems they always gather quite a bit of momentum from their power play. So if we stay out of the box, it’ll be better for us.”
Maschmeyer echoed the thoughts about not digging an early hole.
“We would much rather be up and play with the lead,” he said. “But the game always changes and each game is different. So you just have to adapt to each game and try to pull off a win.”
One thing is for certain as game time draws near.
As Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks’ general manager and head coach, said: “Game 7s are always special.”
He continued: “They’re games that involve, much like these games have, a lot of emotion and a lot of intensity . . . special moments when you expect your big players to rise up to the occasion.
“Certainly, they did that (Monday night) on home ice and we expect that our guys will do that on home ice in Portland.”
The Blazers last were involved in a seven-game series in the opening round of the 1998 playoffs. In that series, they held a 3-1 lead over Prince George, only to have the Cougars win the last three games.
The Winterhawks, meanwhile, won a seven-game affair from the Spokane Chiefs just two years ago. That is the only series in WHL history in which the visiting team won every game.
Playing in Spokane, Portland won Game 7, 5-4, on Ty Rattie’s goal at 17:29 of the first overtime period. In that game, the Winterhawks trailed 4-2 with 10:30 left to play in the third period. There still are six players on Portland’s roster who played in that game.
“We’ve battled through a lot of adversity here in these last few games,” Maschmeyer said. “We don’t want to put ourselves in that situation again. But we definitely believe . . .
JUST NOTES: The crowd (5,080) on Monday night was the Blazers’ largest home playoff crowd since May 4 and 5, 1999, when 5,648 attended Games 3 and 4 of the WHL final against the Calgary Hitmen. The Blazers played 26 home playoff games between then and Monday. . . . Kamloops D Marek Hrbas scored one regular-season goal, that coming in Game 65. He now has two playoff goals, one in each of the last two games. . . . Of the last four WHL playoff series to go to a Game 7, four were won by the team that took Game 6. . . . In the QMJHL last night, the Halifax Mooseheads, who lost the first three games, beat the host Quebec Remparts 5-4 in OT of Game 7.
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