|Kamloops goaltender Cam Lanigan makes a save on Portland winger Brad|
Ross during the Blazers' 5-4 victory over the Winterhawks on Wednesday night.
(Photo by Murray Mitchell / Kamloops Daily News)
Daily News Sports Editor
No one told the Kamloops Blazers it was over.
Down 4-0 just 11 minutes into the game and staring at the end of their season, the Blazers roared back to defeat the Portland Winterhawks 5-4 on Wednesday night at Interior Savings Centre.
The Winterhawks still hold a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven WHL Western Conference semifinal with Game 5 scheduled for the Rose Garden in Portland on Saturday night. A sixth game, if needed, would be played in Kamloops on Monday.
Only once in WHL history has a team rebounded from a 0-3 deficit to win a series. In the spring of 1996, the Spokane Chiefs did it to, yes, the Winterhawks.
Last night, the Blazers could have collapsed like a cardboard suitcase in the rain. They were down 3-0 in games and had given up four goals on only eight shots to a team that was looking for its eighth straight playoff victory. And the reward for victory would be spending today on a bus headed to Portland.
While the Blazers looked down and out, the Winterhawks looked as though they already were looking forward to the next series, the conference final against the Tri-City Americans or Spokane Chiefs.
But a funny thing happened on the road to that series — the Blazers came alive.
But who knew with all that happened that it all would come down to one faceoff in the Portland zone? Slightly more than seven minutes into the third period, with the score at 4-4 and the Blazers on the power play, Kamloops forward Brendan Ranford won the draw from Taylor Peters, moving a fluttering puck to the hash mark in front of Portland goaltender Mac Carruth.
Winterhawks defenceman Troy Rutkowski reached for the puck but had it bounce over his stick, right to Kamloops winger Dylan Willick.
“It was kind of an unlucky bounce,” Rutkowski said. “I have to give credit to their forward who read that well.”
“It was just one of those bouncing pucks . . . it went right to my stick,” Willick said. “I think he went for a swing at the puck to clear it. It hopped over his stick and landed right on mine. It was just one of those freak bounces that finally went our way.
“I knew I had a hole and I put it there.”
Derrick Pouliot, with two, Rutkowski and Cam Reid had given the Winterhawks a 4-0 lead as they scored seemingly at will on goaltender Cam Lanigan in the early going.
“I thought we played well early but I don’t know if we deserved a 4-0 lead,” Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks’ general manager and head coach, said. “I thought the third period was pretty well even . . . they got the bounce over Rutkowski’s stick and Willick made a good shot.”
With the home side trailing 4-0, all eyes were on the Kamloops bench, wondering whether head coach Guy Charron would yank Lanigan and send in rookie Taran Kozun, who played two early-season games with the Blazers before being assigned to the SJHL’s Nipawin Hawks. Kozun re-joined the Blazers a few weeks back after the Hawks’ season ended and has been on the bench since starter Cole Cheveldave suffered a concussion in Game 1.
Charron, reluctant to throw the 17-year-old Kozun into this situation, stayed with Lanigan. And Lanigan, to his credit, stood tall the rest of the way.
“That was a huge game for us,” Lanigan said. “We obviously realized after the first period that the odds were against us in almost every aspect.”
Lanigan said Charron appealed to the pride of his players in the organization and in themselves.
“That was something to play for,” Lanigan said, adding that he never once wondered if he was going to get yanked.
“You try not to think that . . . you push those thoughts aside,” the 19-year-old said. “You put the best possible situation in your head. You never think about that. It’s early in the game and you want to focus on that next shot.”
Lanigan felt the tide began to turn with the Blazers’ first goal.
“After we got that first one . . . we’re such a momentum team,” he stated. “We come in waves and that’s been our success . . . our momentum and how we can roll lines and gain momentum. Once we got that first one it was that sense of blood.
“And we’ve always known Portland is beatable. We’ve been up on them before in this series and we’ve had close games. As soon as we got that goal, we definitely knew it was within our reach.”
In hindsight, the game may well have swung 12 minutes into the first period — just moments before that first Kamloops goal — when winger J.C. Lipon drilled Portland forward Ty Rattie into the boards at the Winterhawks blue-line. Rattie, who leads the WHL with 13 goals in these playoffs, was in distress as he went to the bench, indicated a problem in his left lower back area and was escorted to the dressing room. He didn’t return.
“I finished my check and then scored a goal right after that,” Lipon said. “I kind of heard him say like, ‘Ow!’ but that’s about it. I hit him pretty hard.”
Johnston said Rattie’s departure was huge because “he plays in so many situations for us — 4-on-4, 5-on-5, he’s on the power play, the penalty kill. Now you’re changing your power play and that’s a big adjustment because we’ve had Rattie, (Sven) Bartschi and (Brad) Ross together the whole year.”
Asked about Rattie’s injury, Johnston said: “I don’t know. He’s being evaluated.”
Johnston also said the Winterhawks may request supplemental discipline from the WHL office for the hit by Lipon and for a third-period check to the head by Kamloops defenceman Austin Madaisky on forward Taylor Leier.
Madaisky, who was suspended for the last two games of the Blazers’ first-round sweep of the Victoria Royals for a head shot, was given a minor penalty.
Johnston said after the game that he was “watching both hits . . . both were bad.”
The Blazers asked for and got supplemental discipline following a Game 1 hit by Portland forward Oliver Gabriel on goaltender Cole Cheveldave. Cheveldave hasn’t played since — he is believed to have a concussion — and Gabriel, who drew a minor penalty on the late-game play, was later hit with a four-game suspension. He will complete that suspension by sitting out Game 5.
Moments after hitting Rattie, Lipon beat Carruth with a short-side shot upstairs and the Blazers had their first breath of life.
“It banked off the behind wall and popped out right to me,” Lipon said.
Still, the deficit was 4-1. But the hill no longer resembled Mount Everest.
The Blazers, who halted their first three-game losing streak of this season with the victory, then got late second-period goals from defenceman Bronson Maschmeyer at 15:06 — Johnston said that goal, a power-play score off the rush, was a turning point — and Brandon Herrod at 18:30 to get within a goal.
Prior to Maschmeyer’s goal, the Winterhawks had a number of opportunities to extend their lead. Brad Ross, who scored four times in a 5-2 Game 3 victory the previous night, had a shot go off a post and end up underneath Lanigan with Portland on the power play.
On the same power play, the Winterhawks, who had scored three shorthanded goals in Game 3, had two 2-on-1 breaks and a 3-on-2 rush. But they weren’t able to beat Lanigan, who suddenly resembled a brick wall.
And when Ranford tied it by depositing a rebound behind Carruth at 6:03 of the third period, the sparse crowd of 3,587 erupted, sounding like 10,000.
It was even louder after Willick scored and again at the final buzzer.
The Winterhawks were presented with two more power-play opportunities late in the third period. But that revamped unit, without Rattie, didn’t have any success. The Blazers got a couple of key blocked shots from Willick and defenceman Tyler Bell and were able to hang on for the victory.
Despite having blown the lead, the Winterhawks didn’t sound too concerned, not with Game 5 in their town.
“It’s playoffs . . . everything is unpredictable,” Rutkowski said. “We just have to tighten up the defence and learn to play with a lead like that.”
As for the possibility of playing without Rattie, he said: “We have enough skill players. He’s a great player . . . but we have enough talented players that we should be able to fill in the gaps.”
Johnston said it’s all about facing adversity.
“It’s playoffs. You’re going to face some adversity sometime,” he said. “Now we have a little bit of adversity. We have to adjust and adapt and get ready for Saturday.”
JUST NOTES: Kamloops was 2-5 on the power play; Portland was 0-5. . . . Lanigan finished with 27 saves, while Carruth stopped 29. . . . The Blazers went with seven defencemen in Game 3, but scratched Landon Cross last night. That allowed F Brayden Gelsinger, 16, to make his WHL debut. He played this season with the midget AAA Tisdale, Sask., Trojans. Gelsinger, who had 42 points, including 22 goals, in 41 games with Tisdale, signed with the Blazers on March 21. . . . Andy Clovechok, Mr. Hockey in Kamloops, was in the house celebrating his 89th birthday. . . . The Daily News’ Three Stars: 1. Ranford: A goal and two assists; 2. Willick: Typical Willick night; 3. Lipon: Wouldn’t quit.
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