Black Press Sports
KELOWNA – Heading into the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference final between the Rockets and the Portland Winterhawks, the series was hyped as the one that everyone wanted to see.
Two of the top three teams in the CHL rankings, the top two teams in the WHL and intense rivals who had met in the playoffs two of the past three seasons. But could the series live up to the hype?
After the first two games in Kelowna, the answer was a resounding yes as Kelowna and Portland exchanged blows like two heavyweight boxers.
Each team won a round with the Rockets claiming a 5-4 win Friday night before Portland answered back with a 5-3 decision on Saturday.
The best-of-seven series shifted to Portland for games three and four, beginning Tuesday night and continuing Wednesday.
The two games in Kelowna were fast-paced and hectic and played in front of capacity crowds at Prospera Place. Rockets’ defenceman Damon Severson said Portland should be no different and he’s looking forward to a couple of big road games.
“Portland is a fun place to play,” said Severson. “Their fans are going to be just like ours were (in Games 1 and 2). That was the best fan base we’ve had in a few years. They are saying it was just like back in 2009 (when the Rockets won the WHL title). It was great to see our fans out like that. We just have to go down to Portland, really go for it, and see what happens.”
Kelowna rallied to take the opener, but the Winterhawks turned the trick on Kelowna in Game 2, erasing a 2-0 lead to dominate the rest of the way.
Nick Petan led Portland with 1+2, while Dominic Turgeon, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Brenden Leipsic and Alex Schoenborn also scored. Brendan Burke allowed all Kelowna’s goals, giving way to Corbin Boes after captain Madison Bowey made it 3-1 Kelowna with 93 seconds left in the first period.
Nick Merkley and Riley Stadel supplied Rocket powerplay goals, 1:32 apart, midway through the opening frame. Portland outshot Kelowna 53-27 with Jordon Cooke taking the loss.
“We need to play like we did in the first game, where we played such a strong game, other than the first few minutes,” said Severson. “We need to stick to our game-plan, be patient and be ready for Tuesday night.”
The Rockets left for Portland Sunday morning and had a full day to prepare on Monday, prior to Game 3 at the 19,980-seat Moda Center.
Rockets head coach Ryan Huska said his team couldn’t respond to a momentum change in Game 2, but added they put the game behind them and started to focus on the road games ahead.
“You move on pretty quick,” he said. “You don’t have time to dwell on things. We’re going to learn from some things, and change some things and be ready for Tuesday night. We know the type of team they have. They are very good when they are given time and space, and on Saturday night they had a lot of it.”
ROCKET SHOTS: The Rockets are without injured leading scorer Myles Bell (lower body)...Game 5 in the series goes Friday night in Kelowna and tickets are on sale through Select Your Tickets....Game 2 attendance was 6,341 fans...Portland D Derrick Pouliot had three assists Saturday night. Pouliot led Winterhawk d-men with 17 goals and 70 points this season. The 21-year-old Weyburn, Sask. product was a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012.