If Portland can duplicate its regular-season success in the playoffs, this Western Hockey League series is far from over.
The Winterhawks improved to 5-0 at the Arena this series with a 2-1 win over Spokane Wednesday night, slicing the Chiefs advantage in the best-of-7 series to 2-1.
The next two games are here Friday and Saturday.
“They’ve just had some luck here, they’ve played well here,” Spokane forward Mitch Wahl said. “Home ice is obviously not really an issue in this series but we have to win one of these games at home.”
That was one of the points that Portland coach Mike Johnston made to his inexperienced team after opening the series with two losses at home.
“We just talked about how well we played on the road this year, how well we played in this building,” he said. “We had four good periods of hockey in the series and we’re down 2-0. I always find Game 3 a real turning-point game. It had to be a turning-point game for us because we were on the ropes.”
Portland pretty much controlled the game but didn’t get the game winner until 4 minutes remained.
Luke Walker skated wide around the Spokane goal and fed defenseman Troy Rutkowski with a cross-ice pass for an easy goal as Chiefs’ goalie James Reid went down in a collision with a Winterhawk.
“We came out with slow starts in all three games, that’s something we’ve got to change,” Wahl said. “I think they pretty much outworked us the whole game tonight and we have to get that back Friday. They were down 2-0 so we knew they were going to be more desperate.
“They’re back in it now.”
The Chiefs escaped the first period with a scoreless tie, thanks to 23 saves by Reid. Spokane only had nine shots at Mac Carruth, one a short break by Tyler Johnson that Carruth gloved protecting a high corner.
The second period was more of the same, although the teams traded goals by their big guns. Nino Niederreiter, who had 36 goals in the regular season, got his first of the playoffs for the Hawks with a rocket from the right circle at 5:22.
Kyle Beach, who led the league with 52 regular-season markers, accepted a giveaway and, gliding toward the right circle, snapped off a wrist shot that blew past Carruth for his third playoff tally at 12:10.
The Winterhawks out-shot the Chiefs 19-6 in the period.
“We didn’t play with enough intensity,” Chiefs coach Hardy Sauter said. “That’s something we’re going to better prepare for on Friday.
“The difference between Game 2 and Game 3 was our speed. I don’t think we played with as much speed, therefore we didn’t create as many chances or score as many goals. It’s too bad, but we’re still up 2-1 with Friday’s game at home.
Portland, which didn’t make the playoffs the last three seasons, is just learning how to play when the stakes are higher.
“The biggest thing in the playoffs is handling momentum shifts,” Johnston said. “No matter what happens in the game you have to be ready for the next shift and try to do something about it rather than worrying about what’s happened.
“In the first two games we were high when we were high and we were low when they got the momentum back.”
The Chiefs tried to find another gear in the third period, especially late, but still ended up allowing a season-high 49 shots, 18 more than they took. Maybe they thought the series was over at the halfway point.
“It’s not the attitude we wanted to have, but our play kind of indicated that tonight,” Wahl said. “We just have to get more shots at their goaltending.”
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