by Paul Buker of The Oregonian and Portland freelance journalist Scott Sepich and Gregg Drinnan

The Portland Winterhawks are hoping the third time’s the charm.

The Winterhawks scored two power-play goals and another while shorthanded in skating to a 4-1 victory over the Kamloops Blazers to win the WHL’s best-of-seven Western Conference final, 4-1.

The Winterhawks, who will be making their third straight appearance in the WHL’s championship final for the Ed Chynoweth Cup, now await a winner from the Eastern Conference. Last night, the host Edmonton Oil Kings beat the Calgary Hitmen 5-1 to take a 3-2 lead in the series. Game 6 is scheduled for Sunday afternoon in Calgary.

“You go the final twice and you lose, it’s not easy," said Travis Green, Portland’s acting coach. “It’s hard to swallow. You live with it forever... I’m hoping the third time’s the lucky charm."

The Winterhawks lost to the Kootenay Ice two years ago and last year were beaten by the Oil Kings.

Against Kamloops, the Winterhawks held serve, having also won Games 1 and 2 at home. The Blazers won Game 3 in Kamloops; the Winterhawks took Game 4.

“I thought Portland played very well,” Kamloops head coach Guy Charron said. “It’s a very determined group. I’m sure last year’s experience was something that they used. They didn’t want to see this go to seven games again and their effort tonight showed that. I thought they were very committed defensively, and I thought their goaltender played well, especially early in the series.”

It was only a year ago when the Blazers lost the first three games of a second-round series with Portland, then won three in a row before losing Game 7, 2-0, in Portland.

The Blazers and their fans were hoping for the same sort of comeback this time, but it wasn’t to be.

The Winterhawks, who finished atop the WHL’s overall standings, simply were too strong. Goaltender Mac Carruth allowed only seven goals in the six games, with five of them coming in the Blazers’ 5-1 victory in Game 3.

For the third time in three games, the Blazers gave up a 5-on-3 power play — this one for 1:14 — early in the first period. The Winterhawks didn’t score on the 5-on-3, but defenceman Seth Jones scored shortly after the first penalty expired.

“I think the most frustrating thing was again we took penalties,” said Charron, who harped on his club’s lack of discipline at inopportune moments for most of the series. “I thought we’d respond a bit different, but we started with a 5-on-3 the last three games and we can’t put ourselves in that position.”

Kamloops pulled even with 36.2 seconds left in the first period when winger JC Lipon pounced on a loose puck and got it behind Carruth.

But the Winterhawks regained the lead at 4:23 of the second period when Kamloops turned over the puck in the neutral zone and forward Taylor Leier pulled the trigger on a 2-on-1 break with Oliver Bjorkstrand.

The Blazers had a glorious chance to tie it in the period’s last minute but winger Kale Kessy’s shot hit the crossbar and bounced harmlessly away.

The Winterhawks gained some breathing room at 10:05 of the third period when left-winger Ty Rattie, who leads all playoff scorers in goals and points, picked off an errant pass by Brendan Ranford and beat goaltender Cole Cheveldave on a shorthanded breakaway.

“Just the way it goes sometimes," said Rattie. “We were shading that side on their power play and (Ranford’s pass) happened to land on my stick."

How big was that goal? Rattie said it was a big one.

“That would be top goal of my career, with the crowd being so loud and how close a game it was,” he said. “It was awesome to score... an exciting game to play."

“After that (goal), our back was really against the wall,” Blazers captain Dylan Willick said, “and it was do-or-die time. I think we were still giving it all we had at that point and it maybe even made us more fired up. We wanted it that much more, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.”

Portland put it away when forward Nic Petan banged in a rebound on a power play at 13:58.

The Winterhawks were 2-for-4 on the PP and finished 7-for-28 in the five games. The Blazers, meanwhile, went 0-for-2 and wound up 1-for-21.

“They have so much firepower and transition,” Charron said. “and they were very committed to playing two-way hockey and made it very difficult for us. So, they deserve their wins.”

Charron also complimented the Winterhawks for their defensive work against Kamloops’ top forward, who were all but shut down.

“It wasn't easy for (our top guys),” he said. “Whoever played against them are great players. It made it tough to produce. We didn't have much room.”

As for Portland top four defencemen, Charron said: “Let's give credit to their defensive core — their top four is as good as anybody I've ever seen in this league and all four might play in the NHL. They didn't make it easy.

“In other series, we were able to capitalize because other teams broke down more and this team just doesn't break down very often. They were very committed defensively and really came back hard in the zone. We didn't have many breakthroughs.”

Willick, who completed his WHL eligibility, as did Kessy and Ranford, admitted the Blazers battled discipline problems most of the series.

“It’s tough to pinpoint, but we go back to discipline again,” he said. “For the third game in a row we started off down 5-on-3, so that gives them life and gives them the first goal. It’s tough to chase a team like that.”

And so ends a Kamloops season that included a lot of highlights, from an early-season franchise-record 14-game winning streak to the No. 1 position in the CHL’s weekly rankings, from a second-round sweep of the arch-rival Kelowna Rockets to an appearance in the Western Conference final for the first time since 1999.

“There’s a lot of good memories this season,” Charron said. “To start off with 14 wins in a row was a unique situation.

“I think this group of players has accomplished something tremendous in terms of consistency and winning over 40 games. Credit has to be given to these guys.

“It takes commitment, it takes believing and I think they did that. I hope they learned what kind of effort it takes to get to this level.”

Willick, who played four seasons with the Blazers, said it was a great season, but added that it’s tough to have his final WHL campaign come to an end.

“These guys have been my best friends and my family for four years,” he said. “I don’t know how to say goodbye to these guys. I don’t know how to say goodbye to all this.

“It’s truly been humbling and been an honour to be named a captain with this group. To play for Kamloops and for these fans, it’s a fantastic city.

“I’ve been dreading the day I had to say goodbye to it, and I don’t think it’s hit me yet that it’s over.”

While it’s over for Willick and the Blazers, the Winterhawks have another WHL final to which to look forward.

“Unbelievable,” Rattie said. “I’ve been so lucky to be here for four deep playoff runs, three WHL finals. Now the last thing to do is win this next series and go on to the Memorial Cup."

Rattie said he doesn’t care if Portland next sees Calgary or Edmonton. He just doesn’t want history to repeat itself.

“Doesn’t matter to us," he said. “I think we’re ready for either team. Whoever we play, we don’t want last year or the year before to happen."

JUST NOTES: Rattie was the series MVP, thanks to 12 points, eight of them assists, in the five games. He leads all playoff scorers with 15 goals and 30 points.
Carruth finished with 22 saves, while Cheveldave turned aside 37 shots.
Ranford, who left in the third period of Game 4 on Wednesday night after taking a hard check, was in the lineup. Portland F Keegan Iverson, who received a charging major and game misconduct for the hit on Ranford, wasn’t suspended and played last night. “It was a good, clean bodycheck... a good hockey play,” Ranford said on Radio NL’s pregame show.
After three fans caused some problems behind the Blazers’ bench late in Game 2, there were three extra security people in the area for last night’s game.
Portland is the first team to win three straight Western Conference titles since Kamloops did it from 1984-86.
In the Eastern Conference, the Red Deer Rebels won three from 2001-03.