Memorial Cup 2013: Portland Winterhawks regroup after losing long-awaited opener

Neate Sager

SASKATOON, Sask. — Hey, exactly the way Ron Robison wanted the Portland Winterhawks to receive the message back in November.

Throwing off the Portland Winterhawks probably takes more than giving up seven goals for the first time all season after arriving at the MasterCard Memorial Cup as the tournament favourite. After the 7-4 setback vs. the Halifax Mooseheads, there was the inevitable casually dropped reminder that the sanctions the Western Hockey League handed down against Portland have only become a motivator to the current players, although it might hamper the club competitively eventually.

"Mike Johnston out for the year, there's a lot that's gone wrong," right wing Ty Rattie said. "A veteran team that's been to the WHL final three years in a row, there's a lot of experience with not getting too high and not getting too low. It's not the be-all, end-all. You let off the pedal against Halifax Mooseheads, you're going to pay. They showed tonight they're the No. 1 team in the CHL."

One can only imagine how much the Winterhawks have built up the Memorial Cup experience in their collective mind's eye after coming sadistically close to realizing it with championship-series losses in 2011 and '12. Then they ended up playing a second period that reminded us why it's good hockey games are not covered the way old media covers election night. The Winterhawks were projected to win after going up 3-1 barely two minutes into that frame, but Halifax ripped off five unanswered goals.

Did the Winterhawks ease off, having seen other teams wilt at the thought of oh no, Portland's rolling? during the WHL season?

"I don't know about overconfidence," said captain Troy Rutkowski, the recent Ottawa Senators signing who scored two goals from his defence spot. "I think they got a couple bounces, it kind of snowballed on us. I thought we got a little bit of a push back with the goal [Rutkowski's second that cut Halifax's lead to 6-4 1:09 into the third]. But give them credit, they answered the bell.

With two potent offences, the game boiled down to who could contain better. Halifax fell down on the job a bit in the first period, when Seth Jones had a slew of open ice to join a rush and wire a goal by Zach Fucale.

Portland slipped in that area in the second. The Jones-Tyler Wotherspoon pair got outworked by Luca Ciampini on Halifax's go-ahead power-play tally 11:17 into the second. Then came the goal of the night, MacKinnon's second, as the right-shot centre gathered speed through the neutral zone, slalomed around Jones' right flank and went shortside on Carruth.

"He's a great offensive player, very dynamic," Jones said of his buddy MacKinnon. "He's got great foot speed. You saw on his second goal coming down against me — a quick inside outside move — it's tough to contain.

"I think we gave them opportunities that we shouldn't have and they capitalized."

A pertinent factoid might be that Portland twice lost series openers during the playoffs, which seems out of the ordinary with a team so talented. They dropped their very first playoff game to the eighth-seeded Everett Silvertips when young goalie Austin Lotz made 55 saves in a 4-3 contest and also lost Game 1 in the WHL final to Edmonton. Sometimes all the gears in machinery aren't so finely meshed.

Ultimately, Halifax has greater control of its destiny in terms of winning the round-robin and having the bye through to Sunday is concerned. But one would regard Saturday's result much differently if they were playing a best-of-7. Halifax got the first strike but it's a long way until someone gets the last laugh.

"We'd love having another shot at these guys," Winterhawks defenceman Derrick Pouliot said. "I thought we were pretty good and then we got a few bad penalties and they scored on some power plays."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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