April 24, 2014
PORTLAND, Ore. — The Kelowna Rockets didn’t have much time to recover from a crushing 4-3 overtime loss to the Portland Winterhawks in Game 3 of the WHL’s Western Conference final.
The Rockets looked no worse for the wear in the first period of Wednesday’s Game 4, though, but could only muster a 1-1 tie after 20 minutes despite outshooting the Winterhawks 18-11 and generally controlling play.
From there, though, Portland took control via special teams and won 5-1 to take a 3-1 series lead back to Kelowna for Friday’s Game 5.
The Winterhawks didn’t score during even-strength play, as Nic Petan tied a franchise record with three power-play goals. Oliver Bjorkstrand added one on a shorthanded breakaway, and Paul Bittner sealed the game with a late empty-netter.
Portland absorbed the Rockets’ early counterpunch, and goalie Corbin Boes made the best of his 31 saves in the first period.
“We had a good first period,” Rockets coach Ryan Huska said. “Five on five, we played well tonight, we just weren’t able to kill and they score a shorthanded goal at a poor time. And that’s the difference in the game.”
Bjorkstrand’s goal came 1:14 after Petan had given Portland its first regulation lead at home in the series midway through the second period. The Columbus Blue Jackets draftee poked the puck around pinching New Jersey Devils prospect Damon Severson and took off, beating Kelowna goalie Jordon Cooke with a backhander to make it 3-1.
Petan rounded off his hat trick with an improvised spin move that saw him flick the puck backward between his legs and off the stick of Kelowna’s Rourke Chartier and into the net. That made it 4-1 late in the second and the Rockets couldn’t recover.
“When they capitalize on their opportunities, like they did on the power play, we gave them too many chances again,” said Huska. “There’s a fine line between having controlled emotion and going over it. There’s times tonight when we went over it. But five on five, we were much improved tonight.”
Here’s more notes from Game 4:
* Portland coach Mike Johnston felt his team got off to a poor start for the second straight game at home.
“I thought that was one of our weaker periods,” he said. “I give them a lot of credit for how they started, they pushed the pace high and had their defence active in the rush.
“I thought (Boes) came up with big saves. We were scrambling and looked slow at times.”
Bjorkstrand admitted that the Hawks “weren’t too ready and didn’t show much effort” in the first period. Johnston called out his forwards for struggling early.
“When our forwards got the puck they were standing around and not skating and supporting each other,” Johnston said. “In the second period, it wasn’t a technical thing we changed, our defence started to move the puck better and our forwards started to move their feet.”
Rockets captain Madison Bowey bemoaned his club’s final 40 minutes, when Portland earned six of its eight power plays.
“It was the start we wanted,” Bowey said. “But the second period, we kind of got away from our game. We took some dumb penalties, myself included, and that really cost us the game.”
* Petan couldn’t quite explain what was going through his mind on the nifty move that led to his third goal. The main thing that was apparent is that it was roughly equal parts skill and luck.
“It happened in the moment,” he said. “I lost the puck, then just tried to pass it through my legs. I was looking for (Brendan) Leipsic or (Taylor) Leier backdoor and it went in.”
Chartier’s stick blade was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and tilted at an angle that lifted the puck into the top corner of the net over Cooke’s glove.
“Nic can make special plays and you hope in the playoffs guys like that come up with a big moment in the game,” Johnston said. “That was a key goal for us because I’m sure they were thinking if it’s 3-1 it’s the reverse of last night and they would have a chance to come back because of the way they played in the first period.”
* Nick Merkley scored the only goal for the Rockets, capping a great shift that produced several quality chances. Boes made a sprawling save on a point-blank chance by Chartier, but Merkley pounced on the resulting loose puck and gave Kelowna its third straight first-period lead.
He missed a few shifts in the second period, though, when he was clipped in the face with an errant high stick. After skating into the dressing room for some treatment, he was seen holding a towel to his face on the bench before returning to action.
At 16, Merkley holds the team scoring lead with 17 points in 13 postseason games. Including the regular season, the rookie has 75 points in 79 games. The ninth overall pick in the 2012 bantam draft has thus far outshone everyone chosen above him, including top pick Mathew Barzal of Seattle.
Merkley’s early scoring prowess stands in stark contrast to Petan, who went without a point in 22 playoff games as a 16-year-old two seasons ago. Petan, however, was relegated to a fourth-line role as a rookie, while Merkley is being relied on as one of the Rockets’ top forwards with overager Myles Bell still out due to injury.
* Many fans in Portland had divided attention on Wednesday as the Portland Trail Blazers also faced a team called the Rockets in the NBA playoffs. Between periods, hundreds of the 9,477 in attendance at the Moda Center gathered around televisions on the concourse to watch basketball.
The Trail Blazers made it two-for-two for Portland teams, beating Houston 112-105 to take a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.