The second round of the WHL playoffs has proven to be a perilous one for the Portland Winterhawks. The Kelowna Rockets have solidified their lead to 3-1 with a severely stinging victory in Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Amid lots of physical animosity on the ice, the Rockets proved Wednesday night that they may be the most intimidating team from the BC Division without sacrificing their puck handling and passing finesse.
The 7-2 score tells the story, too. Kelowna’s goals were spread out from the first two minutes of the game to the last two minutes, and from five different players. By contrast, both of Portland’s goals didn’t come until halfway through the third period.
Though the stats don’t look like it, Portland goalie Cole Kehler has actually been quite solid with the wrist shots coming at him on the ice, but the shots to the crossbar have been escaping and scoring over his shoulders consistently all week. It could be slow hands, or it could be just a case of too many shots on goal for one man to take. Either way, Kehler was relieved by Shane Farkas for the third period, and the Rockets persisted in scoring one more for good measure.
The real cause of death for the Hawks was the ludicrous 16 penalties adding up to 64 PIM, including one on a Kelowna breakaway that gave Nick Merkley a penalty shot that eluded Kehler. That goal, along with Portland fans’ skeptical response to the call, was the emotional rock bottom of the night. As if that weren’t enough, penalties from the previous game–and from both teams–continued to haunt Portland.
Game 3 saw the Winterhawks lose two of their highest scoring forwards, Evan Weinger and Alex Overhardt, to suspensions. Meanwhile, Skyler McKenzie was injured. That’s a sizeable chunk of the Portland offense right there, and all three were off the ice for Game 4 when offensive intensity was needed most. The suspensions were the result of what the WHL calls “supplemental discipline,” in which the opposing team submits a video clip of an incident after the game is over, looking for reparation. This is typically reserved for situations that resulted in injuries. League official Richard Doerksen reviewed Weinger and Overhardt’s actions, in which Erik Gardiner and Braydyn Chizen of the Rockets were both injured, and doled out the punishments hours before Game 4 started. Weinger was assessed two minutes for cross-checking initially, while Overhardt had no penalty called.
The same process was used for Kelowna’s Cal Foote when he elbowed McKenzie in the head and gave him a concussion that same night. As of Thursday night, Foote’s suspension has been finalized as three games, likely sitting him out for the rest of the series. Weinger got two games, so he will also be missing from Game 5. Overhardt got one game and so is now eligible again.
Doerksen was called upon again after Game 4 concluded, with Carson Twarynski checking Portland team captain Keegan Iverson from behind late in the third. The hit started some post-whistle shoving matches, and Twarynski was assessed a five-minute major on the spot, including game misconduct. After review, he was also slapped with a suspension that is still listed as “TBD” for length of his sentence. As Iverson was not injured, it’s possible Twarynski could get a more lenient punishment.
There’s something to be said about the lack of self control on the part of players in this series, but more obvious is the lack of control referees have had over the games. Fans can point fingers for the entire off-season if it makes them feel better, but the bottom line going into a desperate situation for Game 5 is that the Winterhawks are at a further disadvantage, and they have seemed outmatched all week in general. Forcing a Game 6 is necessary for Portland to stay on the bracket, and the three-game streak that vanquished the Prince George Cougars proved that the Hawks are capable of great things when their backs are against the wall. But can lightning strike twice for this team amid this depletion of the ranks? We will find out tonight in the VMC.