SASKATOON, Sask. – The Saskatoon Blades hung around with the Portland Winterhawks through two periods, but the Western Hockey League champions separated themselves in the third period en route to a 4-2 win.
With the win, the Winterhawks advance to Friday’s semifinal while the Halifax Mooseheads earn the bye to Sunday’s final. The Saskatoon Blades will need to regroup quickly for their tiebreaker with the London Knights on Thursday.
"You don’t really want to be in the tiebreaker game ever, so we’re happy where we are right now," Winterhawks forward Brendan Leipsic said.
The Blades played well through 40 minutes, but couldn’t generate enough jump once the third period started. Portland scored three goals in a span of just over six minutes to take a 4-1 lead and never looked back.
"I thought their team came out hard like we expected early, tried to be physical on us and our guys withheld and I thought we slowly took over the game," Winterhawks head coach Travis Green said.
There was a scary moment during the first period when Blades defenceman Dalton Thrower caught Winterhawks forward Taylor Leier with a hit just inside the Blades zone. Leier laid on the ice and needed to be helped off. He didn’t return and Green didn’t have an update on his status.
Surprisingly, no penalty was assessed to Thrower on the play.
"I wasn’t aiming for his head at any time with that hit," Thrower said. "I wasn’t looking to hurt anybody. I was trying to get my team fired up."
Blades head coach Lorne Molleken said he thought Thrower caught Leier in the chest area. Green disagreed.
"Pretty hard to be in the position (Thrower) was in to be hitting in the shoulder," Green said. "It’s pretty obvious where the shot comes, it hits him in the head and there is a jump to it as well. The video is pretty obvious."
Why the Winterhawks won: The Winterhawks started the third period quickly and found ways to get pucks to the net through lanes that weren’t available earlier in the game. Oliver Bjorkstrand found Chase De Leo from behind the net and De Leo was able to jam home his rebound to score their first of three straight goals.
Moments later, the Winterhawks went up 3-1 on a goal from Leipsic and they were off to the races from that point forward.
"Our team prides ourselves on how we’re conditioned and I thought we (wore) them down in the first two periods on the cycle," Leipsic said. "I thought we had a bit of better legs and I guess it showed."
The Winterhawks showed why they were league champions. When the opportunity presented itself, they took over the game and made it difficult for a Blades comeback.
Why the Blades lost: The Blades just weren’t able to start the third period the same way they played the first two. Once their defensive zone coverage presented lanes for the skilled Winterhawks forwards, the champs seized the opportunity to break the game wide open.
"It was anybody’s game going into the third period," Molleken said. "We killed off a penalty in the latter part of the second period there and it took a lot of energy out of us. We had some mistakes that Portland took advantage of."
Brett Stovin felt the Blades’ collapse started well before game-time.
"I’m not positive," Stovin said, "but guys could have came to the rink not as focused as they have been for the rest of the tournament. You never know what goes through guys heads."
Player of the Game: Leipsic plays much bigger than his five-foot-nine, 170-pound frame would suggest. After tying for the WHL lead in points with teammate Petan in the regular season, Leipsic broke through with his first goal of the tournament.
He took a pass in the high slot from Petan and curled the puck towards his body before firing it top corner with two men in front of him. The goal stood up as the game winner.
"It was one of the hardest shots I’ve probably taken in a while, so it was nice to see it go in," he said.
Unsung hero: The Blades kept a tight, four-man box in front and forced the play to the outside during Michael Ferland’s four-minute high sticking penalty. They were practically inviting the Winterhawks to fire it from the point to prevent them from gaining position in front or finding lanes to go cross ice.
Stovin fearlessly threw his body in the way of some shots, estimating he blocked five or six. Once the Blades killed off all four minutes near the end of the second period, Stovin was thanked by his teammates for his work on the penalty kill.
"It was probably our only positive of the night, it was huge for us," Blades forward Josh Nicholls said. "I think Stovy was our hero tonight and we just, unfortunately, couldn’t get the job done for him."
Stovin had difficulty merely skating to centre ice when the buzzer went shortly after the penalties expired.
"I’m not going to lie," he said, "a couple of those hit me in a few soft spots. They were stinging a little."
Game changer: De Leo’s goal gave the Winterhawks the lead, but Leipsic’s goal moments later took the life out of the Blades and helped seal the victory. With the Blades down two goals to the talented Winterhawks, they were forced to open it up a bit more and soon the Winterhawks scored a fourth goal from Rattie.
Quote of the day: Rattie’s goal even surprised himself. After taking a pass from Petan, Rattie took a wrist shot from the high circle and it somehow beat Blades goalie Andrey Makarov.
"He’s got a good glove; I don’t know why I shot it glove," Rattie said. "Once in a lifetime you get those by Makarov and I’ll take that, that’s for sure."