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Hawks avert disaster, score late to claim playoff opener

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Brendan Leipsic scores the Portland Winterhawks' first goal of the 2014 Western Hockey League playoffs. A late third-period goal by Oliver Bjorkstrand lifted the Hawks to a 4-3 win against the Vancouver Giants on Friday night at Moda Center.The puck can bounce funny in a hockey game. Sometimes they go your way. Sometimes they don't.

The Winterhawks had a little of both Friday night, but got one when they needed it most in a 4-3 victory over Vancouver to open their best-of-seven Western Hockey League playoff series at the Moda Center.

With the score tied 3-3 and overtime looming, Oliver Bjorkstrand -- Portland's best pure scorer -- found the puck on his stick just outside the Vancouver crease after a slap shot by Matthew Dumba.

Bjorkstrand buried it into the back of the net with 1:37 remaining for the game-winner to avert what would have been a major heist by the Giants, who were outshot 45-16 and tied the count at 3-3 on what amounted to an own goal with 12:43 remaining.

After the Giants' Brett Kulak sent the puck into the end boards behind the Portland goal, the puck bounced out and hit the back of Hawks goaltender Brendan Burke's skate … then ricocheted into the net. It was a disastrous twist of fate in the 18-year-old Burke's first career playoff start.

"You have to fault him, because he's the only guy there," Portland coach Mike Johnston said afterward. "He thought it was going to bounce back in front of the net. Usually a goaltender will sit on his goal line, and wait for the puck to come out and find it.

"The puck just came in behind him and hit his skate. It's one of those freak bounces you rarely see."

Fortune smiled on the Hawks a few minutes later when Taylor Leier passed the puck to Dumba at the blue line.

Dumba "has a really good shot," said Bjorkstrand, who scored a pair of goals Friday night after finishing tied for second in the WHL in goals during the regular season (50) and third in points (108). "He just fired it to the net. It hit something and came right out to me, and I wrapped it around and put it in."

Portland had to withstand a final challenge when Keegan Iverson was whistled for an interference penalty with 41.2 seconds left. The Giants, playing six on four after pulling goaltender Payton Lee, kept it in the Hawks' zone but never got off a shot on goal. The Portland penalty-killers swarmed the puck and a partisan crowd of 9,756 roared its approval as time expired.

That wasn't the end of the action, though. After the final horn sounded, the Giants got in a few cheap shots -- Carter Popoff and Dominik Volek in particular -- and Jackson Houck lassoed Dumba, sending him to the ice after a brief scrum.

"I didn't want to fight by any means," said Dumba, who has given Portland's defense a huge lift after a midseason trade with Red Deer. "I was pretty tired from that last shift. But I was sticking up for my teammates, and I had to answer the call."

"Emotions are high," said Brendan Leipsic, who also scored a pair of goals for Portland. "Stuff like that's going to happen. It's a long series. Guys are frustrated and tempers boil over. It's hockey. We're a high-scoring team, so that's how some teams like to try to slow us down. But we're not thinking about it too much."

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland goalie Brendan Burke battles to make a save against Vancouver.Portland went unbeaten in four games with Vancouver during the regular season, owned the WHL's second-best record (54-13-2-3) and were the league's highest-scoring team by a lot. The Giants (32-29-7-4) aren't in the same league talent-wise. They're going to try to even the slate by playing physical and luring the Hawks into extracurricular activity.

"That's the way it's going to be," Johnston said. "We knew that was going to happen. That's playoff hockey -- after-the-whistle pushing and shoving. We have to be smart enough to not get caught up in it, and we can't let them take our good players off the ice."

Vancouver coach Don Hay wasn't troubled by the wide disparity in shots on goal.

"Power plays had something to do with that," he said. The Hawks "had a lot of shots on the outside. Not as many scoring chances. They're a team that always gets a lot of shots. We were prepared for that."

Portland did have more power-play opportunities than Vancouver, but only by a 5-3 margin. Neither team converted with a man advantage.

"People consider us an offensive team, and we can score," Johnston said. "But tonight, we did a good job defensively. We didn't give them a lot of chances. We had one or two breakdowns, but overall, we did a good job. Our penalty kill was good. Our power play has to be better."

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nic Petan of the Winterhawks tries to get one past the Giants.Truth is, the Hawks are by far the better team, and showed it Friday night by dominating everywhere but the scoreboard.

"Teams believe they can play a physical game against us and slow us down, but we had the scoring chances," Johnston said. "We had the shots. If we continue to do that through the series, we'll wear them down and we're going to get our goals."

This is not to suggest that Vancouver can't come back to win the series. Lee had 41 saves, and if can stand on his head and the Giants can generate more offense, they could win Saturday night's Game 2 at the Moda Center and return to Vancouver tied at 1-1.

"Both teams competed very hard tonight," Hay said. "Our goaltender was very solid. We did a good job killing penalties. We scored timely goals to give ourselves a chance.

"We feel we can compete with them. We put a lot of preparation and hard work into this week of practice. We feel we can better, and we're going to be better (Saturday) night."

The Hawks are betting even that won't be good enough.

"There aren't too many teams that can play a full 60 minutes against us," Dumba said. "Even though they put up a good fight tonight, the wear of the series will really affect them."

The defending WHL champions feel like they're ready for another long playoff run. They loved the atmosphere inside the Moda Center Friday night.

"The crowd was going, and the intensity was ramped up to whole 'nother level," Leipsic said. "It's the best time of year."

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Twitter: @kerryeggersby: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Winterhawks' Keoni Texeira takes the puck away from Vancouver Giants' Dalton Sward.