Portland versus Edmonton, round three in the Western Hockey League championship series, began on Saturday at sold-out Moda Center, and it picked up where last year's finals left off with the Winterhawks winning.
Paul Bittner scored twice and Mathew Dumba scored with a rocket of a shot on the power play for the key goal as the Winterhawks beat the Oil Kings 5-2.
Leading 1-0 in the best-of-seven series, the Winterhawks can go two up on the Oil Kings in Game 2, 5 p.m. Sunday at Moda Center. If Game 1 was any indication, the Winterhawks looked primed to repeat as WHL champs.
Playing without suspended Brendan Leipsic, who returns for Game 2, the Winterhawks scored three times in the first period and fought off three Edmonton power plays in the first 11 minutes to take the early advantage.
"That was the start we wanted," said captain Taylor Leier, who moved to Leipsic's spot on the first line alongside Nic Petan and Bittner for the game.
Keegan Iverson collected a rebound and shot the puck past Edmonton goalie Tristan Jarry 2:50 into the game. Then, late in the period, Bittner scored his first goal, going high on Jarry and getting a lucky bounce off the crossbar after a drop pass by Derrick Pouliot. And, Chase De Leo, after Portland pressured Jarry, scored a point-blank goal that stood up after review.
The Winterhawks would never relinquish the lead, although things got tense in the second period. Edmonton came out with intensity and potted two goals in the first 2:20 of the period. Brett Pollock scored his 11th goal of the playoffs after an Alex Schoenborn turnover just 20 seconds in and, two minutes later, Henrik Samuelsson scored off a rebound despite a replay showing that Edmonton defenseman Blake Orban allowed the puck to exit the offensive zone on the possession, which would have disallowed the goal.
Still, it was 3-2 and a hockey match after Portland's fast start.
"I think our team is used to those momentum shifts," said Mike Johnston, Portland general manager and coach. "I don't want to have to take a timeout there to break it. So, I felt the bench was OK. We'd made a couple mistakes, but we've been through it before."
The Winterhawks turned the game back in their favor. Bittner almost scored again, but his shot slipped through the crease behind Jarry and bounced off the far post. Then came one of the more memorable goal-mouth scrambles, as the teams skated 4 on 4.
With Dumba, Pouliot, Petan and Leier on the ice, the Winterhawks pressured Jarry relentlessly, and the goalie lost his stick. Edmonton defenseman Griffin Reinhart had to make a save with his stomach. It was something to behold.
"Oh my goodness, I can't believe we didn't score four times," Leier says. "I could have scored, 'Dumbs' could have scored, Nic could have scored. It was ridiculous. The one Dumbs pulled off the goal line and Reinhart saved it with his belly, I had my hands in the air."
Dumba's account: "We got a good shift going there. We had a lot of pressure. we had so many chances. Their players made some really good plays. Griffin was playing as a goaltender, 'Leiersy' put one just over the cage."
Moments later, Pollock got whistled for slashing and, playing 4 on 3, the Winterhawks capitalized as Dumba rocketed a shot past Jarry on a well-executed play.
"The power-play goal was very important," Johnston said. "They got us back on our heels for a portion of time (in the period). I thought we neutralized that. We had a phenomenal shift and didn't score and then to come out of (the period) with a goal, as opposed to not scoring on that (phenomenal) shift and heading into the dressing room ... (you'd be) back and reeling a little bit."
Bittner took a pass from Petan and scored his second goal in the third period, as the puck bounced off Jarry and into the net, icing the game before the raucous crowd of 10,947. It was his first multi-goal playoff game, coming at a good time with his linemate, Leipsic, not playing.
"I'd like that (crease shot) in the second back," he said. But, "it was nice. Obviously a little bit of a confidence booster. Two good plays by my teammates."
Said Petan: "Very timely game to step up and shoot the puck and get (goals) in there. It doesn't matter how it went in. He played really well."
Added Leier: "For a young guy in the playoffs, you can get a little shellshocked or be nervous. But, he did really well."
With Leipsic back on the first line, Leier will rejoin De Leo and Oliver Bjorkstrand on the second line. Johnston opted not break up the Dominic Turgeon-Schoenborn-Iverson line for the game.
It makes Portland one player better when Leipsic returns, although the Oil Kings want to focus on their own game in Game 2, coach Derek Laxdal said.
"We lost 35 battles to our 15 wins," he said, of equal opportunities to win the puck. "That was the difference in the game. Can't worry about it now. Gotta hit the reset button for (Game 2)."
While Portland had the key power-play goal, Edmonton went 0 for 4 with the man advantage, and also failed to score in the final three minutes with Jarry pulled for an extra attacker. Portland led the WHL in power play at better than 27 percent, while Edmonton languished at 17th at less than 20 percent and it's only marginally improved in the playoffs.
"Your power play has to answer the bell at the important times of the game, especially early on," Laxdal said. "They got a loud crowd here, and you want to try to take the crowd out of it early and score early on the power play. We had some good looks, we just didn't bury it. And, you have to take what they give you. They made a couple adjustments (on the penalty kill) that we didn't pick up on, on ice. You gotta make it happen. It's an important time of year for the power play to score; we gotta make sure it's scoring (in Game 2)."