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Oil Kings on brink of WHL title after 3-2 win

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Winterhawks captain Taylor Leier reflects after Friday night's 3-2 home loss to EdmontonThe Portland Winterhawks are on the brink of elimination.

Edmonton gained the lead and locked down the Hawks' high-octane offense again Friday to win 3-2 in Game 5 of the Western Hockey League championship series at Moda Center.

The Oil Kings, who trailed in the series 0-2, have won three games in a row and can punch their ticket to the Memorial Cup with a win in Game 6, 3 p.m. PT Sunday at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta.

Paul Bittner's goal gave Portland an early lead on Friday, but Edgars Kulda countered later in the first period on a power play after a Brendan Leipsic charging penalty — the turning point of the game.

The Oil Kings withstood Portland's offensive attempts and shots – the Hawks outshot them 39-30, including 18 shots in the second period — and went ahead 3-1 on second-period goals by Griffin Reinhart and Henrik Samuelsson.

Then, in the third period, the Oil Kings executed their contain defense well, including a neutral zone trap, and rode the play of goalie Tristan Jarry and escaped the loud building with the win despite Mathew Dumba's late goal.

"Gutsy effort by our guys coming in here and grinding out a solid road game," said Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal, whose team dealt Portland its first home loss since Jan. 4. "I thought we had a real good second period and got the lead, did a good job of containing them in the third and (goalie) Tristan Jarry and our big players were outstanding tonight. I thought our guys were really composed."

Said Reinhart, a touted New York Islanders defenseman prospect: "Our mind-set coming into the series was we had to win one on the road. It was a good effort by our team. We've been comfortable playing in close games all year. We were able to close it out."

Mike Johnston, Hawks general manager and coach, liked his team's play, and said Edmonton played their structured game well with the lead. He thinks the Hawks can break out with more offense in Game 6, based on Friday's play.

"I thought we did a lot of good things in that game, certainly a big pick-up from the last game in Edmonton, our weakest game," said Johnston, referring to the 2-0 loss in Game 4, Portland's first shutout loss since December 2011. "You push repeat on that type of game and we're going to be fine in Game 6.

"Sure we made a couple mistakes, but I thought our energy was good, our attack was good, we created on the power play but didn't score. Our penalty kill 5 on 3 (in the first period) was really good again."

Said Bittner, who has four goals in the series: "We played a hell of a game out there. They just capitalized on their chances."

The Winterhawks scored more regular-season goals than any WHL team since the Hawks of 1997-98, but after Game 1's five goals, the Hawks have scored three, two, zero and two goals in the past four games.

Bittner's goal ended a scoreless stretch of 131 minutes and 58 seconds.

The Hawks went 0 for 4 on the power play, and now stand at 0 for 15 in the past four games; the Hawks led the WHL in power play during the regular season, and clipped at about 30 percent through its 42-3 streak since Jan. 11 — a streak that has now dipped to 42-6 after the third consecutive loss.

The Oil Kings were happy with another defensive game, where they disrupted Portland's rush speed and passing.

"We weren't playing as structured as we are right now," Reinhart said, of the series' early games. "We're playing a solid game, trying to frustrate them and wear them down."

Added Samuelsson: "We're playing a little safer, making the easier play and maybe not forcing as many passes through the seams, and limiting their scoring chances (off turnovers)."

Leipsic has scored one goal in the series. Linemate Nic Petan and second-line studs Oliver Bjorkstrand and Taylor Leier have not scored goals. They combined for 161 regular-season goals; Bjorkstrand, who has been working hard but coming up goal-less, had 65 goals in the regular season and playoffs entering the series.

Johnston said his players are not getting frustrated with Edmonton's structure and defense, which has appeared to take the Hawks out of their style of game in the past three games.

"They're good when they have a lead," Johnston said. "They took the third period and trapped it up in the neutral zone. It wasn't frustrating. We had 39 shots and about seven or eight chances where we shot it over the net. We cut (shots) too fine. Derrick (Pouliot) had three or four 'Grade A' chances and he shot it over the net. If you're going to get (18 shots in second period), you have to put a couple of them away.

"Odds are with our team and offensive ability, some of those are going to fall .We just haven't got the break there."

Jarry was good again for Edmonton. He even got into Bjorkstrand's face at one point at the goal mouth.

Laxdal said the key was scoring on the power play in the first period, after failing on a 4-on-3 and 5-on-3. It was not a good penalty for Leipsic, who got whistled for three consecutive minors in the second period of Game 4. Leipsic's penalty gave Edmonton its fourth power play of the period. "It's important to score on the power play," Laxdal said. "We liked our movement on the power play in the first period. It was a matter of time before we scored."

Then, Edmonton built what seemed like a huge lead with second-period goals by Reinhart and Samuelsson.

"We knew we've have to get a greasy road win, and that's exactly what we did," Samuelsson said. "We battled from start to finish and that's what it's going to take to win against this high-octane offensive team."