EDMONTON - The series just got serious.
Edgars Kulda's goal with 6:47 remaining in the third period was the winner as the Edmonton Oil Kings rallied from an early 2-0 deficit to remain in the running in the Western Hockey League final, defeating the defending champion Portland Winterhawks 3-2 on Tuesday night.
Henrik Samuelsson and Luke Bertolucci also scored for the Oil Kings, who are now 9-0 on home ice in the playoffs to cut Portland's series lead to 2-1.
It was the third straight game Edmonton fell behind very early in the contest, however this time the Oil Kings were able to find a way out of the hole they had created for themselves.
"They got that quick start once again, but we had been through it before and I think we knew what to do this time," Bertolucci said. "Our power play was clutch and our penalty kill was solid. We answered the bell when we had to."
Edmonton head coach Derek Laxdal did not call a timeout after his team's third straight tough start since it didn't seem to make a great deal of a difference in the first two games.
"I hate to say it, but it was time to see if they would sink or swim. They swam, and we really started to see a lot of leadership," he said. "I just let the kids settle in and play. After that I felt we played a very solid game and had a gutsy effort from the guys from top to bottom. I thought we bent, but we didn't break. I give our guys credit for the way they battled."
"We expected this would be a hard fought game here," said Portland head coach Mike Johnston. "We had another good start, but I think we allowed them to get some momentum in the second. We obviously still had our chances in the third and had a great opportunity to tie it at the end.
"I don't think this game was about us taking a step back, it was them taking a step forward."
Added De Leo: "We had a really hot start and then we slowed down a bit in the second. We still had a lot of chances in the third. We knew coming into this game that it is hard to play in Edmonton."
As has been the case in every game in the series, the Winterhawks came out flying to grab an early lead in the game, scoring twice in less than a minute to go up 2-0 on their first three shots before the game was even four minutes old.
Portland struck 2:38 into the first period as a big bounce off the boards came out front to De Leo and he spun and beat Edmonton goalie Tristan Jarry with a shot to the top corner for his 10th goal off the playoffs.
Edmonton allowed goals in the first three minutes of the first two games of the series as well, and was outscored by a combined 5-0 in the first periods of its opening two losses of the series in Portland.
Despite the early deficit, the Oil Kings fought back to outshoot the Hawks 19-10 in the opening frame, however Portland goalie Corbin Boes stood his ground.
Edmonton got on the board four minutes into the second period with a power-play goal as Curtis Lazar made a perfect pass across to Samuelsson at the side of the net and the Phoenix Coyotes prospect sent his fifth of the playoffs into a wide-open net to cut the lead to 2-1.
The Oil Kings pulled even with nine minutes remaining in the second period as Bertolucci picked up a loss puck and went in on a breakaway, only to be pushed down from behind by Dumba. However, Bertolucci got right back on his feet and was able to make a nifty move to freeze Boes on the deke for his sixth of the post-season.
It appeared the Oil Kings had taken the lead just over a minute later on a mad scramble in front of the Portland goal, however, a lengthy review concluded that Samuelsson had kicked the puck into the net.
"Our guys were pretty high after it looked like we had scored that goal, but even after it got disallowed they never dropped," Laxdal said. "They just kept on pushing. We had a lot of good talk on the bench. Our backup goalie, Tyler Santos, was very inspirational. It was good to see the guys step up in that situation."
Jarry made several key saves during the first half of the third period to keep it a tied game, none bigger than an early glove save on Taylor Leier.
Edmonton took their first lead of the entire series with just under seven minutes left in the third as Mitch Moroz sent a puck in front and Kulda was able to redirect it into the net to put the Oil Kings up 3-2.
Portland furiously tried to knot the game back up in the late stages and had a great chance in the dying seconds, but Dumba shot a puck over the net. Jarry faced 15 shots in the third and 37 in the game.
Game 4 of the WHL Final takes place on Wednesday, also in Edmonton.
Notes: It's the third consecutive season that the Oil Kings and Winterhawks are meeting in the WHL Championship Series. Edmonton defeated Portland in seven games to win in 2012, while Portland won in six games last year. It is Portland's fourth consecutive trip to the league championships… It is just the second time in league history that two teams have met in the WHL final three years in a row. The last time was when the original Edmonton Oil Kings (who ended up moving to Portland to become the Winterhawks) played the Flin Flon Bombers three times from 1969-71… Portland goalie Corbin Boes was named the Canadian Hockey League Goaltender of the after stopping 59 shots in the first two games of the final series in 5-2 and 3-1 wins to put the Winterhawks up 2-0 heading back to Edmonton… With three goals in the series, Samuelsson is the new all-time Oil Kings playoff scoring leader, racking up 51 points over 56 career post-season appearances.