Portland, OR - The Oil Kings have met their match.
After cruising through the post-season, winning 12 of 13 en route to the WHL's Eastern Conference Championship, Edmonton has now lost back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 11 (at Kelowna) and 12 (at Kamloops).
And it's happened at a bad time. A 4-3 loss to the Portland Winterhawks means the Oil Kings now trail the WHL Championship Series 2-1.
"That's Portland," Head Coach Derek Laxdal said. "They're a good hockey team and they pressure you to make mistakes. Is it inexperience by our hockey club? Yeah. Is it great play by Portland? Yeah. But we're better than that and we've got to make sure we play better on Tuesday night."
It started well enough -- a 0-0 game through 20, highlighted with a toe-to-toe encounter that brought the sold-out Rose Garden crowd to its feet.
Keegan Lowe and Joe Morrow's heated exchanges got more and more intense as the opening period's 10-minute mark passed. Spurred by another stunning save by Oil Kings MVP Laurent Brossoit, the pair's public intent soon evolved into something more, as dangerously-delivered punches landed on both sides in quick succession
The tilt was bound to happen sooner or later.
"I've got a short temper. He hit me," said Morrow, who got the edge in the spirited bout. "It eased up the tension for the rest of the game. Anybody driving the crease, I don't think they came down as hard later on."
The Winterhawks brought momentum and a 12-9 shot lead in the middle period, which ultimately paid dividends on the scoreboard shortly in. It was Flames prospect Sven Bartschi who did the damage, scoring his fourth goal of the series to make it a 1-0 game with a clever backhand shot.
Oilers prospect Martin Gernat, who's otherwise been exceptional in the series on both sides of the puck, wore the goat horns. In what should have been a routine breakout, the 19-year-old caught an edge and stumbled into the side boards. He quickly regained his balance, but panicked and lobbed an ill-advised pass into the middle where Bartschi picked it off.
While the Oil Kings' PK was strong in the opening period, stoning three separate Portland power-play attempts, the visitors couldn't contain the home side on the next two in the second. With Mark Pysyk and Travis Ewanyk serving high-sticking and slashing minors respectively, the Winterhawks' 5-on-4 advantage made good.
St. Louis Blues prospect Ty Rattie got things started, making a statement in his return to the lineup. He slipped behind the sleeping Oil Kings D, launching a missile over Brossoit's glove at 12:06.
Rattie was pelted with a Travis Ewanyk slash on the play, keeping the home side on the powerplay -- 29 seconds later, it became a 3-0 game as Oliver Gabriel pulled a similar move, scoring as he burst in on goal, end-to-end, through Lowe and Pysyk.
With the goal, Rattie set a new record for the most post-season goals ever scored by a Portland Winterhawk with 18 (along with 31 points) in 17 games.
Sure enough, Henrik Samuelsson scored to make it a game again. But it was given back moments later, as Cody Corbett -- who played very little along with Ryan Dech on the squad's third pairing -- made a disappointing play, coughing up the puck and staging a Winterhawks tap-in.
"That's not even a turnover that should even happen," Laxdal explained. "Cody's got the experience and the presence to make a better play than that. It was a bang-bang play."
Goats turned to heroes later in the period, as Gernat (earlier victimized on Rattie's goal) and Lowe got their revenge. Each scored on similar plays, pinpoint wrist shots that beat Mac Carruth cleanly to bring the Oil Kings within one.
"We were hounding pucks and everybody on the ice wanted it," Lowe said, noting his club's strong push that included 23 third-period shots. "We didn't want them to (have it). We played with so much passion and so much heart in the third period, that if we can put a 60-minute game like that together, it's almost unbeatable.
"We haven't really put together a full 60 minutes in a while.
"Guys are down because they saw how we can play in the third period," he added. "We're disappointed. We've played 85+ games this year and we've done things over and over again, that we're making simple mistakes (now) that we shouldn't be."
In a strange circumstance, Portland's William Wrenn hit Mitch Moroz during the Oil Kings' goal celebration, causing the winger to crumble to the ice and attention. Wrenn wasn't penalized on the play.
"You've got to give our guys credit for battling back and giving ourselves a chance to tie the game up," Laxdal said. "Once we scored the third goal, we probably thought there should have been a call -- there wasn't and it's unfortunate, because the guys played hard.
"We knew that we could battle back, but we can't put ourselves in that situation. It stings and we have to regroup.
"Our goal is to come out of here with a split on Tuesday night," he added. "We have to play the same way that we played in the third period, with that same urgency and that same passion."
When asked to comment on whether or not a call should have been made (of if he was given an explanation as to why there wasn't one), Laxdal wasn't in the mood to get into it.
"No comment," he said, and repeated, while shaking his head.
The Oil Kings will have to put this one behind them in a hurry. The club will do a light workout tomorrow to rest up and prepare for a pivotal Game 4, which goes Tuesday night at 8pm MT back at the Rose Garden. -- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow @ryandittrick